What will survive of us is love

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Detail of Arundel Tomb in Chichester CathedralIt is a privilege to revisit places. So I thought recently, while standing by a certain tomb in Chichester Cathedral. Most Cathedrals inspire awe and reverence, but people have their favourite spots within them, and at Chichester mine is the tomb of Richard FitzAlan and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster, both of whom died in the 1370s.

You would imagine Richard, the 10th Earl of Arundel, to have been a pretty hard-boiled sort of chap. He was a warrior knight, and one of the three principal commanders at the 1346 Battle of Crecy, a crucial battle of the Hundred Years' War, in which the English annihilated the French forces, and also proved the superiority of the longbow, rather than the crossbow, as a military weapon.

And Richard accumulated such wealth along his martial way that he became King Edward III's chief financier; he is now considered to have been the 15th wealthiest person in history. Well, $118 billion in today's money would do that for you quite easily, I should think.

But Richard was not merely a materialist; he loved his second wife dearly, and proved it by engineering a papal dispensation in order to marry her, a measure necessary because, things being close and cosy in the 14th century, she was related to his first wife. Eleanor was not in her first youth, and was a widow, her first husband having been killed, conventionally enough, in a tournament.

Despite the inexorable march of time, however, Richard and Eleanor went on to have seven children, one of whom became Archbishop of Canterbury. Eleanor predeceased Richard, to his great sorrow: he died four years later, and left orders for a surprisingly modest funeral that matched hers, and for this joint tomb.

So there the marble figures lie, grey and blurred, and with an infinite capacity, I think, to touch the heart. The tomb was radical for its time, in the sense that Richard had decreed that his effigy should not be higher than Eleanor's; her figure also appears to lean towards his, and most moving of all, Richard's has one gauntlet removed, so that his bare hand holds that of his wife. Her feet rest on a little pet dog, his on a small lion.

It could easily escape one's notice, but there is a type-written poem pinned to the pillar nearest this long resting-place. It is by famous English poet, Philip Larkin, who seems to have been hard-boiled in his own way: he never married his long-time lover, Monica Jones, for example, and was intermittently unfaithful to her.

Various negative labels have been attached to him and his poetry. He has been described as having 'the saddest heart in the postwar supermarket', as having 'glum accuracy' about emotions, and as being a poet of 'lowered sights and diminished expectations'.

Yet Larkin considered this tomb unique, and recorded that he found it 'extremely affecting'. His feelings eventually found expression in a marvellous poem about time and change and enduring love, the love that is as strong as death. To him, the knight and his lady prove

Our almost-instinct almost true.
What will survive of us is love.

I have had this almost-instinct in a fumbling way for most of my life, and often, gratefully, see it confirmed.

Every Monday I take a bus trip to Kalamata. Every Monday I observe a black-clad older woman, a widow with a face expressive of sad resignation. Clearly on her way to a certain grave in the local cemetery, she struggles into the bus with at least two bags full of flowers.

And in Melbourne long ago, I heard of a woman who used to visit her husband's grave every week. Once there, she would give a report on her life during the last seven days: the conversation, she felt, did not have to stop simply because his corporeal presence was no longer with her.

I still talk to my own departed, especially to my mother, and I don't imagine the conversations will ever end. Not as long as I live. I would, if I could, write a poem about her.

But Larkin has done it for me, and for countless others.


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Chichester Cathedral, Earl of Arundel, Hundred Years' War, Philip Larkin

 

 

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My tombstone epitaph will be : 'Only Jesus' in Greek.
Bernstein | 29 July 2014


What a lovely article. Larkin's lines remind me somewhat of Rabelais: 'I go to seek a Great Perhaps.'
Penelope | 29 July 2014


Thanks Gillian, lovely. This article reminded me of W B Yeats' epitaph: "Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by". I saw his grave recently and was very moved. I know the literal meaning of the words, but I'm going to read much more about his poetry (and life) to find the meaning for myself.
Pam | 29 July 2014


Some believe that the 'Countess' was not his wife but a prioress of Lewes who died a hundred years earlier and whose tomb was put alongside and subsequently joined in 19th century during a re-ordering of the Cathedral The two tombs are made of different sandstones, [not marble] But this does not diminish Larkin's word which I would like on my gravestone
ken green | 29 July 2014


What a wonderful article, Gillian! Rather touching about that old ratbag, Philip Larkin, being touched. This is the sort of piece that should feature in a school anthology - if they still have them - to show young people that love is a bit more than the pop songs and TV tell you.
Edward Fido | 30 July 2014


Thanks for this, GB, as fine as I expect from you always. (Sad for Larkin that he was later told the bare hand holding hers was part of a late restoration.)
Max Richards | 30 July 2014


For me, Larkin's words on the Arundel tomb reflect a deep tenderness and compassion for our broken human state. I first recognized this when I read the whole of his poem that begins 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad'. I'd always disliked that first line until I read the rest of the poem, which considers how life had damaged the mums and dads in their turn. A true and difficult insight.
Joan Seymour | 30 July 2014


Thank you. Inspired me to read Larkin's poem in full and also his Aubade, about the fear of death. Both brilliant.
Rosalind | 31 July 2014


I think it's the ideas and ideals the sculptural image embodies, or appears to embody, that matter now.
Jena Woodhouse | 31 July 2014


Greetings Gillian! Lovely piece - the endurance of love - or the hope that it will - into the after-life! I sat up straight when I read Chichester! A cousin (of some distance, mind) lived just a little to the north towards Midhurst - in Heyshott. Betty MURRAY. (Caught in the Web of Words - Yale 1977/later OUP) She was the Principal of Bishop Otter College in Chichester from the latter 1940s/a major figure in the success of the nearby Roman ruin of Fishbourne Palace/and a local environmentalist (South Downs) of some influence. Ian SERRAILLIER (The Silver Sword) and wife Anne lived in Singleton - just south of Heyshott. It's hard to control one's reactions (well, mine, anyway) but for me place and people and history are immediate! It takes the sensitivity of Gillian to bring a focus to the detail - linking those historic figures and the linked hands to the linking of this life and love into the beyond.
Jim KABLE | 01 August 2014


A precious tale and so true - thank you Gillian.
Anne | 04 August 2014


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