Auden and Larkin Both Had Grave Doubts About Their Famous Lines on Love

Scrutinizing culture.
May 28 2012 6:45 AM

Does Love Survive Loss?

Auden and Larkin each wrote powerful lines about love—and then had grave doubts about them. Why?

The 14th-century tomb effigy in Chichester Cathedral that inspired Larkin's poem "An Arundel Tomb"
The 14th-century tomb effigy in Chichester Cathedral that inspired Larkin's poem "An Arundel Tomb"

Photograph by Tom Oates.

Amor vincit omnia,” Love conquers all. Or so Virgil wrote. But does it? Does love survive dissolution of the lovers? And if so, where exactly would it be, where does all that lost love survive?

I was prompted to revisit these ancient questions anew by a long footnote about a single line in the new Complete Poems edition of Philip Larkin’s poetry. The footnote refers to “An Arundel Tomb”—widely regarded as one of Larkin’s finest poems—and contains a provocative remark about that the poem’s celebrated, controversial, closing line, the one about the true nature of immortality:

“What will survive of us is love.”

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The line is so uncharacteristic of Larkin, one of the most relentlessly downbeat poets in modern literature, that it’s almost shocking in its apparently uncomplicated affirmation. You can barely believe it. In that footnote I mentioned there are quotes from Larkin suggesting he could barely believe it either.

No offense to the Beatles, but on first reading, Larkin’s line sounds like “And in the end, the love you take/ Is equal to the love you make,” that saccharine reduction of love’s transcendence to algebra.

Thinking about the survival of love in the context of Larkin’s poem, I suddenly felt the parallel with another controversial line, this one from W.H. Auden. A quarter-century or so before Larkin, Auden originally wrote, in the closing line of the penultimate stanza of perhaps his most celebrated poem, “September 1, 1939”:

“We must love one another or die.”

These two lines—Larkin’s “What will survive of us is love” and Auden’s “We must love one another or die”—may be the most well-known lines of poetry about love written in the past century. But what’s remarkable about them both is that the poets who wrote them agonized over them, were conflicted and critical of their own lines. Both Larkin and Auden eventually tried to distance themselves from their original unmediated utterances.

Indeed that extended footnote in the new Larkin edition eventually led me to rethink it all—Larkin, Auden, love, love poetry—even footnotes. Footnotes? Sometimes with poetry you can know too much about what the poet thinks. After he publishes a poem, it’s not his or hers anymore, you know? Though that doesn’t stop some of the poets—or their loving anthologists—from trying to control how you construe the poems (or at least prevent egregious misconstruals) via scholarly footnotes. But do poets always know the truth of what they’ve wrought?

Auden rethought his line—“We must love one another or die”—almost immediately. Indeed he turned violently against it, tried to ban, or vanish it. Called the poem in which it appeared “trash.” Said he “loathed” it. And yet the line still persists in a limbo of literary erasures that don’t completely efface the original. And now we learn Larkin had doubts about his love-affirming line.

What is going on here? Where is the love for love, guys?

Larkin and Auden are perhaps the two pre-eminent English-language poets of the past century, successors to Eliot and Yeats. For Americans less familiar with Larkin, I’m not going to get into an argument here over the poets’ pre-eminence. Yes, there are American contenders, Lowell, Bishop, Hart Crane. Even Nabokov on the strength of “Pale Fire” alone. But Larkin and Auden are frequently paired as poets without peers. (I know it’s unseemly to talk in these horse-racy terms, but have you noticed the way Larkin appears to have overtaken Auden—and virtually all other moderns—in critical estimation of late?)

Here in America Larkin has previously been most well-known for his famous opening line “They fuck you up/ your mum and dad.” That line and Larkin’s doggerel-like verse about how “Sexual intercourse began in 1963 ... / Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ and the Beatles first LP” have given many casual American non-readers of poetry the misleading impression that Larkin was a cheeky writer of light verse. But just one exposure to his “Aubade” or “The Whitsun Weddings,” “The High Window” or the poem with the controversial line about love—“An Arundel Tomb”—will knock you flat with the weightiness of the words, their fierce and sorrowful, yet somehow self-effacing intensity. They make you understand why “Larkinesque”—denoting a devastating yet somehow vibrant, self-revelatory, self-effacing melancholy—has become a kind of household word in households where poetry is still read.

Which is why that one line about love from “An Arundel Tomb” has always stood out, provoked questions. It seemed, in isolation, so un-Larkinesque. Was it an anomalous moment of uplifting affirmation, or was the line, taken out of context, being misread?

The context:

In a graveyard the speaker stumbles on the 14th-century tomb of the Earl of Arundel and his wife. In the age-blurred, partially eroded tomb carving, the Earl is fully dressed in armor from head to toe. Except for one thing: The speaker notes that in the carving the Earl has removed the armed gauntlet from one hand. (Larkin got the hand wrong—on the real tomb, it was the right-handed gauntlet not the left. Thank you, footnote.)

The point is that the mailed glove is off so he can clasp, skin to skin, the hand of his wife, as if they were joined forever by love in their journey to death. Joined, the poet implies, until the ravages of time blur and erase them from recognition as they have already been erased from life. Joined even though the purported loving jointure may be mere stone-carver’s fantasy.

Here is how Larkin puts it in the poem:

“One sees with a sharp tender shock” the handholding gesture. “Sharp tender shock”!—one could write a book about that phrase.

The remaining five verses are devoted to the speaker’s vexed examination of the image and his sharp tender shocked reaction to it. The speaker reflects on the fact that the joined hands were probably the sculptor’s idea, suggesting a faithful love that may be merely “faithfulness in effigy”—an image rather than the lived reality of fidelity. So that finally “only an attitude remains” and “Time has transfigured them into Untruth. ...”

And yet in the final lines he says of this attitude:

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