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"An Arundel Tomb" by Philip Larkin: Background and Analysis

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin and a Summary of "An Arundel Tomb"

"An Arundel Tomb" is almost a love poem written by Larkin in 1956 and first published in the book The Whitsun Weddings (1964). It focuses on the 14th-century tomb (actually a memorial effigy in Chichester Cathedral, Sussex, which Larkin visited) of a noble couple, one Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, and Eleanor of Lancaster, his second wife.

Philip Larkin is well known for his pessimistic, sometimes crabby approach to everyday life in his work and seemed to have a somewhat jaundiced view of traditional rites such as marriage. Always curious and thoroughly observant in matters of religion and relationships, he couldn't bring himself to believe in love, as most people know it.

He wrote in a letter to a friend about An Arundel Tomb: . . . love being stronger than death is a sentiment . . . only justifiable if love can stop dying which, of course, it cannot.'

The speaker's approach to love is full of doubt and scepticism once the initial sharp tender shock is over. The fact that the earl's hand is reaching out for the countess's, suggesting faithfulness on behalf of the man, counts little for the speaker, who interprets the gesture as just a detail, sculpted for an audience.

An Arundel Tomb

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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.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 no 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 grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-littered 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 transfigures 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.

"An Arundel Tomb": Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

First Stanza

The first line sums it all up, split by a simple comma, here are the noble couple lying almost intimately but their identities are blurred, suggesting a lack of clarity in the here and now.

They are nothing but dressed up stone now, male and female, stiff and pleated (surely no sexual connotations here?) and, according to the speaker, coming over as slightly absurd. Why is that? Well, the small dogs at their feet could be a symbol of faithfulness, loyalty—man's best friend and all that—but already this speaker is having doubts.

Second Stanza

With further observation the speaker considers the style plain, typical of the sculpture of the pre-1600s, until ha-ha, what is this? The man's left hand is free of his metal glove and openly holding the hand of his wife. Shock! Horror!

Perhaps the most powerful three words in the whole poem: sharp tender shock. Alliterative, with that sh sound to reinforce the fact that this is a cathedral and one needs to be suitably respectful of the atmosphere. Shh . . . the couple might be listening.

This loving gesture on behalf of the earl induces mild recoil in the speaker. It is the moment of realisation: could it be that this 14th-century nobleman was really so fond of his second wife that he asked for her hand in death as well as in marriage?

Third Stanza

Ambiguity creeps in. That opening iambic line, so regular, so steady, so obvious, is not what it seems. Note the use of the word lie which in this context could have a double meaning : to lie, as in lying down and resting or to lie, as in telling an untruth.

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The speaker suggests that both are lying; they would never have dreamt such things could be sustained. Holding hands was a ploy, to impress friends and admirers, as was the fashion in the 14th century.

But hold on, back then romance and marriage were more of a contractual obligation; a business based on 'good blood'. Aristocrats had to marry fellow aristocrats—what did true love have to do with it?

Further Analysis

Fourth Stanza

Note the repeat of They would not . . . reinforcing the idea that as time passed the silent weathering of the stone began to take effect and the interest of local people waned. The identities of the married couple began to crumble.

Successive visitors were no longer keen enough or able to read the Latin inscriptions and only came for a superficial look; they were no longer interested in the lives of these once important people.

It's as if the speaker has cottoned on to the reality of this scene: time has turned a once-revered couple into a frozen abstract. These aristocrats were at one time going places—to heaven—but now they're going nowhere.

Fifth Stanza

Enjambment takes the reader directly from the fourth to the fifth stanza, suggesting the irresistible flow of time, and the inevitable passage of the seasons. The world outside keeps turning, the graveyard keeps filling, and the earl and his wife keep holding, maintaining a tentative grip on their relationship.

And still, the visitors come generation after generation, with their changed outlooks and attitudes, each one eating away at the meaning. Note the use of the word washing which implies cleaning, cleansing of. There is biblical use of this word— washing away of sins, cleansing of spirit—but the poet might simply mean that Richard Fitzalan and Eleanor of Lancaster have had their identities washed away.

Sixth Stanza

With their identities eroded in a modern age that knows nothing of heraldry, Latin or medieval romance, the couple are nothing more than lumps of old stone. The syntax is rather puzzling in this penultimate stanza, Larkin himself thought the mid-section a trudge—whilst the alliteration is a bit ridiculous:

a trough/Of smoke in slow suspended skeins

In the end, only one outcome is possible—this effigy is one great deception.

Seventh Stanza

The permanence of love is false news, a fake gesture being just that—the pretence of truth. All through this poem, the build up to this conclusion has concentrated on the wearing away of identity and the mounting indifference to the meaning of their lives.

What is ambiguous is the speaker's attitude towards this gesture of supposed genuine love. The impulse is to believe that this man, this powerful aristocrat, truly loved his wife, and that same love, untarnished, has survived. Yet the speaker cannot fully commit to this notion of true love.

But note that love is the last word, love changing its definition as time passes and we, as humans, pass it on to future generations. All that is left for sure is a gesture in stone; whether love survives when we pass on is open to conjecture.

Literary/Poetic Devices

"An Arundel Tomb" is a seven-stanza poem, each sestet with full end rhyme and occasional half rhyme, the rhyme scheme being abbcac. This regular rhyming helps bind the lines together, and keeps things formal and tidy.

Whilst the dominant metre is iambic tetrameter, there are occasional lines that mix iamb with trochee to alter the rhythm and pace:

And that faint hint of the absurd - (iambic tetrameter)

The little dogs under their feet. (2 iambs + trochee + iamb)

This inversion helps draw attention to the detailed observation made by the speaker.

Enjambment plays an important role in this poem, where one line flows into the next without punctuation in place. This astute use helps vary the syntax and also keeps the reader on their toes. It's as if the reader is following the roving eye of the speaker as he scans the effigies.

The second stanza in particular has no punctuation at the end of the lines which helps maintain the sense whilst inducing slight pauses. This is an inventive use of natural caesura and deepens the close intimacy of the scene.


The poet has used a number of unusual words in this poem, some related to history:

habits – clothing/costume.

pre-baroque – the era before 1600AD.

gauntlet – an armoured glove.

effigy – sculpture or model of a person.

supine – lying in a horizontal position face up.

tenantry – tenancy/tenants of an estate.

unarmorial – without heraldry.

skeins – threads.

blazon – record of virtue.


100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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