You can read ‘An Arundel Tomb’ here.
Individual lines plucked from poems and songs can often sound very different from how they are in the original context. The well-known last line of this poem is so often quoted, and (almost never?) with the characteristically Larkin qualifiers which precede it and which are so quietly devastating. ‘Their stone fidelity… has come to prove/Our almost instinct almost true’: picking through this final stanza it’s hard to stay clear about whether Larkin is investing in the hopeful view or the doubtful, the happy or the tragic; and that the final line sounds so sure only adds to the uncertainty. Is it doubt that is being obfuscated, or hope?
As ever with Larkin, the poem is full of ideas and an awareness of time passing—how it brings irrevocable changes, renders the world unrecognisable—and there are the usual moments of breathtakingly acute observation. ‘Sharp tender shock’ is so exquisitely recognisable. Indeed the whole poem is suffused with a tender melancholy which is different from—softer somehow than—his most angry, rage-against-the-world moods. In the end I’m going to let myself be seduced by the clear, simple beauty of the sentiment the final line expresses. I can hear inside me an intellectual argument about the harm we do, the hurts we can pass on; and as a therapist I have daily reminders of how (as Larkin has it elsewhere) ‘Man hands on misery to man’. But at the most profound level, something about the idea that ‘what will survive of us is love” just feels true. It articulates something the most hopeful part of me feels. So I’ll take it. Thanks, Phil.