“An Arundel Tomb” is the third poem about love on today’s segment of the Countdown. But it is not a love poem. It’s about our attitudes toward love; about how marriage, as an institution, presents love to the world; about social class, and the history of class in England; and about how to “read” the past. Just as we may not understand contemporaries from another culture, we may not understand the culture of a distant century.
Choose your tombstone wisely, the poem seems to say. The aristocrats buried beneath this slowly-eroding sculpture were probably married by arrangement, with an eye to the succession of various properties and titles. We cannot know how they related to each other. We can infer that they did not have a modern “companionate” marriage, where Mom scrapes the dishes, Dad loads the dishwasher, and the couple settles down on the couch to watch Law and Order. The “Arundel” couple’s marriage was heavily regulated by ceremony. Both of them, after their heirs were born, may have gone separate ways in all but the most public of marital duties.
But the ideal of marriage, then as now, is literally engraved in stone: “His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.” A gesture of affection that they might never have enacted except on their wedding day and a few subsequent grand occasions “has come to be / Their final blazon.”
As in all of Philip Larkin’s great contemplations of other people’s lives, the tone is a remarkable blend of cynicism and sympathy. The Arundel couple are hypocrites. Or are they? If we keep acting out appearances, when do the appearances become reality – particularly if we arrange to keep enacting them forever?
J. R. Ackerley’s “After the Blitz” is so little-known that only one blogger has ever bothered to post the entire text of the poem on the Web. And even this blogger has contributed to the continuing obscurity of the poem by not posting its title or author. Ackerley was a distinguished English journalist, a writer of great memoirs like My Dog Tulip. His poetry, privately published in short collections, is almost unknown. Some years ago I met a writer who had been a close friend of Ackerley’s. I mentioned “After the Blitz.” The writer was puzzled – she hadn’t known Ackerley wrote poems at all.
The form of “After the Blitz” deliberately recalls that of Tennyson’s sequence of poems “In Memoriam,” which, like “After the Blitz,” was written for a beloved friend who had died too young. Like the “In Memoriam” poems, “After the Blitz” rhymes ABBA, a lovely form that folds one couplet around an internal couplet. (“After the Blitz” uses 10-syllable lines, though, not the 8-syllable lines of “In Memoriam.”)
The “Blitz,” of course, is the German bombardment of London and other cities at the height of Hitler’s power during the Second World War. The speaker of the poem describes an apartment where he and his lover have spent some good time together. The apartment has been severely damaged in the Blitz, and he’s rebuilt it. Meanwhile, the soldier/lover has gone missing – presumed dead, but with his official fate unresolved. The speaker sets everything in the flat up so that the lover will feel at home, in the unlikely event he ever returns.
“After the Blitz” is an incomparable love poem that ranges far beyond a single or simple relationship, to talk about love itself, and the way in which war destroys people’s plans. Among the poem’s many beauties is the exquisite tension between “man’s resilience” in rebuilding after the Blitz, and the unbearable, final loss of the one person who would have been all the reason in the world to rebuild.
The next two poems in the Countdown are the most obscure, yet the high ranking I give them attests to my desire to make them less obscure. In Charlotte Mew’s “The Farmer’s Bride”, a farmer, quite a bit older than his bride, tells the story of their deadlocked marriage. He speaks in Mew’s version of a south-of-England dialect, probably close to that of Mew’s family home on the Isle of Wight.
The story is easily paraphrased. Marriage traumatizes the young title character. Whether she and the speaker have consummated their marriage is left deliberately unclear; what matters is that they’re celibate now. No explanation for her aversion to the speaker is ever given. And we must remember that all we know about the bride and their marriage comes via her husband. He claims that his wife treats all men with revulsion. But might it be just him that’s the problem?
“The Farmer’s Bride” is notable for its lushness of language. Indeed, one possible criticism is that the farmer/speaker, uneducated and not chock-full of people skills, expresses himself in the most gorgeous pattern of sounds that English is capable of. However, this is poetry. You want real life, go to the mall.
Mew’s poem uses the “free-rhyming” form we have seen in several Countdown poems, with shorter passages in more regular rhyming verse. Mew uses to beautiful effect the technique of the immediately repeated word (“Christmas,” “down,” “brown”). Like all great “dramatic monologues,” “The Farmer’s Bride” is more notable for what it leaves to our imaginations than for what it tells.