An Arundel Tomb

Philip Larkin

‘An Arundel Tomb’ by Philip Larkin muses on themes of life, death, and the passage of time. The speaker alludes to the strength of love and how affecting a demonstration of it can be.

Philip Larkin

Nationality: English

Philip Larkin was an English poet and novelist born in 1922.

He is best known for his poetry collection The Whitsun Weddings, published in 1964.

In this poem, the speaker observes a marble effigy of a couple in a cathedral and is much taken by the fact that they are shown holding hands: a gesture that he finds ‘greatly affecting’. ‘An Arundel Tomb’ by Philip Larkin is a lesser-known but memorable poem.

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

Historical Background

Larkin was inspired to write this poem after a visit to Chichester Cathedral, where he came across this monument dedicated to the memory of the fourteenth-century Earl of Arundel, Richard Fitzalan, and his wife, Eleanor of Lancaster. Larkin was not known for his sentimentality and indeed almost played up to his reputation as being a rather sour individual who had misgivings towards traditions and institutions to which many in the fifties and sixties still held dear. However, despite his atheist leanings and scepticism about marriage, he still took an interest in church-going and the dynamics of relationships.

Structure and Form

Seven six-line stanzas with an ABB CAC rhyme scheme. For the most part, the poem is written in the iambic tetrameter rhythm (four stresses per eight-beat line, ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum.) However, he shakes this up in places with certain words being reversed so they are trochaic, therefore tum ti tum ti, with the emphasis on the first syllable. An example of this can be found in the final line of stanza six:

Only an attitude remains

The first 2 beats are a trochee, with the emphasis being on the first syllable of ‘only. The rest of the line is written in iambic tetrameter.

Analysis of An Arundel Tomb

Stanza One

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The little dogs under their feet.

The opening stanza shows the family unit, immortalized in stone, with the added detail of the ‘little dogs’ under their feet, an inclusion that the poet finds ‘absurd’. It was, however, quite common to have animals such as dogs or lions included as part of a sculpture. Dogs were a symbol of loyalty, so were often featured in memorials to the great and the good.

(WARNING: DIVERSION ALERT. As an animal lover, I don’t find this strange at all. I’d love to have a statue of me and my cat pictured, curled around my feet. Women in years gone by often had lap dogs to keep them company while their husbands were away fighting, lopping the heads off folk (hence the earl shown dressed in armour). This was the thirteen hundreds, which, if my memory serves me correctly, was during the time of The Hundred Years’ War with France. A woman could have been lonely, left at home with no television to watch. When poor Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587, her pet dog hid under her skirts, went off, and died of a broken heart.)

Back to the poem. The fact that the figures are now ‘blurred’ shows how the passage of time has faded their identity. We wonder if in line three, when he writes: ‘Their proper habits vaguely shown’ if he is referring to the generic portrayal of their dress which the sculptor chose to depict them wearing (the earl in his armour and the lady in her stiff ‘pleated’ skirt,) or whether the adjective ‘vague’ refers to the erosion of detail over the centuries.

Stanza Two

Such plainness of the pre-baroque 
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

The poet comments how he could have moved on without taking much interest since the ‘pre-baroque style’ is spare and unremarkable until he is struck by the unexpected intimacy of the image of the earl holding his wife’s hand. The use of the oxymoron ‘sharp tender shock’ captures his sense of surprise. The repetition of the ‘sh’ sound emphasizes this.

Stanza Three

They would not think to lie so long.
The Latin names around the base.

After his initial surprise, though, it does not take long for Larkin’s trademark cynicism to emerge. He suggests that such faithfulness, in reality, would have been unlikely; despite this having been the period of ‘chivalry’ men were not necessarily true to their wives. This was by no means a given in this male-dominated, patriarchal society. Marriages among the aristocracy were more often than not astute business arrangements as opposed to romantic unions. He suggests that this detail may have been entirely the work of a sculptor’s romantic imagination, or as he rather eloquently puts it: ‘sweet commissioned grace.’ The lovely sibilant ‘s’ sounds here certainly add to this notion of benevolence.

The final two lines here refer to the onlookers who may come to observe the couple’s effigy. While they may not understand the Latin which indicates who this couple is, they will still appreciate the visual impact of the memorial, which shows them thus entwined, even in death.

Stanza Four

They would not guess how early in
To look, not read. Rigidly they

There is a tone change in this stanza of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ that suggests that though time has passed it is not necessarily for the better. The use of enjambment in the first three lines could signal the speed at which society has changed. History has been forgotten, or certainly has not progressed in the way the poet would have liked, since the uneducated may come and pass through, observing the couple, but remain unaware of any historical significance. This is evident in the final line of the stanza when he writes: ‘To look, not read’. Similarly damning is the phrase,

The air would change to soundless damage.

Yes, we could read this as the inevitable toll that the passage of centuries may take on a tomb, even if it is made of stone, but there seems to be another meaning here that as time passes the populace loses interest and respect for outdated values.

The rather lovely paradox: ‘Their supine stationary voyage’ shows though how the couple have remained together (albeit in statue form) throughout all these changes.

Stanza Five

This idea continues into the following stanza through Larkin’s use of enjambment. The lists of images then employed to capture this passage of time are put together with tremendous skill. The long vowel sounds in the combined assonance and sibilance in the line:

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadth

Of time.

shows how sometimes it feels that time moves slowly. This idea is reinforced by the caesura after ‘Snow fell. Undated.’ The beautiful use of the word ‘thronged’ effectively captures the image of the light filtering through the window. Again he injects life into the scene with the unusual metaphor ‘A bright/ Litter of birdsong.’ This pairing of sight and sound combine to help us to feel the scene, perhaps adding a certain levity to the following reference to ‘bone-riddled ground’. People live and die and the seasons continue to change. In the final lines, though, there is a more positive image of people coming on a pilgrimage to this cathedral to bear witness to what has gone before.

Stanzas Six and Seven

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Enjambment is used once again to draw attention to the passing of time. The word ‘washing’ Larkin employs in the first line of stanza six is significant, coming as it does after the words “The endless altered people came,’ at the end of the fifth stanza. This reference to water suggests to me the certainty of tides, the ongoing ebb, and the flow of life. People come as if in an endless stream, but this couple is destined to remain still, reduced to their memorial in marble and whatever people wish to interpret from it. They are, as the poet points out

helpless in the hollow of/ An unarmorial age.

Their actual lives on this earth were a mere ‘scrap of history’ as insubstantial as a

…………… trough

Of smoke in slow suspended skeins.

The reader is forced to reflect upon this ephemeral image by the stretched-out sibilance and assonance of the vowel sounds.

And yes, maybe there is something of an ‘untruth’ in the couple’s depiction of being in love, even though in reality, they may not have been. Even Larkin, with all his jaded views on life and condescension towards the conventions of romantic love and marriage, cannot let cynicism be our lasting impression of the poem. Whatever the case was, ‘Their final blazon’ has stuck in many an onlooker’s head, and they will ruminate upon it. Regardless of what has gone before, he must admit in spite of himself, that ‘What will survive of us is love.’

About Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a much-revered English Poet. He was born in Coventry but spent the last 30 years of his life in Hull, where he worked as a librarian. He also worked in the library at Queen’s University Belfast. This poem appeared in his anthology, The Whitsun Weddings.

Helen McClements Poetry Expert
Helen is a teacher of English and French in a Grammar School in Belfast. Helen has contributed to articles on her Book Group in the Irish Times and her passion for running in The Belfast Telegraph.

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