Saturday, July 26, 2014

"What Will Survive Of Us Is Love"

In a comment to a recent post, a long-time (and much-appreciated!) reader called our attention to W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" and, in particular, the line:  "We must love one another or die."  In later years, Auden famously (or infamously) disavowed both the line and the poem, and directed that it be omitted from any future editions of his Collected Poems.

"Rereading a poem of mine, 1st September, 1939, after it had been published, I came to the line 'We must love one another or die' and said to myself:  'That's a damned lie!  We must die anyway.'  So, in the next edition, I altered it to 'We must love one another and die.'  This didn't seem to do either, so I cut the stanza.  Still no good.  The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty -- and must be scrapped."

W. H. Auden, in John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (Faber and Faber 1998), page 292.

Of course, Auden had no control over the ultimate fate of either the poem or the line.  The poem is one that people tended to gravitate to whenever some fresh horror appeared in the 20th century -- and tend to gravitate to when some fresh horror appears in the 21st century.  And "we must love one another or die" is the line that is usually sought out.

George Price Boyce (1826-1897), "At Binsey, Near Oxford"

Auden's line is paired in my mind with this poem.

           An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd --
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read.  Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time.  Snow fell, undated.  Light
Each summer thronged the glass.  A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground.  And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

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.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber 1964).

George Price Boyce, "Thorpe, Derbyshire" (1879)

To begin with, an aside:  although Larkin is not a "nature poet," few have written lovelier descriptions of the World around us.  He does this quite unobtrusively.  For instance, consider the wonderful sequence in the fifth stanza.  "Snow fell, undated."  "Light/Each summer thronged the glass."  (An image which anticipates "High Windows":  "Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:/The sun-comprehending glass,/And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.") "A bright/Litter of birdcalls strewed the same/Bone-riddled ground." Granted, not John Clare, Edward Thomas, or Andrew Young.  But beautiful.

And so comes the final stanza, which is Larkin through and through. First, there is the characteristic undeceived (or, to quote the title of one of his books, "the less deceived") Larkin:  "Only an attitude remains://Time has transfigured them into/Untruth."  But then (as so often happens in the closing stanzas of Larkin's best poems) there is this:  a giving, followed by a taking back, followed by a returning (with perhaps one or more qualifications) unfolds:  ". . . to prove/Our almost-instinct almost true:/What will survive of us is love."

I have no doubt that these equivocal reversals come from deep within Larkin.  They are not feigned.  But I also think that he learned some of this from two poets he admired who often did the same thing in their final stanzas: Edward Thomas and Robert Frost.  I have quoted more than once what Larkin said of Thomas: "What a strange talent his was:  the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  Philip Larkin, Letter to Andrew Motion (May 16, 1979), in Anthony Thwaite (editor), Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985 (Faber and Faber 1992), page 599.  Yes, exactly.

George Price Boyce, "Landscape at Wotton, Surrey: Autumn" (1864)

My view is this:  Larkin labors to keep his undeceived posture intact.  He is wary of appearing sentimental.  But in his heart-of-hearts he wants to write that final line, and he wants to believe it is true.

In an interview published in 1981, he said this:

"Interviewer:  But did you feel sceptical about the faithfulness that's preserved for us in stone?

Larkin:  No.  I was very moved by it.  Of course it was years ago.  I think what survives of us is love, whether in the simple biological sense or just in terms of responding to life, making it happier, even if it's only making a joke.  I was delighted when a friend asked me if I knew a poem ending 'What will survive of us is love.'  It suggested the poem was making its way without me.  I like them to do that.'"

Philip Larkin, interview with John Haffenden, in Philip Larkin, Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews (Faber and Faber 2001), page 58.

So be it:  "What will survive of us is love."

Arundel Tomb, Chichester Cathedral


Sam Vega said...

Thank you for a very perceptive and beautiful offering. I like "Equivocal reversals"! And being reminded of Larkin's poetry always deepens and clarifies thought.

Incidentally, I see the Arundel Tomb very often. We live in Chichester and attend the Cathedral every Sunday. The story of the hand withdrawn from the gauntlet and holding his wife's hand is actually quite prosaic - a later botched repair job, rather than a sign of mediaeval tenderness. Nevertheless, what will survive of us...

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: as always, thank you for visiting, and for your thoughts.

What a nice coincidence that you regularly see the tomb!

As you may know, in his annotations to The Complete Poems, Archie Burnett provides a number of details about the tomb and the poem. He notes that it is actually a dog and a lion, not two dogs, at their feet. Larkin also confessed that it should have been "right-hand gauntlet" rather than "left-hand gauntlet." And, in relation to your point about the restoration, in response to a scholarly inquiry, Larkin said that he wrote the poem before he became aware of the restoration.

But, as you say: "Nevertheless, what will survive of us. . ."

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Larkin perhaps more than any other poet understood clearly the price our culture pays for having lost its belief in religion, in a coherent plan for the universe, a ritual for our lives.

Nothing is left now, thinks Larkin, but death, and it creeps closer each day, this unavoidable extinction, a mindless heap of clay. The world emptied of its illusions of divinity has sadly found nothing to replace it--unless its a mindless and frenetic materialism--the madder music and stronger wine of Dowson.

In his poem "Church Going" the narrator, whom we can assume to be Larkin, stops and goes inside a church. He finds nothing there, nothing of any spiritual value.

Nothing is what he always finds, and yet he admits that he often stops by empty churches. He wonders what churches will be used for when nobody worships in them anymore.

In fact, Larkin admits that he has no idea "What this accoutered frowsty is worth," but it's of no real matter since "It pleases me to stand in silence here."

(I know a man who has been visiting his son's grave since the boy died--thirteen years ago. He admits that in all this time he has yet to find a single thing to say. He looks at the marker, sees the name and the dates, struggles to find some words, but he can't. Yet he goes each week.)

Larkin ends the poem with something like hope, though Larkin like, he qualifies it. (I have pasted the last stanza below.) A church is a place, he goes on to say, where one finding "A hunger in himself to be more serious," can go. He will find some wisdom there, "If only that so many dead lie around." So here we have another example of Larkin giving and then taking it back to some degree.

I don't know that any other poet understood the true bleakness of a secular society moving about under indifferent and fathomless skies, nothingness piled on nothingness, nothing left but death: a black- / Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back / A huge and birdless silence," the sullen silence of a Godless world.

from "Church Going"

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for bringing in "Church Going" as counterpoint -- it makes a nice pairing with "An Arundel Tomb." I agree with your assessment of how Larkin saw the modern world. He was never one to look away, and his fear of death was visceral, wasn't it? It is the prevailing undercurrent to much of his writing.

Thank you as well for printing the final stanza. As you say, it is another of those classic Larkin endings, isn't it? An aside: I've always liked "a serious house on serious earth it is." But the whole stanza is lovely.

Thank you again.