Larkin grappled with all of these issues, as the annotation to “Arundel” by Archie Burnett, the editor of the new Complete Poems edition, makes clear.*
According to Burnett, Larkin wrote on one manuscript, in the midst of his drafts and revisions: “love isn’t stronger than death just because two statues hold hands for six hundred years.”
And then he adds in a separate letter that yes, it “is rather a romantic poem; there’s even less reservation in [it]. I don’t like it much, partly because of this ...”
What’s curious here is that the poem doesn’t really say that “love is stronger than death.” Larkin says, “What survives of us is love.” Something entirely different from love conquering all.
Surviving something does not make you stronger than it, or make you its conquerer. Larkin wasn’t entirely skeptical of the poem though. Here he is, quoted later on in the footnote, that same year. “I was very moved by [the clasped hands on the tomb]—that ‘sharp tender shock’—Of course it was years ago. … I think what survives of us is love. ...”
What survives of Larkin in regard to this poem is Larkinesque discomfort at the intrusion of sentiment—or what others might construe a sentimentality he was always at pains to disclaim. What survives of Larkin is his tormented ambiguity, so Larkinesque.
What survives of us is the idea that the love that can inspire that “sharp tender shock.” The capacity, the “almost-instinct,” the something that’s there, inherent in living beings, ready to be ignited—the recurrent ability to love—that he’s talking about. I think it’s no accident that these powerfully eloquent sentiments were virtually torn out of the souls and stanzas of these two poets. And no accident that in some ways they became embarrassed by how nakedly they reveal themselves in those lines. And how they had to do everything they could to cover up that nakedness, like the first couple, expelled from the garden. Make themselves and their poems more “mature” and “sophisticated” for a culture that makes a fetish of complication and ambiguity above earnestness as signs of “seriousness.” Larkin put the barbed wire of irony around the ecstatic utterance, Auden altered or erased his.
For shame. (As in “because of shame.”) Which is a shame. Can’t we have both, the complex poems and the consolatory one-line reductions?
And then there's the unanswered question that's been troubling me personally and is perhaps the reason I’ve been a bit obsessed with these lines. What happens to the love between two people when it’s over? Seriously, where does it go, all that feeling, all those memories—do they dissolve into the air or do they survive somewhere, in some way—perhaps in a parallel universe?
I think our two poets believed, but were too shy to say it outright:
Amor vincit omnia.
Correction, May 29, 2012: This piece originally misstated the name of the editor of Larkin's Complete Poems. It is Archie Burnett. (Return.)