Philip Larkin An Arundel Tomb Essay Writer

The 2014 Leaving Cert English Higher Level Paper asked this question:

“Larkin is a perceptive observer of the realities of ordinary life in poems that are sometimes illuminated by images of lyrical beauty.”

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the above statement? Support your answer with reference to both the themes and language found in the poetry of Philip Larkin on your course.


[Note: Lyrical - expressing the writer's emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way.]




I wholeheartedly agree that Larkin has a way of shinning a lyrical light onto seemingly mundane realities.His intricate analysis of ordinary uncovers many dimensions and perspectives to the recurrent themes in his poetry – death and the transience of time and love - in a thought-provoking manner. Although the ideas within many of Larkin's poems are complex, he masterfully presents them to the reader in a simple style, coupled with dazzling, cinematic images. Through poems such as "Ambulances", "MCMXIV", "At Grass" and "An Arundel Tomb", he celebrates the familiar details of his ordinary English life, while also providing profound and complex commentary on a range of issues.

"At Grass" features some of Larkin's simplest techniques, but also some of his most important and intricate ideas about the passage of time and the transience of life. The poem begins by describing a commonplace countryside scene, complete with two unassuming horses that "the eye can hardly pick...out". The two animals "stand anonymous" in the fields – none of us would ever think twice about the common scene Larkin has described. [A nice reference back to the question.] 

As the poem progresses, we learn that less than twenty years ago, "two dozen distances sufficed to fable" these champion racehorses. They were the main attraction of "faded, classic Junes" when "numbers and parasols" littered the British Ascots, and "squadrons of empty cars" littered the surrounding roads to see these horses run. Larkin creates lively, colourful images, which are in stark contrast the peace and laziness of the horses in the first stanza. The changing imagery creates an almost cinematic flashback, allowing me to easily identify the significant changes that these horses have undergone. 

The fourth stanza reverts to gentle, relaxed imagery that mirrors the first stanza. Larkin questions if the horses miss the fame and attention that they were subject to just twenty years previous? Do they long to return to the activity and noise? Larkin thinks not:

"Do memories plague their ears like flies? 
They shake their heads."

These horses have had "summer by summer all stole away" from them, where they were trained relentlessly, conditioned to sprint to provide entertainment for humans and to feed our gluttonous greed for betting. Only now, as "dusk brims the shadows" and these horses come to the end of their retirement, can they "stand at ease", and "gallop for what must be joy" instead of the pressure of the "fieldglass" on race day. Larkin's use of soft language in the closing stanza, such as "slip" and "ease", to describe the happiness of the animals now they have been liberated from the fast pace of their racing days. 

'At Grass' delivers a complex but imperative message about time that I feel resonates as clearly today as it did when Larkin first composed it. Larkin reminds his readers to accept the change that time brings; glory days will come and pass quickly. Through his use of common imagery and language, Larkin poses complex questions in an eloquent and intriguing manner.

"MCMXIV" deals with the innocence and naivety of pre-war Britain in a humane, ironic and nostalgic fashion. Larkin laments the passing of a way of life. The first stanza presents the image of men waiting to recruit at the beginning of the war. They stand “patiently” in “long uneven lines”, which will naturally remind us of the trench lines that they will soon find themselves in. The men casually wait together as if they were queueing to watch a football match in "Villa Park" or a cricket match in "the Oval". Their innocence is captured in their "archaic faces/ Grinning as if it were all/ An August Bank Holiday lark". 

In the two stanzas that follow, Larkin creates a holiday atmosphere of the world that they are leaving behind, a peaceful image of “children at play”, “adverts for cocoa” and “the pubs / Wide open all day”, while , the “countryside” isn’t “caring”. The war is so far removed from the country that they are barely aware of it taking place. This was the time of “differently-dressed servants”, who were confined to “tiny rooms in huge houses”. The images created by Larkin here highlight the extent to which this world has vanished. The currency has passed into history, the names of the children, the distinct class structures have been utterly transformed, and, as Larkin points out, transformed at an even greater pace because of WWI. 

The speaker repeats this message in the final stanza. "Never such innocence" will exist anywhere again, as we are now aware of the monumental destruction that accompanies war. Larkin effectively uses the Great War, an international travesty, to relate to a large audience. This commentary would have easily manifested into the minds of all British families as virtually every village, town and family lost a their loved ones to the war. Larkin uses stunning images to capture the beauty of Britain and the grave changes that 1914 ultimately brought.



Larkin's poetry takes on a morose, despondent tone in poems such as "An Arundel Tomb", and "Ambulances". Again, he uses commonplace items and images in both of these works in order to express his message as effectively as possible. In "An Arundel Tomb" Larkin unravels the conviction that love survives after death and dispels this idiotic notion, even if it's what we want to hear. The poem is based on the Arundel tomb in Chichester cathedral, where two stone figures "lie...side by side" with "faces blurred"

This grave has been made famous for the "sharp tender shock" it brings when tourists see the statues holding hands. To "the endless altered people" who visit the tomb, this carving represents eternal love, but it's clear from his use of language that Larkin is skeptical. 

Larkin's use of the word "lie" creates an ambiguous message in the poem: is the speaker describing how the statues 'lie' together or how the idea of endless love that they have made tangible is a 'lie' in the minds of the tourists? He suggests that they would never have expected to become advocates for the idea that 'Love conquers all'. 

Larkin uses a wonderful oxymoron to illustrate that nothing can conquer the passage of time. Even "the earl and countess [who] lie in stone" undergo a "stationary voyage" because of the artificial changes tourists have force upon the statue. "Time has transfigured them into/ Untruth". I believe that Larkin longed for people to understand mortality and accept it as a definitive end. The  sharp memorable images makes 'An Arundel Tomb' a straightforward but beautifully crafted poem that longs to transform our romanticised view of unyielding everlasting love into something more realistic.


The Medieval tomb, in Chichester Cathedral of Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel and his 2nd wife Eleanor of Lancaster. The inspiration for Philip Larkin's poem "An Arundel Tomb" published in 1964. Credit: BBC.co.uk
Larkin deals with a similar theme of the transience of life in "Ambulances". This poem is a meditation on the closeness of death, its randomness and its inevitability. These three ideas are captured for Larkin in the action of ambulances in the city. The first stanza describes the physical appearance of the ambulance, which is instantly suggested of the theme of death. The speaker creates an ambiguity around ambulances: they are "closed like confessionals” and give "back/ None of the glances they absorb." In this way, the ambulance seems very similar to a coffin. Like death, this ambulance can "come to rest at any kerb". In this short sentence, the arrival of the ambulance is conveyed as random and indiscriminate. The use of colour red in the description of the "stretcher blankets" signifies death and the contrast with "wild white face" may allude to the red and white symbol of the Red Cross. I feel that the point Larkin was trying to stress here is that even in an ordinary place with everyday activities going on around us, death can strike unexpectedly. [Another subtle reference to the question.] 

In the third stanza, it becomes clear that the poem centres on a depressing insight into our own mortality. The onlookers, confronted by the image of the white, frightened face of the victim, do not really genuinely sympathise with this person. Instead, they "retreat into their own distress". There is a realisation that at some stage, they will inevitably become death's victim. The thought that the ambulance brings the patient "closer what is left to come" is symbolic of the poet's view that we are always rushing towards death. 

Philip Larkin transforms the mundane into the marvellous. Although the language and imagery of his poetry are relatively simple, they are precise, mostly detached but always movingly lyrical. Larkin was able to transform any situation – an explosion, a statue, horses in a field – and wonderfully convey an honest and exquisite lesson about life to his readers. Larkin once said, "I'd like to think...that people in pubs would talk about my poetry." Philip Larkin strived to become the people's poet and from my examination of his work, I conclude that he created accessible, authentic and timeless poetry with messages that are still relevant to me and to modern society. 


Structure - poem by poem

The marking scheme directed examiners to reward the following:

- Larkin chronicles everyday occurrences through the measured use of appealing language 

- he celebrates the detail of ordinary English life, referencing familiar characters and places 

- evocative exploration of human experiences, e.g. love, marriage, war, death and social class 

- suggestive metaphors, memorable images, poignancy of his authentic poetic voice 

- variety of subtle/lyrical tones (reflective, nostalgic, sympathetic, critical, wistful, ironic) 

A summary of Larkin’s great poem

Completed in February 1956 but not published until 1964, when it appeared in Philip Larkin’s volume The Whitsun Weddings, ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is one of Larkin’s most popular and widely anthologised poems. It might also be called one of the truly great love poems of the twentieth century. But its images and meaning can best be approached through an analysis of how Larkin uses language and form to achieve his effects. You can read ‘An Arundel Tomb’ here.

The inspiration for ‘An Arundel Tomb’ came during a New Year holiday in early 1956, when Larkin visited Chichester Cathedral with his long-term partner, Monica Jones. Inspired by the stone effigy of the medieval earl and countess found in the cathedral, Larkin wrote a poem about love and our attitudes to love. The identities of the figures in the real Arundel tomb are the fourteenth-century Richard FitzAlan and Eleanor of Lancaster, who are actually buried in Lewes Priory. So although Larkin calls the effigies a ‘tomb’, they are technically a ‘memorial’ because the bodies are buried elsewhere. But let’s face it, ‘An Arundel Tomb’ sounds better than ‘An Arundel Memorial’.

In quick summary, then: the first stanza introduces the effigy of the noble couple adorning their grave; the second stanza homes in on the fact that the earl and countess are depicted in a romantic gesture holding hands; the third stanza analyses this pose, concluding that it was simply something they decided on for their ‘friends’ to see; the fourth stanza touches upon the historical changes that have occurred since, and this is continued in the fifth stanza; the sixth stanza concludes that only an ‘attitude’ from that courtly and chivalric age has survived; the seventh stanza reveals that this attitude is the notion that love is what survives of our lives and what we do.

But of course, such brief paraphrase misses the point. The little details Larkin mentions reveal a shift in attitude between their time and his, between the age of the earl and countess, and the modern age. The mention of the ‘Latin names’ around the base of the tomb, and the reference to subsequent visitors looking rather than reading, suggesting a shift away from Latin as the language of the court and learned classes; similarly, the ‘old tenantry’ being turned away suggests not just the ravages of time (everyone must die, after all) but the Reformation of the sixteenth century, which saw English Bibles replace the Latin mass in church services. The stanza which follows, describing the passing of the centuries between then and now (or Larkin’s ‘now’, anyway), is almost cinematic – indeed, it puts us in mind of the time-travel sequence from the 1960 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, though that film hadn’t come out when Larkin wrote his poem.

Although ‘An Arundel Tomb’ has a regular poetic form and metre, Larkin surprises us at several points, showing his metrical mastery. In the final line of the first stanza, for instance, although having those little dogs beneath the couple’s feet would be more in keeping with the iambic metre of the line, Larkin deliberately departs from this, writing ‘under their feet’ instead, wrong-footing us and drawing attention to the absurdity of the little dogs. Larkin does this again at the end of the second stanza, when he reveals the ‘shock’ of finding that the earl’s hand is ‘withdrawn, holding her hand’, where the iambic metre is once again disrupted just as the speaker’s expectations are foiled. Larkin’s gentle pun on the word ‘lie’, twice in the poem – the earl and countess lie down, but the suggestion of undying fidelity encoded in their effigies doesn’t ring quite true – reinforces this sense of scepticism and doubt. All of this chimes with the double use of the hedging word ‘almost’ in the penultimate line of the poem. Love is almost an instinct (sex is actually the primal instinct, and love a nobler manifestation of it?), and it is almost – but not quite – true that love endures. ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is a love poem, or at least a poem about love, but it is a remarkably tentative one.

How should we read that final line? As the critic Christopher Ricks pointed out in the 1982 South Bank Show special about Philip Larkin, it can be inflected in two subtly different ways to create two different meanings: ‘What will survive of us is love’ suggests that love is what survives of us, i.e. all human beings. ‘What will survive of us is love’ implies that love (rather than laws or estates or historic victories in battle) is what survives of the earl and countess, but this is not necessarily true of everybody. Is that final line making a universal point about all of humanity? Or is it simply saying that, in the case of this Arundel couple, love is what survives? (In Larkin’s recording of ‘An Arundel Tomb’, he places the emphasis on ‘us’.)

The words of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ have been placed at the base of the actual Arundel tomb in Chichester Cathedral which inspired the poem. Larkin once recalled that a guide showing tourists round the cathedral pointed out the tomb (sorry, memorial) and declared, ‘This tomb has been the subject of a poem by Philip Spender. So, you see, it’s mistakes all down the line.’ But what will survive of it all is the poem.

‘An Arundel Tomb’ is one of many, many gems to be discovered in Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. You can learn more about Larkin’s poetry with our analysis of his ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and our collection of great biographical facts about Larkin.

Image: The Arundel Memorial in Chichester Cathedral which inspired ‘An Arundel Tomb’ (photo by Tom Oates), Wikimedia Commons.

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