Larkin was essentially an autobiographical poet of his time who wrote in a tradition of realism. It is very hard to understand the presentation of death in Arundel Tomb, Mr Bleaney and Ambulances without knowing the the social background that Larkin grew up in. The 1950’s was a time of rapid industrialisation and post-war urban renewal. While Larkin was a confirmed agnostic, death is nonetheless a dominating and recurring theme in many of his poems, about which Larkin was ambivalent.
“An Arundel Tomb” was the last poem that Larkin wrote shortly before his death after visiting a medieval tomb in Chichester. (1) The poem is about the existence of eternal love after death and a possibility of hope and faith.
The poem consists of seven stanzas in six lines. In the first stanza, Larkin examines a faded or eroded tomb monument of an earl and countess in Chichester Cathedral. (2)Instead of their faded coat of arms, onlookers just see their hands linked. This was not the true image or purpose of the original sculpted monument (3). The sculptor has created a piece of art which shows everlasting love, not what the subjects of the art really stand for ‘Their proper situations vaguely shown’. His message to us is that the figures represent their family history,’The Latin names around the base’, but over time; ‘Succeeding eyes begin To look, not readâ€¦â€¦’ and they see the effigy as representing true love. Therefore; ‘Time has transfigured them (the figures) into Untruth’
Larkin concludes by saying that when we die, people will not be interested in our background, or our own beliefs but someone else’s, and how they have interpreted our meaning. In this case, it is love; ‘What will survive of us is love’.
Larkin permits a tradition of optimism to permeate this poem, a tone not previously associated wÄ±th his poetry. Death then while problematical does have redeeming features because there is hope after death.
In Mr Bleaney the main themes expressed in the poem are loneliness and the shallowness of human life. The physical occupation of Mr. Bleaney’s space provides the content for the poem’s first five stanzas. The curtains are “thin and frayed” and the bed is “fusty”, evoking the idea of decay and death, and of course it is in this room where Mr Bleaney died. The indifferent language used by the landlord suggests that he does not care for the ending of Bleaney’s life. It is understood that Mr Bleaney had no possessions because he rented a room that has “no room for books or bags”.
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This enforces the opinion that his life is worthless and insignificant. This is repeated in the final stanza, where Larkin suggests “that how we live measures our own nature”. Larkin dislikes the ‘Frigid wind’, and the unfriendly way that it is ‘tousling the clouds’. He is implying that the wind is throwing the clouds around without a care for them in a similar manner to the way that Mr Bleaney was removed from the room after his death.
Nevertheless, despite the clear control of tone, Larkin’s mood is one of resignation:
‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.’
Ultimately, Mr Bleaney is a poetic person that Larkin has used to reveal his own feelings about the loneliness and the shallowness of human life, which takes on a powerful insignificance in death. The nothingness and irrelevance that continues in death is absolutely abhorrent to Larkin .
“Ambulances” captures the hollowness of life in the face of death where the everyday incident of being taken away in an ambulance is used to convey the closeness, randomness and inevitability of death. It may be children strewn on steps or road, or ladies coming from shops amongst the smells of dinner. ‘Children strewn on roads’ or ‘Womenâ€¦past smells of different dinnersâ€¦’
Man’s doings and achievements are reduced to nothing in the confrontation with death, “And sense the solving emptiness” and “That lies just under all we do”.
The victims of death in this poem are predominantly women, who are cut off from familial ties . Larkin also describes how ideas of fashion pale into insignificance. Individual tastes and differences no longer matter. The victim is “far from the exchange of love”, distanced from the give and take of love. All the directions and guidances received in life have no significance on the threshold of death, “And dulls to distance all we are”. All the trivial things in life come to nothing when confronted with death.
Larkin then varies the tone thinking of the dying patient and the sadness in her heart as she experiences. This empathy is not something we expect from Larkin, “The sudden shut of loss” and “Round something nearly at an end”. He sympathises with her fear. He reflects on the loss that death will bring; how it will destroy this unique person, ‘The unique random blend of families and fashions’
The tremendous isolation of being in an ambulance as she faces death ‘Far from the exchange of love to lie’ and ‘unreachable inside a room”. We are left isolated by the experience, distanced from ourselves. Empathy expressed Ä±n the poem shows the softer side of LarkÄ±n.
Throughout Larkin’s poems, his attitude towards death has many aspects. Arundel Tomb uses religious symbolism with a less pessimistic view of death. In Ambulances death is presented in a matter of fact manner with regret and concern shown for those left behind. In ‘Ambulances’ and ‘Arundel Tomb’ the issue of how people can face death in a secular and alienated age is dealt with differently. In contrast, Mr Bleaney lays bear the irrelevance of man Ä±n life and death in a Godless world. Pessimism is not inevitable in Larkin’s Works. Larkin’s poems in relation to death represent a debate between hope and hopelessness as well as fulfillment and disappointment. While Larkin’s poetry is not obscure, it is more complicated than either his admirers or detractors would wish us to believe. (4)
Statues of Richard Fitzalan, 2nd Earl of Arundel and Eleanor his wife were based. The forms of the couple in stone lie on a tomb lid, with their fronts and faces looking at the Cathedral Roof. First Larkin notes their outfits as recorded in stone.
He wore armour and she was dressed in robes in pleat formation. Then Larkin notices a detail that seems ridiculous to him, a pair of stone dogs at their feet. In the second stanza, Larkin says the plain style of the monument barely attracts his eye. Then he spots something that shocked him in a formal church monument in stone that dated from medieval times. The earl is holding his left glove in his right hand as, to Larkin’s sudden amazement, his left hand his holding the countess’ hand. Larkin regards his discovery as a sharp and gentle shock to his system. In the third stanza, he jokes that the couple would not have intended to lie beside each other in the gesture of love for six centuries. Such a gesture is one that would normally be noted by close friends only, not by a hired sculptor. Larkin supposes that the sculptor added it as a touch so as to help commemorate the couple whose names were recorded in Latin around the base of the sculpture.
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In the sixth stanza, Larkin suggests the movement, visits and touches of the ever varying crowds gently washed away the clear form and outline of the figures in the monument. Instead of being preserved in faithful unchanging stone, the only aspect of the couple that remains to strike the eye of the observer is the gesture of faithful love between them.
Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life Andrew Motion, Faber and Faber 1994. Heralded the beginning of the re-evaluation of the works of Larkin
Collected Poems, Philip Larkin, Faber and Faber, 2003
A Writer’s Life, Philip Larkin, Andrew Motion ,Faber and Faber 1994
The Whitsun Weddings, Faber and Faber, 2001
Philip Larkin: What will survive of us is love, Sunday Times, 2004
Historical and Literary Background of Philip Larkin, Part Five
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