Monday, January 18, 2010

An Arundel Tomb

Twice now, in the last couple of months, I've come across media pieces on Philip Larkin's "An Arundel Tomb" (which is on my Interpretation of Poetry syllabus for this week), first on BBC4 radio, which is sadly not available online at present, and then today on the Poetry Foundation website--they tweeted it and I followed the link because I really, really like this poem. The funny thing is, neither piece talked about the reason I like the poem, namely, the statement I think Larkin makes about nostalgia.

Let me start by saying it's perfectly possible that the reason none of these other people mention nostalgia is because it's so obvious and they're interested in other matters. I haven't read any Larkin criticism; for all I know, there's a book on the way Larkin dealt with nostalgia. But I'm going to blather on about it anyway.

The poem begins with a description of the tomb of the Earl of Arundel and his wife Eleanor in Chichester Cathedral. The Earl and the Countess are side by side atop the tomb, holding hands, he dressed in armor and she in what looks like a nun's habit, and there are dogs beneath their feet. Larkin describes the effect of seeing the hand-holding as a "sharp tender shock," an unexpected display of affection given that noble marriages from the medieval period weren't typically romantic affairs. (Larkin later mourned that he'd gotten this detail wrong, that these two by all accounts did have an affectionate relationship--doesn't matter, though, since the surprise is the important thing.)

He plays on this a bit in the following stanza:
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.
Larkin is punning on the word "lie" here; the whole idea of an elaborate tomb is to make one's name last far into the future, so he can't be talking about their physical bodies. No, it seems to me that, because he distrusts the image of the two as a loving couple, he assumes that their hand-holding would be "just a detail friends would see," and they would write it off to "a sculptor's sweet commissioned grace" and nothing more. The important information, from the Earl and Countess's point of view, would be the "Latin names around the base," not any memory of the romance (or lack thereof) between the inhabitants of the tomb.

Larkin moves this "lie" forward in time and shows how it becomes a truth of sorts, as "succeeding eyes begin / To look, not read." Future observers who were unable to read the Latin names or were unable to contextualize them would only see the lie of the loving couple. Tourists would visit the cathedral, "Washing at their identity" until all that was left was the image itself, a man of war and his wife, his ungauntleted hand holding hers in this unusual moment of tenderness.

So when Larkin opens his final stanza with the words "Time has transfigured them into / Untruth," he's talking about how we look back into the past and see only the rosy parts. We wash away anything disturbing (whenever we can) and so this medieval couple, who one would assume married to unite powerful families or consolidate land gains are now a symbol for love that lasts through time. That's what Larkin is getting at in his final line, "What will survive of us is love." The Latin names didn't make it (in the sense that they don't signify anything to most people who see the tomb), nor did any stories of what their relationship truly was like. All that was left was the statue. What survives of them is love, whether it really existed or not.

But that's the thing about memory and nostalgia. It's completely unreliable. It washes away the ugliness, the grit and crap, and makes things seem prettier, simpler than they ever could have been. The love that survived, that will survive us, will be a lie, not because it isn't love, but because it will be devoid of context and strife, of any of the dirt that has to be part of any relationship. The notion that we should not speak ill of the dead is one manifestation of this phenomenon. We remember only the good parts, only the beauty, only the love.

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