Does Love Survive Loss?


Photograph by Steve James

by Ron Rosenbaum

Amor vincit omnia,” Love conquers all. Or so Virgil wrote. But does it? Does love survive dissolution of the lovers? And if so, where exactly would it be, where does all that lost love survive?

I was prompted to revisit these ancient questions anew by a long footnote about a single line in the new Complete Poems edition of Philip Larkin’s poetry. The footnote refers to “An Arundel Tomb”—widely regarded as one of Larkin’s finest poems—and contains a provocative remark about that the poem’s celebrated, controversial, closing line, the one about the true nature of immortality:

“What will survive of us is love.”

The line is so uncharacteristic of Larkin, one of the most relentlessly downbeat poets in modern literature, that it’s almost shocking in its apparently uncomplicated affirmation. You can barely believe it. In that footnote I mentioned there are quotes from Larkin suggesting he could barely believe it either.

No offense to the Beatles, but on first reading, Larkin’s line sounds like “And in the end, the love you take/ Is equal to the love you make,” that saccharine reduction of love’s transcendence to algebra.

Thinking about the survival of love in the context of Larkin’s poem, I suddenly felt the parallel with another controversial line, this one from W.H. Auden. A quarter-century or so before Larkin, Auden originally wrote, in the closing line of the penultimate stanza of perhaps his most celebrated poem, “September 1, 1939”:

We must love one another or die.

These two lines—Larkin’s “What will survive of us is love” and Auden’s “We must love one another or die”—may be the most well-known lines of poetry about love written in the past century. But what’s remarkable about them both is that the poets who wrote them agonized over them, were conflicted and critical of their own lines. Both Larkin and Auden eventually tried to distance themselves from their original unmediated utterances.

Indeed that extended footnote in the new Larkin edition eventually led me to rethink it all—Larkin, Auden, love, love poetry—even footnotes. Footnotes? Sometimes with poetry you can know too much about what the poet thinks. After he publishes a poem, it’s not his or hers anymore, you know? Though that doesn’t stop some of the poets—or their loving anthologists—from trying to control how you construe the poems (or at least prevent egregious misconstruals) via scholarly footnotes. But do poets always know the truth of what they’ve wrought?

Auden rethought his line—“We must love one another or die”—almost immediately. Indeed he turned violently against it, tried to ban, or vanish it. Called the poem in which it appeared “trash.” Said he “loathed” it. And yet the line still persists in a limbo of literary erasures that don’t completely efface the original. And now we learn Larkin had doubts about his love-affirming line.

What is going on here? Where is the love for love, guys?

Larkin and Auden are perhaps the two pre-eminent English-language poets of the past century, successors to Eliot and Yeats. For Americans less familiar with Larkin, I’m not going to get into an argument here over the poets’ pre-eminence. Yes, there are American contenders, Lowell, Bishop, Hart Crane. Even Nabokov on the strength of “Pale Fire” alone. But Larkin and Auden are frequently paired as poets without peers. (I know it’s unseemly to talk in these horse-racy terms, but have you noticed the way Larkin appears to have overtaken Auden—and virtually all other moderns—in critical estimation of late?)

Here in America Larkin has previously been most well-known for his famous opening line “They fuck you up/ your mum and dad.” That line and Larkin’s doggerel-like verse about how “Sexual intercourse began in 1963 … / Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ and the Beatles first LP” have given many casual American non-readers of poetry the misleading impression that Larkin was a cheeky writer of light verse. But just one exposure to his “Aubade” or “The Whitsun Weddings,” “The High Window” or the poem with the controversial line about love—“An Arundel Tomb”—will knock you flat with the weightiness of the words, their fierce and sorrowful, yet somehow self-effacing intensity. They make you understand why “Larkinesque”—denoting a devastating yet somehow vibrant, self-revelatory, self-effacing melancholy—has become a kind of household word in households where poetry is still read.

Which is why that one line about love from “An Arundel Tomb” has always stood out, provoked questions. It seemed, in isolation, so un-Larkinesque. Was it an anomalous moment of uplifting affirmation, or was the line, taken out of context, being misread?

The context:

In a graveyard the speaker stumbles on the 14th-century tomb of the Earl of Arundel and his wife. In the age-blurred, partially eroded tomb carving, the Earl is fully dressed in armor from head to toe. Except for one thing: The speaker notes that in the carving the Earl has removed the armed gauntlet from one hand. (Larkin got the hand wrong—on the real tomb, it was the right-handed gauntlet not the left. Thank you, footnote.)

The point is that the mailed glove is off so he can clasp, skin to skin, the hand of his wife, as if they were joined forever by love in their journey to death. Joined, the poet implies, until the ravages of time blur and erase them from recognition as they have already been erased from life. Joined even though the purported loving jointure may be mere stone-carver’s fantasy.

Here is how Larkin puts it in the poem:

“One sees with a sharp tender shock” the handholding gesture. “Sharp tender shock”!—one could write a book about that phrase.

The remaining five verses are devoted to the speaker’s vexed examination of the image and his sharp tender shocked reaction to it. The speaker reflects on the fact that the joined hands were probably the sculptor’s idea, suggesting a faithful love that may be merely “faithfulness in effigy”—an image rather than the lived reality of fidelity. So that finally “only an attitude remains” and “Time has transfigured them into Untruth. …”

And yet in the final lines he says of this attitude:

Their “stone fidelity” has come to prove:

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

I feel a sharp tender shock every time I read that line. It’s one that attained a certain wider degree of attention when Anthony Lane, the witty—and rarely sentimental—New Yorker film critic, cited it in a beautiful essay he wrote in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He related Larkin’s line to the image of the two people who jumped to their death from the burning towers, hand in hand, like the figures on Larkin’s Arundel tomb.

“What will survive of us is love.”

All alone, extracted from the poem, the line has the feel of an unmediated affirmation uncharacteristic of Larkin (or Lane). Let’s face it, it sounds more like Oprah (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Of course, there’s more nuance and depth—and irony—to it when you consider it in context. But before we really dig into Larkin’s unexpected Hallmark moment—and the footnote that complicates our view of it— let me first say a little more about the eerily not-quite-parallel case of W.H. Auden’s famous line about love, because its tormented fate at the author’s own hands may foreshadow—maybe even have caused—what we now know are Larkin’s second thoughts about “what will survive of us is love.”

Auden’s line—and his second thoughts about it—invite questions about what we talk about when we talk about this kind of love. Not just mere perishable personal romantic love, but also the kind of numinous transfigured, impersonal universal love that embraces us all, survives like a holy ghost, survives like smoke from a High-Church censer ascending to heaven from the mortal bodies it inspirited.

Auden’s more famous line about love (and death) refers at first glance to the title date of his poem “September 1, 1939,” the date, of course, of the Nazi invasion of Poland that began the slaughter of the Second World War. It’s the poem that opens:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade …

Later lines from this despairing poem that has given birth to half a dozen book titles such as “The Haunted Wood” and “The Psychopathic God” and several aphorisms that now sound like old saws: “Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.” (This last was Auden’s explanation for Hitler, the “psychopathic god” himself.)

And yet it is a poem whose original version climaxed with the line, “We must love one another or die.”

A line that was also invoked after 9/11, as a consolatory uplift-inspiring sentiment that supposedly turned that tragedy into a “teachable moment.” A line that has even more fatally, gratingly become a greeting card sentiment when detached from its context. Auden, turned on the line ferociously, at first forbidding any republication of “September 1” that contained it—and the entire (penultimate) stanza it concludes.

Auden did allow the line a temporary return from banishment when he grudgingly agreed to include an altered version in a collected works edition. It was a monumental alteration, though. He changed the line from “We must love one another OR die” To “We must love one another AND die.” (Some wit suggested Auden should have changed it to “We must love one another AND/OR die.”)

The result of Auden’s emendation is an entirely different poem.

Version One opens up a romantic vision of hope: If only we could love one other we would not die—at least we would not kill ourselves in wars like the one that had just started when the line was written. And Version One suggests, perhaps, something more: That war or no war, the love in our lives will endow us with a kind of immortality denied those who haven’t loved in such a totalizing way.

Version Two—“We must love one another AND die”—is utterly altered: Immortality of any kind—even the precarious “survival” Larkin will later suggest—is not offered by love. Which does not denigrate, even may elevate love. Love for its own sake, love that can perish and die, love not for some promise of immortality. This is tragic, romantic, existentialist, French cinema love, perishable with our death or the death of our love, but nonetheless, even more valued, despite (or because) of its transience. We must love one another even though we will die, and it will not make a difference—it won’t amount to more than the “hill of beans” in Casablanca to the world of war and peace. Its burning existence and extinction in the moment is all that counts.

You won’t have to worry about opening a greeting card and seeing “We must love one another and die.” Not a Hallmark moment.

But this change still didn’t satisfy Auden, who seems to have genuinely feared for his reputation as a complex and serious poet if “We must love one another or die”—in any version—continued to be his most quoted legacy. And so he kept attacking it whenever he spoke or wrote of it, banning the stanza from publication. (The stanza in which the line occurs is admittedly not his best, concerning itself as it does with the poet speaking truth to power in a self-congratulatory way.)

But there I go, adopting Auden’s retroactive self-loathing of the line, and I’m not sure it was such a crime against poetry. Must we ban from our minds a burst of emotional earnestness from a poet whose frequent acerbic ironies makes it all the more salient? Has self-consciously highbrow culture made such a fetish of complexity, ambiguity, and obscurity as a measure of worth that we condemn or condescend to more simple, heartfelt exclamations? Don’t we feel a “sharp tender shock” at the original line? Is it always more mature and serious for a poet to be riddled by doubt and conflict, rather than to give way to transcendence? Perhaps we should pay attention to these near-ecstatic, almost vatic, outbursts, even if the poets in question are self-conscious about them. One can almost hear them: Oh my god did I write that? Could it be that Larkin was aware of Auden’s discomfort, and that was what led to his own second thoughts?

Even if we do appreciate these earnest, one-line sermons, what do they amount to? Are they inherently vapid, akin to the Beatles’ equation? (For poetic compression, Lennon and McCartney had nothing on Bob Marley, for whom two words were enough: “One love.” Or Bono, for that matter, who used just one word: “One.”) That such lines leave themselves open to mockery is our fault, not theirs. Simplicity is not the same as simplemindedness and can aspire to the sublime.

Larkin grappled with all of these issues, as the annotation to “Arundel” by Archie Burnett, the editor of the new Complete Poems edition, makes clear.

According to Burnett, Larkin wrote on one manuscript, in the midst of his drafts and revisions: “love isn’t stronger than death just because two statues hold hands for six hundred years.”

And then he adds in a separate letter that yes, it “is rather a romantic poem; there’s even less reservation in [it]. I don’t like it much, partly because of this …”

What’s curious here is that the poem doesn’t really say that “love is stronger than death.” Larkin says, “What survives of us is love.” Something entirely different from love conquering all.

Surviving something does not make you stronger than it, or make you its conquerer. Larkin wasn’t entirely skeptical of the poem though. Here he is, quoted later on in the footnote, that same year. “I was very moved by [the clasped hands on the tomb]—that ‘sharp tender shock’—Of course it was years ago. … I think what survives of us is love. …”

What survives of Larkin in regard to this poem is Larkinesque discomfort at the intrusion of sentiment—or what others might construe a sentimentality he was always at pains to disclaim. What survives of Larkin is his tormented ambiguity, so Larkinesque.

What survives of us is the idea that the love that can inspire that “sharp tender shock.” The capacity, the “almost-instinct,” the something that’s there, inherent in living beings, ready to be ignited—the recurrent ability to love—that he’s talking about. I think it’s no accident that these powerfully eloquent sentiments were virtually torn out of the souls and stanzas of these two poets. And no accident that in some ways they became embarrassed by how nakedly they reveal themselves in those lines. And how they had to do everything they could to cover up that nakedness, like the first couple, expelled from the garden. Make themselves and their poems more “mature” and “sophisticated” for a culture that makes a fetish of complication and ambiguity above earnestness as signs of “seriousness.” Larkin put the barbed wire of irony around the ecstatic utterance, Auden altered or erased his.

For shame. (As in “because of shame.”) Which is a shame. Can’t we have both, the complex poems and the consolatory one-line reductions?

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?

I think our two poets believed, but were too shy to say it outright:

Amor vincit omnia.

Piece originally published at Slate. Republished with permission of the author. Cover image by bmeabroad