Philip Larkin An Arundel Tomb Essays

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‘An Arundel Tomb’, by Philip Larkin, is written to preserve the image portrayed by a sculpture located on a tomb in Arundel. The poet uses this poem to convey the feelings, which the sight of this tomb induces for him. The whole poem itself is describing how an idea or identity in history is preserved through this sculpture.
The poem consists of seven stanzas, mostly in trochaic tetrameter. The rhyming pattern for each stanza is ABBCAC.

‘Side by side,’ immediately brings forth the idea of the union of the sculptures around which this poem’s conclusion is based. The phrase ‘their faces blurred,’ conveys an image of weathering over time. The image that is portrayed by the sculpture is of ‘The earl and countess’ who ‘lie in stone,’…show more content…

In the third stanza, Larkin describes how it seems as if the friends of the earl and countess and the sculptor himself wish to preserve the contribution that they made to history, and do it in the best way.
‘Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:’ The poet uses these lines effectively to preserve the way that the sculpture made him think, that this detail of them holding hands would not be found important by most people, but the people who had known them, would think of it as an endearing memory. ‘Thrown off in helping to prolong The Latin names around the base.’ This gives the idea that the tomb makes one feel that an effort was made to preserve their importance so that they would be remembered as great.

The fourth stanza is used by the poet to display and preserve the feeling that even in their now solid, unchanging state (‘stationary voyage’) the real memories of them and the ideas they held has changed and died with time. ‘To look, not read.’ This implies that the language Latin is dead.

An enjambment beginning on the last line of the fourth stanza continues through the first line of the fifth and into the second. This is effectively used to represent a long period of time passing, also making use of ‘Persisted, linked, through

The 2014 Leaving Cert English Higher Level Paper asked this question:

“Larkin is a perceptive observer of the realities of ordinary life in poems that are sometimes illuminated by images of lyrical beauty.”

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the above statement? Support your answer with reference to both the themes and language found in the poetry of Philip Larkin on your course.


[Note: Lyrical - expressing the writer's emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way.]




I wholeheartedly agree that Larkin has a way of shinning a lyrical light onto seemingly mundane realities.His intricate analysis of ordinary uncovers many dimensions and perspectives to the recurrent themes in his poetry – death and the transience of time and love - in a thought-provoking manner. Although the ideas within many of Larkin's poems are complex, he masterfully presents them to the reader in a simple style, coupled with dazzling, cinematic images. Through poems such as "Ambulances", "MCMXIV", "At Grass" and "An Arundel Tomb", he celebrates the familiar details of his ordinary English life, while also providing profound and complex commentary on a range of issues.

"At Grass" features some of Larkin's simplest techniques, but also some of his most important and intricate ideas about the passage of time and the transience of life. The poem begins by describing a commonplace countryside scene, complete with two unassuming horses that "the eye can hardly pick...out". The two animals "stand anonymous" in the fields – none of us would ever think twice about the common scene Larkin has described. [A nice reference back to the question.] 

As the poem progresses, we learn that less than twenty years ago, "two dozen distances sufficed to fable" these champion racehorses. They were the main attraction of "faded, classic Junes" when "numbers and parasols" littered the British Ascots, and "squadrons of empty cars" littered the surrounding roads to see these horses run. Larkin creates lively, colourful images, which are in stark contrast the peace and laziness of the horses in the first stanza. The changing imagery creates an almost cinematic flashback, allowing me to easily identify the significant changes that these horses have undergone. 

The fourth stanza reverts to gentle, relaxed imagery that mirrors the first stanza. Larkin questions if the horses miss the fame and attention that they were subject to just twenty years previous? Do they long to return to the activity and noise? Larkin thinks not:

"Do memories plague their ears like flies? 
They shake their heads."

These horses have had "summer by summer all stole away" from them, where they were trained relentlessly, conditioned to sprint to provide entertainment for humans and to feed our gluttonous greed for betting. Only now, as "dusk brims the shadows" and these horses come to the end of their retirement, can they "stand at ease", and "gallop for what must be joy" instead of the pressure of the "fieldglass" on race day. Larkin's use of soft language in the closing stanza, such as "slip" and "ease", to describe the happiness of the animals now they have been liberated from the fast pace of their racing days. 

'At Grass' delivers a complex but imperative message about time that I feel resonates as clearly today as it did when Larkin first composed it. Larkin reminds his readers to accept the change that time brings; glory days will come and pass quickly. Through his use of common imagery and language, Larkin poses complex questions in an eloquent and intriguing manner.

"MCMXIV" deals with the innocence and naivety of pre-war Britain in a humane, ironic and nostalgic fashion. Larkin laments the passing of a way of life. The first stanza presents the image of men waiting to recruit at the beginning of the war. They stand “patiently” in “long uneven lines”, which will naturally remind us of the trench lines that they will soon find themselves in. The men casually wait together as if they were queueing to watch a football match in "Villa Park" or a cricket match in "the Oval". Their innocence is captured in their "archaic faces/ Grinning as if it were all/ An August Bank Holiday lark". 

In the two stanzas that follow, Larkin creates a holiday atmosphere of the world that they are leaving behind, a peaceful image of “children at play”, “adverts for cocoa” and “the pubs / Wide open all day”, while , the “countryside” isn’t “caring”. The war is so far removed from the country that they are barely aware of it taking place. This was the time of “differently-dressed servants”, who were confined to “tiny rooms in huge houses”. The images created by Larkin here highlight the extent to which this world has vanished. The currency has passed into history, the names of the children, the distinct class structures have been utterly transformed, and, as Larkin points out, transformed at an even greater pace because of WWI. 

The speaker repeats this message in the final stanza. "Never such innocence" will exist anywhere again, as we are now aware of the monumental destruction that accompanies war. Larkin effectively uses the Great War, an international travesty, to relate to a large audience. This commentary would have easily manifested into the minds of all British families as virtually every village, town and family lost a their loved ones to the war. Larkin uses stunning images to capture the beauty of Britain and the grave changes that 1914 ultimately brought.



Larkin's poetry takes on a morose, despondent tone in poems such as "An Arundel Tomb", and "Ambulances". Again, he uses commonplace items and images in both of these works in order to express his message as effectively as possible. In "An Arundel Tomb" Larkin unravels the conviction that love survives after death and dispels this idiotic notion, even if it's what we want to hear. The poem is based on the Arundel tomb in Chichester cathedral, where two stone figures "lie...side by side" with "faces blurred"

This grave has been made famous for the "sharp tender shock" it brings when tourists see the statues holding hands. To "the endless altered people" who visit the tomb, this carving represents eternal love, but it's clear from his use of language that Larkin is skeptical. 

Larkin's use of the word "lie" creates an ambiguous message in the poem: is the speaker describing how the statues 'lie' together or how the idea of endless love that they have made tangible is a 'lie' in the minds of the tourists? He suggests that they would never have expected to become advocates for the idea that 'Love conquers all'. 

Larkin uses a wonderful oxymoron to illustrate that nothing can conquer the passage of time. Even "the earl and countess [who] lie in stone" undergo a "stationary voyage" because of the artificial changes tourists have force upon the statue. "Time has transfigured them into/ Untruth". I believe that Larkin longed for people to understand mortality and accept it as a definitive end. The  sharp memorable images makes 'An Arundel Tomb' a straightforward but beautifully crafted poem that longs to transform our romanticised view of unyielding everlasting love into something more realistic.


The Medieval tomb, in Chichester Cathedral of Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel and his 2nd wife Eleanor of Lancaster. The inspiration for Philip Larkin's poem "An Arundel Tomb" published in 1964. Credit: BBC.co.uk
Larkin deals with a similar theme of the transience of life in "Ambulances". This poem is a meditation on the closeness of death, its randomness and its inevitability. These three ideas are captured for Larkin in the action of ambulances in the city. The first stanza describes the physical appearance of the ambulance, which is instantly suggested of the theme of death. The speaker creates an ambiguity around ambulances: they are "closed like confessionals” and give "back/ None of the glances they absorb." In this way, the ambulance seems very similar to a coffin. Like death, this ambulance can "come to rest at any kerb". In this short sentence, the arrival of the ambulance is conveyed as random and indiscriminate. The use of colour red in the description of the "stretcher blankets" signifies death and the contrast with "wild white face" may allude to the red and white symbol of the Red Cross. I feel that the point Larkin was trying to stress here is that even in an ordinary place with everyday activities going on around us, death can strike unexpectedly. [Another subtle reference to the question.] 

In the third stanza, it becomes clear that the poem centres on a depressing insight into our own mortality. The onlookers, confronted by the image of the white, frightened face of the victim, do not really genuinely sympathise with this person. Instead, they "retreat into their own distress". There is a realisation that at some stage, they will inevitably become death's victim. The thought that the ambulance brings the patient "closer what is left to come" is symbolic of the poet's view that we are always rushing towards death. 

Philip Larkin transforms the mundane into the marvellous. Although the language and imagery of his poetry are relatively simple, they are precise, mostly detached but always movingly lyrical. Larkin was able to transform any situation – an explosion, a statue, horses in a field – and wonderfully convey an honest and exquisite lesson about life to his readers. Larkin once said, "I'd like to think...that people in pubs would talk about my poetry." Philip Larkin strived to become the people's poet and from my examination of his work, I conclude that he created accessible, authentic and timeless poetry with messages that are still relevant to me and to modern society. 


Structure - poem by poem

The marking scheme directed examiners to reward the following:

- Larkin chronicles everyday occurrences through the measured use of appealing language 

- he celebrates the detail of ordinary English life, referencing familiar characters and places 

- evocative exploration of human experiences, e.g. love, marriage, war, death and social class 

- suggestive metaphors, memorable images, poignancy of his authentic poetic voice 

- variety of subtle/lyrical tones (reflective, nostalgic, sympathetic, critical, wistful, ironic) 

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