Precarious idyll: Philip and Monica holiday on the Isle of Sark in the summer of 1960
The publication of a selection of Philip Larkin's letters in 1992 provoked a memorable spasm of academic sanctimoniousness. What the letters revealed in Larkin's private life — womanising, racism, class hatred, habitual recourse to pornography — was seized as an opportunity to belittle the poetry. Lisa Jardine deplored Larkin's verse as ill-suited to the "diversity and richness of contemporary multi-racial Britain", and Tom Paulin, reviewing the letters in the TLS, reviled them as a "distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became." What Clive James called "a rush of dunces" followed. No matter that many of these camp followers had, in the past, asserted the impossibility of writing possessing meaning, while at the same time proclaiming the death of the author. If a sufficiently sordid meaning could be come by, then it would serve as a stick with which to beat an author raised from the dead for the sole purpose of being once again killed.
Letters to Monica, a generous selection of Larkin's correspondence with his lover and companion Monica Jones, recently released in paperback (Faber & Faber, £12.99), offers more for the sanctimonious to purse their lips over. For instance, take this rueful passage from a letter of 1965, in which Larkin touches on his problems with women:
Not telling you of the affair in the first place, or of its wan latter recrudescences, was just infantile precaution — I didn't want to hurt you, & I didn't want to give it up. I had in consequence more trouble with Maeve [Brennan], who had to accept my departures & your arrivals, & our holidays — usually she did so resignedly, but she occasionally told me off. You can see what a dislikable & discreditable position it was. It could only have been accepted by someone as weak & selfish as myself.
Even when being self-unsparing about his weakness and selfishness, Larkin is unwilling to write carelessly. "Truly" (he had written to Monica 14 years beforehand) "I have no theories about poetry at all, but I do think that most fascinating effects are got by playing off the rhythm and language of speech against the rhythm and language of poetry." That phrasing refuses to decide between saying that the majority of poetic fascination is achieved by this route, or rather that this route leads to the (rare) pinnacles of poetic fascination. But either way, that principle of playing the Parnassian off against the demotic is at work in a slightly diffuse way in that quoted passage, where it gives shape to Larkin's confused and contradictory purposes (apology, explanation, exculpation, confession, self-chastisement). The Hardyesque poeticism of "wan latter recrudescences" sets off and recommends the plainness of "I didn't want to hurt you, & I didn't want to give it up". The adult word "infantile" sets up the moment a few lines later, when Larkin indeed metaphorically occupies the position of the child, and is "told...off" by Maeve.
So much the worse, Larkin's enemies might say. Not only does Larkin behave badly. When he's caught out he uses his literary gifts to throw a consolatory film of aesthetic propriety over what was in fact nothing more than a shabby betrayal. What such a riposte would miss, however, is also the main revelation of this corpus of letters, namely that literature and literariness were, for Larkin and Monica, the ground and medium of their exceptional intimacy.
The poetic shaping of Larkin's explanation of his affair with Maeve Brennan is not meretricious gilding, but rather an evocation of, and an implicit appeal to, what had been most vital in their own relationship. Sex was probably not the best thing they shared. "I never got the hang of sex," Larkin reflected as early as 1954, writing as if at 32 sex were already only a memory for him. Four years later he would write, again apologetically:
I'm sorry that our lovemaking fizzled out in Devon, as you rightly noticed. I felt so tired each night through the relaxing air &, I suppose, being on holiday that the grasshopper became a burden very easily. And of course, qualify it how I may, I am not a highly-sexed person...
Bed was not where their pulse beat fastest. It was in poetry — writing it, reading it, sharing it, discussing it — that Larkin and Monica found real intimacy.
These letters abound with swift, precise sentences of summary criticism. Larkin's love of Hardy was deep, and interwoven with his sense of his own poethood: "I shan't believe I am insensitive to poetry as long as Hardy can make me tingle all over like a man menaced by a revenant." But he didn't just respond to Hardy's poetry intensely. He also thought very clearly about why Hardy had this effect on him:
I think you're right about T. H. when you say he isn't a beginners' poet. I think one has to attend closely to what he's saying, because he's very accurate and often his "awkwardness" comes from choosing a particular word...
This is a sharp and true insight about Hardy's diction, but it is no mere matter of academic interest for Larkin. Phrases from Hardy's poetry are repeatedly embroidered into these letters. Irritated by his living quarters, Larkin expostulates: "Oh hell. ‘Let us off & search, & find a place Where yours & mine can be natural lives...'" —the first lines of Hardy's "The Recalcitrants". Or again, after going on holiday with Monica in 1955:
The last afternoon was glorious...I regret my ineptness but I am always feeling we should be — well, what? I don't know: I want to bring us closer together without self-deception ("not wont to wear Life's flushest feather"-remember that poem?)...
—"that poem" being Hardy's "Between Us Now". However, Hardy's poetry supplied more than the language of Larkin and Monica's correspondence. Their very relationship assumed the colour and tone of a Hardy poem.
Larkin explained to Monica why he did not warm to the poetry of Ezra Pound: "Nobody criticises E.P. for being literary, wch to me is the foundation of his feebleness, thinking that poetry is made out of poetry & not out of being alive." It was certainly not Larkin's way to make poems out of earlier poems, but it would be a mistake to conclude from this that Larkin's life was not itself saturated in poetry, and to some extent lived through poetry. Poetry was not simply an activity or (more loftily) a calling for Larkin; poetic language was the element through which his thoughts and feelings moved. "My mind seems full of Eng Lit today: do forgive me," he wrote in 1972. That fullness leaves its mark on the letters, where fragments, echoes and whispers of English poetry cascade and combine. The effects can be quietly dazzling:
Read Macbeth today: good. I do long to make a film of it. But I still read very carelessly, without taking things in. I really ought to screw myself up to finishing Jude, but I honestly shrink from it.
Not so carelessly, perhaps; and not without taking in at least some things. Lady Macbeth's fervent encouragement of her husband, "But screw your courage to the sticking-place/And we'll not fail" hovers behind the wording of Larkin's reluctant attempt to summon up the energy to finish Jude the Obscure, which it seems Monica has recommended to him (eight days earlier he wrote: "I have almost given up Jude; really it's too much: I have accompanied them to Christminster, but really, I just don't want to look, like at a street accident. I expect you are right about Sue..."
The longing to film Macbeth dwindles here to a momentary casting of himself and Monica in the roles of the hero and his wife. It is an affectionately deflating touch that nevertheless captures one aspect of their dealings with each other. Hearing "Mr Bleaney" on the radio in 1955, Monica had poured out her enthusiasm, and her ambition for Larkin, on paper:
Oh, I am sure that you are the one of this generation! I am sure you will make yr name! yr mark, do I mean — really be a real poet, I feel more sure of it than ever before, it is you who are the one, I do think so. Oh, Philip — I don't know what to say! You will believe me because you know it doesn't make any difference to me whether you are or not, I shouldn't think any less of your value if yr poems seemed to me bad & if everybody said so; and because I've never said to you this is magnificent, this is greatness triumphant, in yr hands the thing becomes a trumpet.
It is easy to see how, as the recipient of such praise, one might feel a little Macbeth — like — that is to say, at once galvanised, appalled and terrified.
Speaking about the preservation of contemporary manuscripts in his capacity as a university librarian, Larkin said that "unpublished work, unfinished work, even notes towards unwritten work, all contribute to our knowledge of a writer's intentions".
Some of the most valuable moments in the letters to Monica come when Larkin entrusts her with an early version of a poem that would later be published in a different form. So, for instance, in 1967 Larkin celebrated Hardy's birthday by sending Monica a draft of "The Trees" in which stanzas two and three are very different from the published version, accompanied by the frank evaluation: "First verse all right, the rest crap, especially the last line." Writing to Monica served Larkin as a crucible in which his poetry could be refined and purified. It was also a seedbed in which hints for poems might be planted for later germination. A particularly bleak letter of 1963 reads:
Home & got drunk, or half drunk, alone in the flat...I still feel pretty depressed, I must say. Every now & then I open the little trap door in my head & look in to see if the hideous roaring panic & misery has died down. It hasn't, & I don't see why it should.
Do we not see here the first shoot of Larkin's late masterpiece about the panic and misery in his head, "Aubade", which begins "I work all day, and get half drunk at night", and where the simple accuracy of the phrase in the letter, "half drunk", has been charged with poetic energy through the careful contrast with "all day"?
Letters to Monica testifies to the depth and seriousness of Larkin's poethood, and at the same time to the depth and seriousness of his relationship with a strong, passionate woman he admired as a simple dignified person, "nobody's sucker, an enigma". It makes no sense to imagine him doing anything with his life other than spending it in poetry.
However, in 1955 Larkin had allowed his imagination to toy with the pleasures of a different career:
I lay in bed listening to the omnibus — how dull it is! Wish I could have the writing of it for a week — Carol Grey wd seduce Christine, who wd turn into a prostitute in an effort to atone for the lapse, Jack Archer wd be run in for watering the beer, W. Gabriel wd be gored to death by a bull, T. Forrest would be caught in one of his traps all night, Dr Cavendish would appear in the N of the W as running a highclass brothel-cum-abortion clinic — the possibilities are endless. Don't you think?
What a loss to the BBC; and how different the nation's Sunday mornings might have been.