Saturday 10 September 2016

A Strelley Tomb

When Philip Larkin came upon the Arundel tomb in Chichester Cathedral that inspired one of his most famous poems he had, he says, never come across one like it - one in which the noble husband and wife are holding hands. If he had happened to be church-crawling in Nottinghamshire, he might have come across this equally touching double effigy and gifted the world A Strelley Tomb.
 The tomb of Sir Sampson de Strelley and Elizabeth, his wife - the founders of All Saints Church, Strelley - stands in a glorious 14th-century chancel, separated from the nave by a beautiful coved rood screen that has survived in immaculate condition because for centuries it was boarded over. Sir Sampson and his lady have the traditional lion and dog at their feet; she wears an elaborate and 'almost unique' headpiece, while his helmeted head rests peacefully on that of a strangled Saracen (the family crest). Those joined hands are more prominent than the Arundel hands, standing proud of the two figures and being visible the length of the nave, blazoning the stone fidelity they hardly meant.
 Larkin's poem is an old chestnut, beloved of readers keen to seize on a 'message' Larkin is of course far too careful and conflicted ever to deliver: 'What will survive of us is love'. No more than a half-proof of an 'almost-instinct', this is hardly a ringing affirmation - and yet Larkin is full aware of its force. And yet, and yet...
 Oh it is such a good poem, even a great poem - let's have it one more time:

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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.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.


  1. The force of the poem derives from the irony of their stone fidelity not being intended ('meant') as they never thought the tomb would last long enough for such as us to see them. In spite of this their love survived so touchingly. Then, at the last moment, Larkin undermines the point he so majestically and beautifully made by adding, diffidently, "almost" twice. Larkin in a nutshell. Allergic to statement, allergic to commitment - often made a virtue of by his supporters, of course. The question is, does it damage the poem artistically? Is it gratuitously added?

  2. Rereading - perhaps he wants it to be true but can't bring himself, in his wavering faithlessness, to believe it's possible.

  3. A thought on Mr. Walker's comments, with an opening disclaimer: I am definitely an unapologetic Larkin "supporter."

    Here is what Larkin said about the poem in an interview with John Haffenden:

    Question: "But did you feel skeptical about the faithfulness that's preserved for us in stone?"
    Larkin: "No. 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. I was delighted when a friend asked me if I knew a poem ending 'What will survive of us is love.' It suggested the poem was making its way without me. I like them to do that."

    Philip Larkin, Further Requirements (Faber and Faber 2001), page 58.

    Larkin is one of my favorite poets, so I admit my bias in the matter. He had a tendency (like Edward Thomas and Robert Frost) to end his poems with qualified qualifications and reversals of reversals. In a letter to Andrew Motion (May 16, 1979), Larkin wrote this of Thomas: "What a strange talent his was: the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind, so well paralleled by his verse." This description arguably applies to Larkin's poetry as well.

  4. Yes the tentative made into an art. Thanks for the reference. Interesting indeed. In no way do I not see the virtues in Larkin. 99% of the poem is majestic and quite marvellous. I just can't ignore the content as, on the face of it, in however artificial a manner, that is what a poem is supposed to convey while also, of course, being beautiful.

  5. Thank you both - and good to find you here Stephen! I love Larkin's idea of the poem 'making its way without me' - and am deeply suspicious of 'content' as something extricable from a poem. As Wallace Stevens put it, 'The poem is the cry of its occasion, part of the res itself and not about it...' If ever a poem was 'the cry of its occasion', An Arundel Tomb surely is.