The theme of love is first hinted at in the last two lines of the second stanza, in which it is revealed that the earl and his wife are depicted as holding hands. This detail is celebrated twice: the reference to the “sharp, tender shock” that the speaker feels when he first notices it, and the “sweet commissioned grace” that prompted the sculptor (so the poet supposes) to have included it. Both phrases point to the charming quality that the hand-in-hand indication of love possesses.
As the poem progresses, the theme of love develops a much stronger meaning. It transpires that it is the attitude of love in which the two figures are placed that has lasted through the ages. No visitor today can imagine what the reality of living in the “armorial age” might have been like; so many hundreds of years have passed that it is impossible to recapture the historical circumstances or the individuality of the man and woman depicted in the effigy. What catches the modern eye are not the names in Latin at the base of the tomb, which is what would have been important to the medieval mind, but the tender gesture of affection that is universal in its significance.
The poet embodies two ironies in this theme of love. First, the tender gesture that gives the monument its lasting significance is not what its subjects would most have valued, and in this sense “Time has transfigured them into / Untruth.” But the truth they now seem to embody is perhaps more deeply true than anything they could have said about themselves.
The second irony is that the poet undercuts his final observation, “What will survive of us is love,” by stating in the previous line that this instinctual belief about love that humans seem to possess may itself be only “almost true.” The poet cannot commit himself unequivocally to this vision of the transcendence of love.
And his final hesitation gives a rich ambiguity to two earlier lines, “The earl and countess lie in stone” and “They would not think to lie so long,” since “to lie” may also mean “to deceive.” Therefore, both lines can now be seen to express deception, referring either to the fact that the couple did not intend the affectionate gesture to be their lasting memorial, or that the poet’s qualified affirmation that what will survive is love is in fact untrue.
Time and the sense of history permeate the poem from the beginning. The subject itself is a sculpture that is nearly five hundred years old; the stone effigy with “jointed armor” suggests a world far removed from the present. Stanzas five to seven, in particular, describe the passage of time and its effects. The fact that time moves in eternal cycles, as well as a linear progression, is made clear in stanza five. Snow falls in winter, “undated,” which means it recurs eternally and has nothing to do with the progression of human history. Then, in another season, summer’s light shines on the windows of the cathedral, and the chattering of birds is heard. Set against these eternally recurring cycles of the seasons is the linear march of human generations, as suggested by the “bone-riddled” graveyard and the “endless altered people” who over the course of hundreds of years have tramped up the paths to worship in the cathedral or simply visit as tourists.
It is time that erodes the historical identity of the earl and his wife, leaving their effigy “helpless” in the midst of an age so unlike their own. Time has made “scrap” out of their “portion of history.” The word scrap also suggests that their historical moment was small and perhaps insignificant—a scrap—when compared to the vast stretch of recorded, or unrecorded, time.
The final stanza reveals that the theme of time is intimately bound up with the theme of love. Time strips away many things, but the poem suggests (if the poet’s qualification in the next to the last line is not given undue weight) that what is lost, such as details of historical time and place, is nonessential. The essential quality that the passage of time reveals is love; in fact, time is necessary for this most enduring of all qualities to fully reveal its power.
The poem is also a tribute to the power of art. It is entirely due to the work of the sculptor that the love gesture of the earl and the countess can speak across the ages. It is art that can preserve not only the figures of the past but also the vitality of tender human emotions. It is the skill of the sculptor, rather than any action of a god, that immortalizes the earl and his wife. And perhaps most importantly, art has the power not only to represent a historical moment or historical figure in a realistic manner, but also to shape them imaginatively. In this case, the sculptor of the Arundel tomb has succeeded in creating a form that embodies what humans most desire—the immortality of love—even though that goal may be unattainable in real life.
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.