The first two lines of “An Arundel Tomb” describe the stone effigies of two figures, an earl and a countess, lying side by side on top of their tomb. Their faces are not distinct, and the formal, dignified clothes in which the sculptor has represented them (“their proper habits”) are shown only vaguely. One figure, the earl, is dressed in armor, which is assembled in pieces and thus shows “joints”; while the countess’ garb is probably some kind of gown that shows “stiffened pleats,” stiffened, that is, because the garment is rendered in stone. At the feet of the earl and countess, some small dogs are represented. The speaker of the poem regards this detail as out of place, almost to the point of absurdity, although he gives no reason for this impression.
At first, the speaker regards the effigies as unremarkable; there appears to be nothing that draws in the spectator’s eye. He implies that in their plainness, the effigies are typical of the pre-baroque era from which they come. (Baroque refers to a more ornamental style of art and architecture that flourished from about 1550 to 1750.) But then the speaker points to a small, interesting detail concerning the earl’s left gauntlet. (A gauntlet is a long glove, used in medieval armor as a defense for hand and wrist.) The earl clutches the gauntlet in his right hand, and the observer notices that the earl’s left hand holds the hand of the countess. This detail surprises the observer and creates a sharp feeling of tenderness in him.
The speaker suggests that the earl and the countess could never have imagined that their stone forms would have endured for so long. They may have believed that the image of faithfulness between them (the hand-holding) was just a small detail that might attract the attention of friends. The next line suggests that the holding of hands may have been merely an added touch by the sculptor who was commissioned to create the effigies. The creation of the intimate detail was just a casual (“thrown off”) addition to his primary task, which was to preserve in Latin the names of the two people around the base of the tomb.
This stanza continues the idea begun in the previous one, about how the earl and the countess could not have imagined what would happen over time concerning their stone effigies. They would not have guessed that in the “voyage” they take through time while lying motionless (“stationary”) on their backs (“supine”), conditions would quickly change. “The air would change to soundless damage,” is somewhat obscure. Perhaps the poet means that the constantly changing air, or atmosphere, would accompany the changes that alter the couple’s memorial from its original context and intent. There may also be a hint of actual physical damage that exposure to the air over the centuries would cause the monument and the cathedral. The next line refers to the social change that would take place: the old feudal society in which the couple lived would vanish. As social conditions altered and generations passed, visitors to the tomb would no longer read the inscriptions at the base of the tomb but would instead look at the two hands clasped together.
This stanza describes the passing of time since the effigies were first made. The figures of the earl and the countess persist, unchanging through all the seasons. The snows of winter come. Then the light of the summer sun fills the stained glass windows of the cathedral in which the tomb is situated, and the cheerful sound of birds singing is heard throughout the cathedral grounds, which include a graveyard (“Bone-riddled ground”). Throughout the centuries, endless visitors to the cathedral have walked up the same paths, each generation different in appearance, clothing, and beliefs and attitudes from the one that preceded it.
The effect of the “endless altered people” as they visit the cathedral over a long period of time is revealed. They erode the original identity of the earl and countess, in the sense that they are no longer understood in the context of the times in which they lived. Instead, the two noble figures now live in an “unarmorial age,” which means they have survived in effigy into modern times, far distant from their feudal society, in which knights wore armor in battle, and a coat of arms depicted nobility. Metaphorically speaking, that age has slowly gone up in smoke, and the smoke still lingers in coils (“skeins”) over what remains from that bygone era. All that is left of that small portion of history—both the age in which the earl and the countess lived and their personal lives—is an “attitude,” by which the poet means the fact that the effigy depicts them holding hands. This detail is all that the modern observer notices.
The passage of time has altered the couple in the effigy into something that does not reflect the truth of their real-life circumstances. The handholding that the speaker believes was of little significance to them has come to be their lasting and final celebration and memorial “blazon” (a coat of arms or shield). The gesture of mutual affection that the modern observer sees, although not of historical significance, does, however, prove that the instinctive human belief about the significance and enduring nature of love is in fact true: what survives humans when they die is the love they express in their lives.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Philip Larkin, Published by Gale Group, 2001.