Is Love Stronger Than Death?

Pictured  is the 14th-century tomb effigy in Chichester Cathedral that inspired Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb.” It is the tomb of Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel (1306-1376), and his wife, Eleanor of Lancaster, Countess of Arundel (1311- 1372) (Notice how Richard’s glove has been removed so he can grasp the flesh of Eleanor’s hand.)

ArundelTomb1

The poem ends with these evocative lines:

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.

Philip Larkin is generally considered one of the greatest English-language poets of the last century. However this last line above is uncharacteristic of Larkin’s typically downbeat poetry. Consider its contrast with this stanza from one of his poems about death:

This is a special way of being afraid No trick dispels. Religion used to try, That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade Created to pretend we never die, And specious stuff that says No rational being Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anesthetic from which none come round.

Against this backdrop, what does the line “What will survive us is love” mean? Larkin may be implying that the lovers are joined in death as they were in life, at least until the ravages of time finally erase their stone figures. Maybe the joined hands were the sculptor’s idea and do not reflect a real love at all–perhaps that is the meaning of the line “transfigured them into untruth.” Larkin himself said the tomb deeply affected him, but he also scribbled at the bottom of one draft: “love isn’t stronger than death just because two statues hold hands for six hundred years.” Yet the poem doesn’t say that “love is stronger than death.” It says love survives us, and to survive something doesn’t make you stronger than it.

Still survival is a partial victory. But what might survive? Perhaps it is the enduring belief that love is remarkable, that its appearance in a world of anger and cruelty is so astonishing. Or perhaps it is that traces of our love reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that may one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us. Maybe love doesn’t disappear into nothingness after all, maybe love is stronger than death.

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John G. Messerly, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at reasonandmeaning.com

3 Comments

  1. it is literally true we have babies and they survive us

    • So do other people’s babies, survive you – a proportion of whom will be “accidents”, but who survive just as well. Until these babies, too, die. And almost all, in their lifetime would have regarded themselves as people in themselves – and not as the survival of someone dead. Are you suggesting that you are not a person in your own right, but instead that you are really your dead father() or mother() or both() – surviving?

  2. An interesting point. For many years I have studied acaual in formational patterns – the best known being “EVP”. And whilst the Spiritualism paradigm is a failed hope, the survival of an intelligence is demonstrable and replicable in physical terms. Furthermore thie connection seems to be best acquired through strong affection. These are just lab rsults, which will meet with inevitable disfavour.

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