(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, May 27, 2014)
Pictured below is the 14th-century tomb effigy in Chichester Cathedral that inspired Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb.” It is the tomb of Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel (1306-1376), and his wife, Eleanor of Lancaster, Countess of Arundel (1311- 1372) Notice how Richard’s glove has been removed so he can grasp the flesh of Eleanor’s hand.
The poem ends with these evocative lines:
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.
Philip Larkin is generally considered one of the greatest English-language poets of the last century. However the last line above is uncharacteristic of Larkin’s typically downbeat poetry.
So what does the line “What will survive us is love” mean? Larkin may be implying that the lovers are joined in death as they were in life, at least until the ravages of time finally erase their stone figures. Maybe the joined hands were the sculptor’s idea and do not reflect a real love at all—perhaps that is the meaning of the line “transfigured them into untruth.” Larkin himself said the tomb deeply affected him, but he also scribbled at the bottom of one draft: “love isn’t stronger than death just because two statues hold hands for six hundred years.” Yet the poem doesn’t say that “love is stronger than death.” It says love survives us, and to survive something doesn’t make you stronger than it.
Still survival is a partial victory. But what might survive? Perhaps it is the enduring belief that love is remarkable, that its appearance in a world of anger and cruelty is so astonishing. Or perhaps it is that traces of our love reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that may one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us. Maybe love doesn’t disappear into nothingness after all, maybe love is stronger than death.