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Larkin on Love

October 8, 2013

Discussing An Arundel Tomb with Monica

Some say Larkin disliked this poem. How could the clear-eyed facer of death endorse the final line, even with its qualifications? Didn’t he mean it when he wrote: “Love isn’t stronger than death just because two statues hold hands for six hundred years”, or when he said: “I don’t like it much… . Everything went wrong with that poem: I got the hands wrong – it’s right-hand gauntlet really – and anyway the hands were a nineteenth-century addition, not pre-Baroque at all”?

But that can’t be true. He also said: “I was very moved by it. Of course it was years ago. I think what survives of us is love, whether in the simple biological sense or just in terms of responding to life, making it happier, even if it’s only making a joke.”

Here’s what he wrote to Monica during the poem’s composition.  

11 Jan 1956 – “I’m trying to write a poem on something we saw in Chichester. Can you guess what?”

26 Jan – “How time goes. I laid down my pen at 9 and picked up my pencil [he wrote his poems in pencil] now it’s 11. I’ve added 6½ lines, but only 4 are ‘firm’.”

12 Feb – “I’m absolutely sick of my tomb poem, and thought I wd send it you unfinished as a token for St Valentine’s Day. Not that it’s in any sense a valentine, but to give you something special from me on that day. It’s complete except for the last verse, which I can’t seem to finish; but I can‘t feel it’s very good even as it stands. It starts nicely enough, but I think I’ve failed to put over my chief idea, of their lasting so long, & in the end being remarkable only for something they hadn’t perhaps meant very seriously. Do let me know what you think of it. I hope you don’t find any grammatical solecisms, any ‘secret shagging split infinitives’ nestling among the inflexible lines.”

21 Feb – [Offering some word choices] “They hardly meant has come/grown to be
[…] That what/All that survives of us is love.  Comments please.”

22 Feb – [Monica had earlier offered ‘blazon’ in response to Larkin’s request for a word of two syllables meaning a sign] “I think myself ‘their final blazon’ fairly satisfactory, carrying just the right overtones of heraldry & medievalism, so for the moment I’ll keep your [other] suggestion in reserve. “

26 Feb – [Riffing on love] “Coveney showed me Cyntha Asquith’s biography of Barrie wch contains an account of a visit to Hardy at Max Gate. […] Barrie reported that Hardy had taken him out to show him where he would like to be buried. The next day he took him out again to show him where he would next like to be buried! According to the account the only difference was a few inches nearer one wife or the other, though since one wife was still unburied then I don’t see how this could be. I may be remembering it wrong. This leads naturally onto love being stronger than death: I expect I’m being rather silly, but it is a sentiment that does seem to me only justifiable if love can stop people from dying, which I don’t think it can, or not provably. One might say ‘Penicillin is stronger than death, sometimes’ with fair truth, but love is stronger than death’ reminds me of that slogan ‘Britain (or London) can take it’, wch irritated me in the same way. It surely meant that people can stand being bombed as long as they aren’t bombed. If A says ‘we can take it’ & B is hit by a bomb, then clearly B can’t take it, so A’s statement only means ‘A can take B being bombed’: similarly ‘love is stronger than death’ means ‘A’s love is stronger than B’s death’ which is self evident. A’s love is not stronger than A’s death. At least we’ve no reason for thinking it is. Does this all sound very Bertrand Russellish? Perhaps it is not as logical as I think. Of course love is not just a word: I don’t mean to be ‘cynical’ about it. Nor do I want to enlist myself under it because, again, it isn’t just a word, & I can see clearly that my life isn’t governed by it. Some bright lad (E.M.F.?) said the opposite of love wasn’t hate but individuality (personality, egotism) and I’ve been feeling increasingly that it is this that keeps me from love – I mean love isn’t just something extra, it’s a definite acceptance of the fact that you aren’t the most important person in the world. Here again I feel a fallacy lurking: if A isn’t the most important person in the world then why shd B be? The better conclusion wd be that if A wasn’t, then nobody is. Of course I’m not speaking of love as an emotion but as a motive, that leads to action, which seems to me the only real proof of a quality or a feeling. Do I sound like some horrible young don, half-Jewish, at Birkbeck college? Don’t let me. There isn’t anything very new in my remarks: obviously people who think themselves the most important person in the world are ‘immature’ – part invalid, part baby & part saint, as I wrote. I suppose most people have spells of abrogating their own importance, & spells of trying to get it back, until they settle down into some way of living that ensures it isn’t abrogated or reclaimed too often, because most people not only want but must have their cake and eat it as well.

Later – […] I’ve about finished the tomb. I don’t feel very pleased with it, somehow. The end of v 4 now runs: […] The air, changing to soundless damage,/Turns the old tenantry away;

V 6 [line 6] […] Only their attitude remains

Verse 7 ends: […] Our nearest instinct nearly true;/All that survives of us is love.

The ‘almost’ line wouldn’t do if the last line was to start with All; I didn’t think it pretty, but it was more accurate than this one, & I felt an ugly penultimate line would strengthen the last line. Or rather, a ‘subtle’ penult. line wd strengthen a ‘simple’ last line. Sea-water mean?”

2 March – “Lehmann [editor London Magazine] is taking Tomb: he doesn’t like “voyage damage”, that’s all. It occurs to me that I pronounce it “voij”, not “voi edj”, wch makes it more acceptable I think. […] Shall ponder the last two lines. I quite like the “almost” set up, but don’t like that “That what” construction it entails.”

16 March – “Proofs of Tomb have come – the penult. verse (stanza) is really shocking: still, no time now.  I think by “washing at their identity” I was trying to suggest that succeeding generations of visitors (or worshippers) in the cathedral (it is Chichester, you know) slowly detracted from the individual personalities of the earl and countess simply by being so different from them and knowing so little about them.”

Larkin often followed sincere remarks with negating ones, but they rarely weakened his sincerity. Imagine receiving this as a valentine!  He worked away until he got it right because he knew it was good.

An Arundel Tomb closed The Whitsun Weddings collection, and the final lines have moved and puzzled readers ever since.

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-littered ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin. Letters to Monica. Ed Anthony Thwaite. Faber & Faber 2010.
Philip Larkin. The Complete Poems. Ed Archie Burnett. Faber & Faber 2012.
Philip Larkin. Further Requirements. Ed Anthony Thwaite. Faber and Faber  2002
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