What Will Survive Of Us

What Will Survive Of Us

This week’s poem is “An Arundel Tomb” by Philip Larkin.

Time has transfigured 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.

Philip Larkin (1922—1985)

Poem 257. 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His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.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 not 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 glass. 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 transfigured 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.

This poem ruminates on one of the most long-lasting public displays of affection: the joining of hands of two effigies surmounting a medieval tomb. Larkin considers that the couple represented could not have known how long this display would have lasted, and that they might not have enjoyed the mutual affection the stonework embodies as long.

The poem was inspired by Larkin’s visit to Chichester Cathedral in the mid-1950s in company with his lover. He later said that he found them “extremely affecting”. The monument Larkin saw was of Richard, 3rd Earl of Arundel and his second wife Eleanor of Lancaster.

The first stanza is our first sight of the monument: the two figures lying alongside each other on top of the tomb housing their earthly remains, their features worn away by the passing of countless years; the angles of his armour and the pleats of her dress softened alike by the erosion of time. We see also another common feature of these tombs: animals under their feet, perhaps intended to capture in stone something of their character—dogs generally indicating loyalty, so perhaps their loyalty to one another. On the actual Arundel ‘tomb’, the earl’s feet rest on a lion, denoting valour and nobility, so perhaps Larkin used his poetic licence to change the beast so that mutual loyalty is suggested.

In the second stanza Larkin suggests that the monument resembles so many others that we might overlook it if it wasn’t for a slight surprise: an unusual note. The earl’s hand clasps his lady’s hand, the empty gauntlet held in his other hand. This is unusual but a few other examples are recorded in the Wikipedia article on the poem.

The third stanza imagines that this couple could not have known their likenesses would still be extant centuries later, that their faithfulness (the loyalty motif again)—perhaps intended as a detail that would remind their friends of their mutual devotion and to embellish the memory of their names written in Latin on the tomb—would be preserved in stone for future generations.

In the fourth stanza, we begin to realise the weight of years borne by the monument and the extent of the changes, political and social, that have taken place during that time, and the slow replacement of Latin by the upstart English tongue—“How soon succeeding eyes begin/To look, not read.” That’s a really succinct way of showing that change, where later generations can make nothing of the Latin words but still gaze at the tomb and take in the lesson of those joined hands.

In the fifth and sixth stanzas, Larkin continues the inexorable march of the years—“through lengths and breadths/Of time.” We see the snow fall, the light of summer making the stained glass of the windows brilliant, the birds roosting and singing in the graveyard outside, and the continuous coming and going of the people—“And up the paths/The endless altered people came”—very neat, that, suggesting an endless number of people trooping into the cathedral, alike in their multitudes but each generation different from the preceding one, and as each comes and goes, the identity of the couple represented in stone slowly ebbs away as if the sea of people is eroding it, leaving them anonymous in this unarmorial age—armorial means bearing a coat of arms (or having the right to do so), so this age is unadorned, and perhaps unchivalrous.

The last stanza sums it up: although their individuality has been lost, the message carried by the clasped hands remains—though they may not have meant it, their fidelity and mutual devotion is the only thing that characterises them now, and that may be the only thing that we, as humans, are ever remembered for: “What will survive of us is love.”

I like the poem because it is considerably more cheery than a lot of Larkin’s poetry, and because it carries a message of hope, and because I was always intrigued by those monuments when I was a child.

There is another kind of tomb that carries two effigies, generally one above the other, and these are transi or cadaver tombs: one effigy shows the dead person as they would have looked in life; the other is a representation of their cadaver. This was intended to show that mortal life resulted in the same decay and corruption regardless of the state of the individual and only the after-life carried any promise of contentment and redemption.


  • Read about the poem at Wikipedia.
  • Listen to Philip Larkin’s performance of the poem on YouTube. The video also shows the tomb that inspired Larkin to write the poem.
  • Read about cadaver monument tombs at Wikipedia.