In An Arundel Tomb, Larkin builds an extraordinary poetic structure leading up to a final line which is beautiful in its clarity and simplicity: “What will survive of us is love.” But this is not a simple poem, and it’s the lines before it which makes the poem such a work of genius:
“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.”
Reading that verse, I am amazed by it. Deconstructing it, or, at least, trying to deconstruct it, as I am now, leaves me frankly thinking “What the actual f*ck!?!”, not because it’s shocking, but because it’s…. Well, yeah, actually, because it’s shocking.
Larkin has spent the whole poem telling us that these two people, who are famous because their tomb effigies show them holding hands, didn’t mean it to turn out that way, that they didn’t intend it to be so important, but he does it in the language of love: “a sharp, tender shock”, “his hand withdrawn, holding her hand”, “such faithfulness in effigy”, “a sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace”, “they persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths of time”.
And then at the end he puts this final verse. It’s not true, he says. They didn’t mean it. It’s all a mistake. And he puts a full stop at the end of the sentence, after the word ” untruth”, just to nail it down. And then he goes and turns over his own statement with the next couple of lines: “the stone fidelity/ they hardly meant has come to be/ their final blazon, and to prove/ our almost-instinct almost true…” And then we get to final line, that beacon of love and faith, but which is not, note, a sentence on its own but a part of the previous sentence.
And that sentence contains the one word “almost”. Actually it contains it twice, but it’s the second one which is the crux, the pivot, the point of the poem: “almost true”. Just one tiny word in the middle of the penultimate line which makes all the difference. And make no mistake, it’s not there because Larkin couldn’t think of a better word. If he’d meant to say “wholly true”, or “finally true”, or “really true”, he would have done. He was a grand master of his art, Inigo Montoya with knobs on; if he said “almost”, he meant “almost”.
So where does that leave us? Love will triumph despite everything! No, that’s just a big lie. No, it’s true, Amor vincit omnia! Almost….. WTF?!? Almost?!? Damn it, man, you’re messing with my head! What do you mean, ALMOST? WHAT IS ALMOST SUPPOSED TO MEAN!?!?
I have no idea. I guess big concepts like love and death and time do mess with our heads, partly because we can never really know for sure, so maybe that’s what Larkin meant. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t know himself why that “almost” should be there. I don’t know. But I know he meant to put that specific word right there, and I know it’s what makes the poem a work of genius.
Before “more tomorrow”, a little admin. Over the next few days I’m leaving my furries in the capable hands of their live-in cat nanny while I head off to Latitude festival in darkest Suffolk. Since it is held essentially in a field I have no idea what phone reception will be like. I will be writing every day, but if I don’t actually post that will be why, and I will post the results on my return….
So, more….soon! Be careful in the meantime, won’t you, out there in the wild world of the English language? 🙂