Monday, September 1, 2014

A Reading of Philip Larkin's "An Arundel Tomb"

Something new to the Cabinet, a reworked post from the Jot.

The poem can be found here.


I am only a casual reader of Larkin, which is to say I have never done any academic work on him. (Though, my first introduction was in the classroom.) At this point I only possessed the first edition of the Thwaite Collected, which did not organize the poems by the books published (something I think always an error in a collected). The second edition is in the post, however, and I look forward to being able to read The Whitsun Weddings and High Windows as they were meant to be read.

For me, while Larkin gives an air of the conversational in his poetry – a quip on the back cover reads "Larkin is our most accomplished and memorable poet of the common places of experience" – it is false to think Larkin was a kind of English version of James Wright. Larkin's poetry usually carries a density, a subtlety, an intellectuality that Wright's work rarely achieves. Larkin's poetry is controlled poetry (in the very positive sense of the word). Unlike much New Formalist poetry I see, he never (ok. never say never, so, rarely) uses a word for the sake of the rhyme or rhythm alone. (Which is the usual case for competent UK poets writing in verse, something to which the New Formalists haven't seem to caught on yet). I do not think it is for nothing that he sometimes reads to me like a UK Wallace Stevens. Both would chose the archaic word that works both aurally and ideationally over the more common or contemporary word that does not work as well ideationally. Which, personally, is rather a requisite of writing poetry: all of English language (all of language) is always in play, with the only deciding fact being the right word/phrase/line/stanza for the work as a whole.

Perhaps some might have the temptation to compare him as a British Robert Frost; though, from my humble readings, I think Frost let sentiment guide intellect, while in Larkin, as with Stevens, intellect creates the sentiment. (I'm not sure I will like that sentence three weeks from now[FN], for would we not say Whitman lets sentiment guide intellect? And yet most I believe would put Frost in the Emerson line of US poets, not the Whitman. And does that put Stevens in the Emerson line? But I digress . . . .)

[FN] Indeed, in moving this to the Cabinet, I still do not like the phrase, though because of the laxity in the use of the terms sentiment and intellect. Most people would read "intellect" as describing a far more rational modality of literature that to which I ascribe.

As is often said, I sometimes find Larkin preachy and opinionated: and occasionally feel like I am reading poetry written by a 1920s communist activist who was trying to keep his politics and aesthetics separated but there was always going to be some bleed over. Randomly flipping through the Collected you cannot help but get the sense that his atheism (or agnosticism, which ever applies) was Larkin's politics, and he could not keep his disdain for religion out of his poetry. Though, I believe it can also be said that that disdain is for religion, not spirituality; and, while the former does dominate surface readings, it is the latter that is revealed to be the true energies of the poetry.


That little introduction asid, let me give a go at "An Arundel Tomb." Maybe I can both defend the word choice and give some structure. (To note, this is wholly my reading.) I break the poem down into six rhetorical events, calling an "event" being a change in the state of affairs as following the line of the poem as written.

  1. l.1, "side by side": the description of the tomb and the setting of base state of affairs.
  2. ll.10-11, "and / One sees, with a sharp tender shock": the break from mere description into the first context.
  3. l.13, "They would not think to lie so long": the original context at the making of the tomb.
  4. l.19, "They would not guess how early": the change to the new context.
  5. l.24-25, "Rigidly they / Persisted": the defining action of the poem, the struggle of the old against the new.
  6. l.36-38, "[Now] Only an attitude remains: // Time has transfigured them into / Untruth": The end result; the second, outer context.

While the events may be distinguishable, the ideation of each is no confined to the following section of the text.

l.1, "side by side": This is the initial description, though it is not merely factual description. (And, one of the failures of ekphrastic poetry is when it falls into blunt-fact description: the text is no longer there is serving the poem.) You have a presumably horizontal tomb which is topped with a sculpture of the earl and countess -- something with which everyone (in the west) will have some familiarity. I see two ideas being generated within the text, though neither gain their vitality until lines later in the poem add energy to what seems basic description. For example, the word "pre-Baroque" could be seen as a merely technical description of the era and style of the tomb, but it also (in retrospect) establishes part of the historical contrast between then and now.

The first idea is "blurred": the condition of the tomb speaks its age. Second, "stiffened" -- choosing one word there for the whole of the idea of formality. You see it also in the "proper" habits and the "jointed" armour, even in the contrasting absurdity of the dogs underfeet.

(As an aside, I find the word "pre-Baroque" very interesting in that it creates the idea of technical detail in a text, and functions to create a reality to a work of art that, in truth, need not at all exist for the poem to function successfully and fully.)

ll.10-11, "and / One sees, with a sharp tender shock": (I cannot resist: could this line have been easily written in a post Dark Side of the Moon era?) Here, the break from description by way of a visual oddity: the gauntle is in the expected position of a body set in its tomb, but the hand is not in the gauntlet, it is rather to the side, clasping the hand of the countess. There is a break from formality, even from "plainness" (l.7). Being unexpected in a "pre-baroque" tomb, it is a "shock" to the viewer.

l.13, "They would not think to lie so long": But that "shock" is immediately contextualized in the poem, with the poem refusing the stay in the action of a contemporary viewer seeing the surprise of the clasped hands. The text immediately moves away from the present of the hypothesized viewer to the historical moment of the making of the tomb. But also, through the pun in "lie," the text corrects the idea of the "tenderness" of the shock of perception.

The clasped hands, at the time of making, is stated as being but a minor detail that would have at the time of the earl and countess served two purposes. First, as a detail for friends, one that would speak of personal information only friends would have the context of understanding. Second, it would serve as that something peculiar that would make the tomb memorable to the viewer, which in turn would give energy to remembering the names of those persons entombed. There is a division of meaning. To the outward, it serves as a mnemonic device, as an aberration which would give the viewer reason to remember seeing the tomb, and thus reason to remember the names thereon. To in inward, the localized purpose, it was a private device, a private metaphor as it were, which would be understood (and could be understood only) by family and friends.

The localization of the latter meaning is emphasize in that because of the formality and plainness presented in the opening description, there is set up the idea that were we to be able to see the tomb as originally carved, there would not have been seen in it any Rodinesque romanticism in the hands. That is, it would have been devoid in its own carving of any expressing of emotion. The clasped hands would have been but a sign – even, an icon – of the relationship. To outward eyes, the hands would not be expressive; at most, it would have been – to use Larkin's important word – armorial.

l.19, "They would not guess how early": This is the motion of the text from the original context of the carved effigies to the contemporary context.

Now, I take the primary definition of "air" in line 21 ("The air would change to soundless damage") not as the quotidian idea of air (Nitrogen, Oxygen, etc.). Rather, I think it lies in a mixture of (using my Webster's unabridged) "the general character or outward appearance of anything; as, the room had an air of refinement" (def. 9), mixed with a touch "publicity; public utterance" (def. 6). Though, I do believe there is an intentional confusion, as the phrase "soundless damage" would also describe the type of damage that wore down the sculpture itself. Thus, the primary idea of "damage" would lies in the syntax of "the air would change . . . to": i.e., the air of the sculpture changes from a benign historical marker to something that does damage. But there is yet a secondary idea, reading against the syntax, that there is also damage being done by the contemporary context to the original context, that damage being that of "succeeding eyes" that "begin / To look, not read" (ll. 23.24).

l.24-25, "Rigidly they / Persisted": The phrase here speaks both of intent and futility. The original intent was to establish the earl and duchess within history, and the formality of the presentation, coupled with the memory-catching break from strict formality, should be serving to maintain that historical factuality. But time works otherwise: "Snow fell, undated" (l.26). Time in itself does not carry fact, is not factual. Fact is historical, is dependent upon people for its endurance. The culture in which the convetions through which the tomb signification function changed. Those conventions fell aside and were lost in time.

People were "altered" – they were not what they were. And people are endlessly altered by the changing of culture and convention. Though, it is wholly in place to see also the idea that the people are themselves like the undated – the undatable – snow. Thus the futility of it: in the end, the historicity of the earl and duchess, the simple declaration in Latin that "we existed" is seen as something that is itself inherently futile against the endless mass of people. Thus in turn the double meaning of line 31, "Washing at their identity": whose identity is being washed? Yes, physically, the statue itself has lost its detail, and the names could no longer be read by the vast majority of the passing crowds, even if they were yet pristine in their carving. But spiritually, the great, endlesses masses themselves are washing their own identities. The idea is carried in the first washing, that of the identities of the entombed. If the people of the masses had any concern about their own identities, then they would have reason to want to know the identities of the entombed

But the washing has double action within it, when understood from the point of view of the now.

l.36-38, "[Now] Only an attitude remains: // Time has transfigured them into / Untruth": This is the doubling of the ideation. Here the text generates the second, outermost context, that context which informs the whole of the poem.

The poem ends with the rhetoric of an encapsultating statement:

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.

But that final statement is not of the second, outer-most context, but of the first context, of the contemporary viewers. The outward function of the clasped hands has been lost in time. It no longer works as an mnemonic devised to the remembering of the names of the people entombed, of the historical "truth" that is the actual lived beings of the earl and duchess. The names have been lost. Now, their "final blazon" is functioning to create this idea of "what will survive of us is love."

But that new idea is a false idea: it is not to be confused with the original, inward pointing meaning of the clasped hands, that meaning which could only ever be understood by those people who knew the earl and duchess, who knew first hand the experience of their relationship. It is an impossiblity that a person today could speak for the relationship of the two people long dead, so any statement as to that is false. What is lasting, what is "surviving," is not the original inward meaning. It is a new, outward statement, one of no greater depth than the original historically purposed mnemonic.

Thus we see the dark joke being played with "blazon," a term for a coat of arms or heraldic shield or symbol. The contemporary age is an "unarmorial" age: the endless people cannot any longer speak or read the language of "blazons" any more than can read the Latin names fading on the sculpture. It cannot read out of the clasped hands the original intent of the sculpting: that of the mnemonic. Thus, the tomb is washed of identity to them; it is but a "scrap of history" (l.35).

Which is the set up the joke. The punchline comes in that they can neither understand that second purpose behind the clasped hands, that personal purpose that stood for the living reality of the relationship between the two. In their original intent, the clasped hands were not statement that love survives beyond death. They were the opposite: they were statement that love exists only in the living, and can only be shared by and with the living.

This is the outer context, the outermost irony of the poem. Reading back through the poem with this in mind I see an even greater distinguishing between the context then and the context now – keeing in mind that the context then is not an historical context but a personal, lived context. What is the time of that original context, a time of armor and pleats – indead of earls and duchesses. An armorial time: one of the Romances of knights and damsels. In being unable to enter the heraldic realm of the tomb, the endless, undated people are also unable to enter the spirit of the time, unable in turn to enter the spirit of their own time.

They are washed. Not only washed out of history, but washed of their own now. The historical purpose of the blazon of the clasped hands is lost, as it inevitably would be. They are blind also to the private purpose of the blazon, the emotion that would have been shared through it with friends and family. Instead of learning the lesson that history is "illusion," is in the end only "story," that there is only the now, the washed masses have assigned to the blazon a new historical reality: "what will survive – historically – of us is love."

So that final line is almost true in the view of the great, endless, mass of identity-less people: there is for them only the romantic notion – the supplemental factuality – that "what will survive of us is love." But in the greater context that idea is revealed to be a projection of an idea that the people themselves, divorced from their own time, from any time, from their stories, their art, their gestalt – divorced even from themselves &mdash do not experience. The tomb speaks the opposite: love and friendship exists, only in its own time. It does not survive its own being. "What will survive of us is love" is thus a great lie, one that has supplanted confronteing the more truthful – and if I may return to my opening comments, more spiritual – question: "but what exists of you?"

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