In Wild Oats, for instance he describes forming a relationship with the less attractive of two friends, who ultimately finishes with him because, I was too selfish, withdrawn and easily bored to love. Many of his other poems also convey this gap between the ideal of romantic love and the disillusionment of the reality too. Larkin made no secret of the fact that he believed marriage could be an imprisonment and that having children was the end of a persons life, something that people did because it was expected of them, that in fact they might well come to regret subsequently.
He also explores in his writing how the passing of time can erode love, and how, being mortal, nothing survives death in any event. However there is another side to Larkin, where he acknowledges with great sympathy and sensitivity the importance the human species places on love, and its potential at least of elevating our existence. The tension between these two viewpoints is explored in An Arundel Tomb. Larkin wrote this poem after seeing a medieval tomb in Chichester Cathedral, of the Earl of Arundel and his wife.
The first two lines sets the scene, Side by side, their faces blurred, The earl and countess lie in stone, The earl and countess are vaguely shown, in their proper habits; that is, their formal attire, but proper also in the sense of being appropriate for a particular occasion or event. The stone is also symbolic not only as the material from which the monument was made, but also it implies coldness. The stone also implies solidity and permanence yet the couples faces have been eroded so their features have become blurred and indistinct.
This theme of loss of identity is underlined throughout the poem. The description continues into the second verse, where the plainness of the detail hardly involves the eye, but then, One sees, with a sharp tender shock, His hand withdrawn, holding her hand, This detail is central to the theme of the poem, underlining as it does that, although time has passed, the significance of this human gesture is as comprehensible to us now as it was when the monument was sculpted.
Ironically, it was in fact a dtail added at a later stage to the original monument and in any event Larkin acknowledges that, Such faithfullness in effigy Was just a detail friends would see: A sculptors sweet commisioned grace In other words, it might not actually be a symbol of the love and intimacy the couple felt towards each other in life at all, rather something, Thrown off in helping to prolong The Latin names around the base, The casualness of that thrown off dilutes the emotional impact of the hand-holding.
This is typical of Larkin: he admits the power of the image, then immediately qualifies is, and so give us the possibility that it is entirely bogus, or, at the very least, not so straightforward as we first imagine The poem also explores how the movement of time can change our understanding of the truth. Larkin describes the couples supine stationary voyage, a highly effective oxymoron to convey that although obviously they physically they have not moved, they have moved through time, and that voyage has changed the perception of the observers of the tomb.
No longer do the visitors to the church read the Latin at the base, ¦ succeeding eyes begin To look, not read. The couple when alive could not have imagined a world where Latin was not the lingua franca, where the certainties of feudal hierarchies had not survived. Larkin shows how life and death intermingle, the couple lie as if alive on top of the monument to their death. More than that though, their way of life is also long since dead. They would have been buried with a degree of preparation suitable for the journey it is believed they will experience after death.
The effigies of the earl and countess signify their immortality in the eyes of the Church, and in the eyes of their peers, suggesting their resurrection. It is this stone fidelity, this symbol of the couples faith in their own resurrection; and the representation of eternal life and fostering of a belief in immortality that the poet sees as a lie. The detail of the monument has become blurred with the passing of time in the same way that Christian belief in the promise of immortality might be said to have become blurred in a more doubting and atheistic age.
The fifth verse continues the couples journey through time as Larkin conveys the passing of the seasons, year in, year out, very concisely, and with great beauty, ¦ Snow fell, undated. Light Each summer thronged the grass, A bright Litter of birdcalls strewed the same Bone-riddled ground. Through all these years, The endless altered people came, Washing at their indentity. The past in a sense is becoming meaningless as the couple are seen existing still in An unarmorial age no longer understood by the visitors.
Time has wought some damage to their physical representation in stone, but still more, and on a profound level, to our understanding of this, ¦ scrap of history Damningly, Larkin writes that, Time has transfigured them into Untruth. He thinks that the thing that speaks to us still, down the centuries, that simple human symbol of love, the joining of hands, ¦ the stone fidelity They hardly meant. He implies that however much we are touched by this seeming expression of enduring love, it is essentially not a reliable indication of any such thing.
However, he goes on to say that this final blazon does prove, Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love. This last line is much-quoted, and taken out of context belies the view of Larkin as essentially pessimistic and even cynical. But the previous line and a half renders the final uplifting message more ambiguous, so that it is not clear whether Larkin is optimistic or pessimistic. An almost instinct to believe in the enduring quality of love seems to hint at our need for some meaning beyond death.
As an atheist, Larkin did not believe in an after-life, but seems to acknowledge that it is almost instinctive for humans to want to imbue their existence with some sort of meaning so replacing Christian belief with a belief that somehow our human love endures after we are gone is natural. But this belief, he says, is only almost true. So it could be argued that the conclusion of this poem is that nothing truly survives death not even love. And yet the sheer power and beauty of that final line seems to belie the essential pessimism of this conclusion and render it ambiguous.
For me this ambiguity is at the heart of Larkins writing. He is never glib or obvious. He admits to doubts and uncertainties but his writing can also convey the beauty and occasional happiness of existence. Dannie Abse, in contrast, is a far less reflective and introspective poet. His outlook on life is essentially optimistic. For instance the theme of his poem Two Photographs bears comparison with An Arundel Tomb. but his approach is very different. He considers two photographs of his two grandmothers and compares Annabella, How slim she appears, how vulnerable.
Pretty. with Doris, How portly she looks, formidable. Handsome. He goes on to describe the two women, how one spoke Welsh and was religious while the other was less spiritual but seemed perhaps to enjoy life more: Annabella fasted pious, passive, enjoyed small-talk. Doris feasted pacy, pushy, would never pray. Ate pork! Although Abse clearly felt affection for these women, there is no great sadness that they are dead. He does dream of them, but he speaks of this dream with humour, describing them standing back to back, not for the commencement of a duel but to see who was taller.
There is a melancholy in seeing that all that has remained of them apart from the photographs is An amber brooch, a string of pearls. And that if his children or grandchildren should find the photographs they wouldnt even know who the women were, ¦ hardly aware that if this be not true, I never lived. But the melancholy seems a gentle emotion, not a searing pain. The conclusion is more whimsical than tragic or profound, observing as it does that even though we quickly forget the preceding generations we literally would not be here without them, so that our existence depends on those who came before us.
Abse certainly conveys the impermanence of human life very well, comparing his grandmothers to, ¦ the dust that secretively flows in a sudden sunbeam (sieved through leaky curtains) and disappears when and where that sunbeam goes. but he seems perfectly accepting of this, and untroubled by it. Perhaps it is key that he does have a family of his own, children and grandchildren. Could he be less tortured about what remains when we are dead than Larkin precisely because he sees continuity in his own family?
Does he yearn less for immortality, or something to take the place of immortality simply because he knows that although his grand childrens children might not remember him or even have any interest in his life, there existence depended on his own, just as his existence depended on his grandmothers lives? Abse is the more warm-hearted poet for sure, and has an essentially positive and optimistic approach to life, but the lack of ambiguity at the heart of his work leaves me turning back to Larkin, for all his sombre sensibility.
Just as the photographs of his grandmothers remind Abse of the two women, in Love Songs in Age, Larkin describes a widow finding some old sheet music and being transported back into the past. The second verse describes the powerful effect the music has on the widow. As the listens to each frank submissive chord and Word after sprawling hyphenated work, she is once more back in her youth, and the emotions come flooding back. Larkin again explores the theme of whether love survives death as she looks back on her younger self, and the family life she led with her child and husband.
It is also a poem that considers the effect of age on memories of love. The old woman re-evaluates her younger self and comes to the conclusion that the love she has based her life on is hollow. The deceptive symbolism of the clasped hands is comparable with the emotions invoked by the music in the songbooks in Love Songs in Age, which now seem not to have been enduring. Although the message of Love Songs in Age, could certainly be described as bleak and depressing, it is nevertheless a tender and pathetic poem.
Although looking back, the old woman comes to the conclusion that romanticised love is an illusion Larkin also evokes beautiful moments and manages to convey that there were many happy moments in her life despite her inevitable disappointment as the books of sheet music bear traces of her old life, One bleached from lying in a sunny place One marked by circles by a vase of water, One mended, when a tidy fit had siezed her, And coloured, by her daughter. Larkins outlook on life is therefore not unremittingly bleak, this is a life which has known sunny days, and flowers, and a child growing up a happy life, filled with love.
Little details flesh out her character she finds the music when a tidy fit has seized her which implies she was not tidy at all! He captures the pleasures she has had in her life beautifully and although love hasnt fulfilled its ideal image and old age seems to have left her lonely and sad this is again a subtle and nuanced exploration of the human condition. In spite of the bleak conclusion, there is glorious imagery of the old womans younger days when she lived a happy life, blithely unaware that love would not be as comforting as her songs. She simply has a more jaundiced view of love at an older age.
This is a recurring theme in Larkins work, the power and promise of human love but also its impermanence. Larkins verdict, that love is not ultimately redemptive can be seen as a bleak one. Yes his exploration of this theme in his poems is a not remittingly gloomy. He conveys very well the simple pleasures of life, the joyous moments, the beauty of nature, of music, and our capability of happiness as well as sadness. He always admits the possibility and potential of love but ultimately doesnt think a single thing can answer peoples needs entirely and forever.
Love might not be redemptive but we need to put our hopes and fears somewhere and love seems the answer. He is not judgmental in his appraoch to those who have failed at love, or those who cannot find it. While it would be unfair to call Abse a simplistic poet it is the ambiguities in Larkins language and ideas that ultimately make him poems more satisfying and rich. Larkins verdict might be bleak in both his poems but Larkin conjurs beauiful moments in the womans life in Love Songs in Age and realises hope people could believe that love is the answer to certain things.
Larkin tackles love and isnt afraid to approach its promise differently to other poets such as Abse who might be describes as more typical however he is too much of a realist to think we can get everyhing from love, although it elevates us. He realises to be human is to believe this. Love, children, family, true fulfilment and rare moment of connection cannot overthrow death or illness and the inevitability of the obstacles we face in life. Larkin sees this but in that he is simply a realist.