“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But the ideal of marriage, then as now, is literally engraved in stone: “His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.”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?