Richard FitzAlan and Eleanor of Lancaster: Proof of real love carved in stone for all eternity
IT'S only when you see them lying side by side – as they have done for more than 600 years – that the beauty of the words overwhelms you.
It's not that the poem isn't moving in its own right. It's just that you can almost taste the sense of timelessness when you are in their presence.
I stumbled across the medieval couple on an accidental visit to Chichester Cathedral on the south coast of England the other day. There they are, Richard FitzAlan, the 10th Earl of Arundel, and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster. Both dead before the year 1376 was out. The Earl, a military leader, had the sort of life fairly typical of a nobleman at the time. His family fell in and out of favour with the kings of the day, his first marriage was annulled by the Pope on the grounds that he was 15 and she nine at the time, and he helped the English monarchs wage war at various times on the French and the Scots.
According to some, his accumulation of wealth through land under the patronage of the king would have made him worth more than £100bn at today's prices.
But all these facts are an irrelevance to his meaning today. Indeed, they are a hindrance. For this warmongering, land-grabbing nobleman and his wife stand – or should I say lie down – as a symbol of the endurance and mystical power of love.
That they do so is because of the genius of a bald-headed, middle-aged English poet called Philip Larkin, an Olympic-standard curmudgeon who happened to also write as if directly from the gods.
In the early Sixties he, too, came across the couple's tomb in the middle of the cathedral. What Larkin saw was not medieval bling and ostentation, but something much more powerful.
There lie Richard and Eleanor, her right hand in his. Their dogs lie at their feet. For all this time, says Larkin in his poem An Arundel Tomb, the couple were frozen in faithful bondage, for them time stands still while all else changes.
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths of time
Snow fell, undated
Light each summer thronged the grass, he writes.
The poem is printed beside the tomb and, as you gaze up, you see the light from the stained-glass window that illuminates the stone-sculpted couple.
'Snow fell, undated' is but three small words, but so core-shakingly rich in imagery and meaning are they that in an instant the immortality of the couple is assured.
Snow did indeed fall outside that window for hundreds of years at some time, on some date. It did not matter to Richard and Eleanor in their neverending "voyage", as Larkin calls it.
And what of the poem's most famous line, its last? What will survive of us is love, he writes of the couple's unintended message to us. But before that Larkin writes,
The stone finality
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.
Much has been debated about the meaning of these lines. But, as I left the cathedral last weekend and let more "endless altered people" take my place, I wanted to believe that even Larkin realised the battle had been won.
The Earl and his wife are indeed proof that love is endless.
Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph