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Philip Larkin at Poets’ Corner

June 21, 2015

Which poem?

Britain’s most popular 20th century poet is long overdue his place in Poets’ Corner.  The nincompoops who fret that he liked a bit of porn and wrote some letters that don’t pass muster with today’s thought police, have been pushed aside by admirers of Wedding Wind, Church Going and The Whitsun Weddings. Not to mention the millions who know the first line of This be The Verse.

The unveiling will be on Dec 2 2016. Surely there won’t be a service; not for the man who called religion “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die”. But which poem will they read? Not one of the “Weddings”. Not High Windows; it’s a little soon for the “F word” in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps Church Going. But I’d vote for the one that ends with Larkin’s most puzzling line; the one read out at funerals, and quoted by Anthony Lane after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. The line that was almost meant and almost true.

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 plainess 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 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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.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 could see:
A sculptor’s sweet comissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
Their 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-riddled 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 finality
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

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Laura MacDonald permalink
    June 21, 2015 2:01 pm

    Gosh that’s lovely… Can’t believe I’ve never read this one! Thank you

    • June 21, 2015 6:45 pm

      It’s one you can re-read a hundred times. Here’s a bit about it’s composition https://ripe-tomato.org/2013/10/08/larkin-on-love/

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