Monday, 21 September 2009
Bibliotherapy: What to read in memoriam
Tomorrow is the anniversary of my sister’s death, and like many of us who mourn someone who has died too young, I remember her untouched by the ravages of age, her eyes still filled with courage and hope for the future. But in the aftermath of her death, when I was raging against the dying of her light, appalled at the savage randomness of life that saw her die at 33, I came across Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, which was read at his own funeral.
I read the poem in the place of its setting, Chichester Cathedral, beside the Arundel Tomb itself, where the stone figures of a medieval earl and his wife lie together, his hand holding hers. The last line of the poem is the one most often quoted – ‘What will survive of us is love’ – and it struck me with as much force as if spoken by a voice beyond the grave; and has continued to resonate for me as a reminder that death does not consume love; that there are tender threads that bind the living and the dead, even amidst the silence.
But Larkin was too clear-sighted – always a realist, sometimes submerged by pessimism – to skim over the harshness of death. As in his wonderfully moving poem, ‘Cut Grass’, ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is precise in its acknowledgment of summer’s loveliness and its inevitable passing, of the joy of living and the finality of dusty death. ‘… Light/ Each summer thronged the glass. A bright/ Litter of birdcalls strewed the same/ Bone-riddled ground…’
And Larkin – a man who vacillated between women; who loved and betrayed and loved again – is also unfailingly honest about the shimmering shifts of human emotion; of its elusiveness, which can never be preserved in stone. The concluding stanza of ‘An Arundel Tomb’ is more hesitant than its last line (‘Time has transformed 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.’) Yet the poem still stands, like the tomb itself, as a monument to those we love, and always will do; as sad and true as the anniversary of a death, in the turning of the year.