Friday, 14 August 2009

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

Chichester Cathedral

One of my favourite buildings is Chichester Cathedral in West Sussex. The green, copper roof and elegant spire can be seen from the English Channel to the South Downs and are a beacon of home as Chichester is where I grew up.

Chichester Cathedral houses the tomb of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel and his wife Eleanor of Lancaster. This tomb was made famous by Philip Larkin as it inspired him to write An Arundel Tomb which was published in his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings.

An Arundel Tomb describes the stone effigies of the married couple - who are tenderly holding hands. On first reading, the poem celebrates their 'faithfulness in effigy' and seems to be a proclamatory poem about the longevity of love. However, I always trip over the final stanza and wonder if, in fact, the reality is that they never intended to be bound together for eternity and that Richard Fitzalan and Eleanor of Lancaster may not have loved each other at all. The final line seems to trail off in tone; a weak statement of hope.

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.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 glass. 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 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.

Taken from Philip Larkin Collected Poems Published by Faber & Faber