By Dr Oliver Tearle
Completed in February 1956 but not published until 1964, when it appeared in Philip Larkin’s volume The Whitsun Weddings, ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is one of Larkin’s most popular and widely anthologised poems. It might also be called one of the truly great love poems of the twentieth century. But its images and meaning can best be approached through an analysis of how Larkin uses language and form to achieve his effects. You can read ‘An Arundel Tomb’ here.
The inspiration for ‘An Arundel Tomb’ came during a New Year holiday in early 1956, when Larkin visited Chichester Cathedral with his long-term partner, Monica Jones. Inspired by the stone effigy of the medieval earl and countess found in the cathedral, Larkin wrote a poem about love and our attitudes to love. The identities of the figures in the real Arundel tomb are the fourteenth-century Richard FitzAlan and Eleanor of Lancaster, who are actually buried in Lewes Priory. So although Larkin calls the effigies a ‘tomb’, they are technically a ‘memorial’ because the bodies are buried elsewhere. But let’s face it, ‘An Arundel Tomb’ sounds better than ‘An Arundel Memorial’.
In quick summary, then: the first stanza introduces the effigy of the noble couple adorning their grave; the second stanza homes in on the fact that the earl and countess are depicted in a romantic gesture holding hands; the third stanza analyses this pose, concluding that it was simply something they decided on for their ‘friends’ to see; the fourth stanza touches upon the historical changes that have occurred since, and this is continued in the fifth stanza; the sixth stanza concludes that only an ‘attitude’ from that courtly and chivalric age has survived; the seventh stanza reveals that this attitude is the notion that love is what survives of our lives and what we do.
But of course, such brief paraphrase misses the point. The little details Larkin mentions reveal a shift in attitude between their time and his, between the age of the earl and countess, and the modern age. The mention of the ‘Latin names’ around the base of the tomb, and the reference to subsequent visitors looking rather than reading, suggesting a shift away from Latin as the language of the court and learned classes; similarly, the ‘old tenantry’ being turned away suggests not just the ravages of time (everyone must die, after all) but the Reformation of the sixteenth century, which saw English Bibles replace the Latin mass in church services.
The stanza which follows, describing the passing of the centuries between then and now (or Larkin’s ‘now’, anyway), is almost cinematic – indeed, it puts us in mind of the time-travel sequence from the 1960 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, though that film hadn’t come out when Larkin wrote his poem.
Although ‘An Arundel Tomb’ has a regular poetic form and metre, Larkin surprises us at several points, showing his metrical mastery. In the final line of the first stanza, for instance, although having those little dogs beneath the couple’s feet would be more in keeping with the iambic metre of the line, Larkin deliberately departs from this, writing ‘under their feet’ instead, wrong-footing us and drawing attention to the absurdity of the little dogs.
Larkin does this again at the end of the second stanza, when he reveals the ‘shock’ of finding that the earl’s hand is ‘withdrawn, holding her hand’, where the iambic metre is once again disrupted just as the speaker’s expectations are foiled. Larkin’s gentle pun on the word ‘lie’, twice in the poem – the earl and countess lie down, but the suggestion of undying fidelity encoded in their effigies doesn’t ring quite true – reinforces this sense of scepticism and doubt.
All of this chimes with the double use of the hedging word ‘almost’ in the penultimate line of the poem. Love is almost an instinct (sex is actually the primal instinct, and love a nobler manifestation of it?), and it is almost – but not quite – true that love endures. ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is a love poem, or at least a poem about love, but it is a remarkably tentative one.
How should we read that final line? As the critic Christopher Ricks pointed out in the 1982 South Bank Show special about Philip Larkin, it can be inflected in two subtly different ways to create two different meanings: ‘What will survive of us is love’ suggests that love is what survives of us, i.e. all human beings. ‘What will survive of us is love’ implies that love (rather than laws or estates or historic victories in battle) is what survives of the earl and countess, but this is not necessarily true of everybody. Is that final line making a universal point about all of humanity? Or is it simply saying that, in the case of this Arundel couple, love is what survives? (In Larkin’s recording of ‘An Arundel Tomb’, he places the emphasis on ‘us’.)
The words of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ have been placed at the base of the actual Arundel tomb in Chichester Cathedral which inspired the poem. Larkin once recalled that a guide showing tourists round the cathedral pointed out the tomb (sorry, memorial) and declared, ‘This tomb has been the subject of a poem by Philip Spender. So, you see, it’s mistakes all down the line.’ But what will survive of it all is the poem.
‘An Arundel Tomb’ is one of many, many gems to be discovered in Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. You can learn more about Larkin’s poetry with our analysis of his ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and our collection of great biographical facts about Larkin.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: The Arundel Memorial in Chichester Cathedral which inspired ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (photo by Tom Oates), Wikimedia Commons.