Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Out there in the ether I suppose

This essay by Ron Rosenbaum about Auden and Larkin on love is worth reading if only for the picture of the Arundel tomb that Larkin wrote about. Rosenbaum's penultimate paragraph is disappointingly metaphysical though:
And then there's the unanswered question that's been troubling me personally and is perhaps the reason I’ve been a bit obsessed with these lines. What happens to the love between two people when it’s over? Seriously, where does it go, all that feeling, all those memories—do they dissolve into the air or do they survive somewhere, in some way—perhaps in a parallel universe?
The best thing about this question is that it calls to mind Tracey Thorn's song "By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down and Wept," which contains these lines:
Do you ever wonderWhere love goes?Out there in the ether I supposeSometimes it burns enough to leave a trace in the airThe ghost of me and you in a parallel world somewhere
Thorn isn't being serious, though, or at least isn't speaking literally ("I suppose" shows that she isn't trying to answer the question seriously--it's like Morrissey's "I dunno" in response to "Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?"). Rosenbaum seems to be engaging in sentimental metaphysics while Thorn is expressing feelings. Or perhaps Rosenbaum is just an inferior poet doing the same thing as Thorn. (Of course Thorn might not strike you as being much good either, but song lyrics rarely seem good when written down.)   

But back to Larkin. His poem describes a stone tomb that shows a knight and his wife lying side-by-side and holding hands. Rosenbaum wants to think that Larkin's reaction is to believe that amor vincit omnia, but that is quite far from what he says. Here's the last stanza of the poem:
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.
Time has transfigured them into untruth, not revealed the truth about them. Although perhaps this untruth has more to do with how the times have changed so that contemporary visitors to the tomb miss a lot, such as the meaning of the Latin inscription on the tomb that people no longer even read. Instead of the full truth about the earl and countess, only an attitude remains. The stone fidelity they hardly meant was a) not meant, but only something thrown off, b) meant, but perhaps something of an afterthought (the sculptor was commissioned, after all, and couldn't just do whatever he liked), and c) meant in a way that is as hard as stone, very much meant. I think Larkin is suggesting all three meanings, though not necessarily at once--they come in waves, in the order I have given them (or that's how they come to me, but how else can I read?).

What does it all prove? Supposedly that "what will survive of us is love" is almost true. What has survived of them is love because that is what is timelessly understood and that is what they chose to show to the world. We don't make such tombs, though, and churches themselves are relics of the past, as Larkin sees them (in "Church Going" he implies, with regret, that belief is bound to die). Larkin's own relationships are somewhat notorious. What will survive of him is not love. But he's there in the poem all the same, assuming that the rhyme of 'eye' with 'I' is not just coincidental:
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 are linked, he says (calling to mind my least favourite part of  "Aubade": "nothing to love or link with"). This connection with another, he does seem to think, provides a sort of immunity to death or the worst of death. What, if anything, will survive of us is love. But Larkin seems to think that both God and love are more or less dead (see "Annus Mirabilis" and "High Windows" for his views on the state of love). Now (since the sexual revolution of 1963) "bonds and gestures" are "pushed to one side," and everyone goes down the long slide to happiness, endlessly, enjoying an unlosable game. Presumably Larkin thinks there must be some price to be paid. (I wonder whether he knew the Tom Lehrer song about "sliding down the razor blade of life"? I imagine he did.) So that, I think, is what Larkin is getting at here. Love conquers more or less all, but love is very far from being something we can take for granted. I suspect also that there is some play on the similarity between 'armour' and 'amour': the tomb shows "jointed armour," but we live in "an unarmorial age."


  1. It reminded me of Raimond Carver's "What we talk about when we talk about love." There is a similar worry there about the disappearance of love.
    Also, it always struck me as a very deep commentary on Plato's symposium.

  2. I haven't read it! I must do so. Thanks for the suggestion.