Better than Ganymede

Tom Paulin

  • Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica edited by Anthony Thwaite
    Faber, 475 pp, £22.50, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 23909 2

Philip Larkin met Monica Jones in 1946 at Leicester University College. She was an assistant lecturer there, and Larkin was an assistant librarian. Both had firsts in English from Oxford. Monica Jones was an able lecturer, but she never published anything and so was never promoted, although she stayed at Leicester until she retired in 1981. They soon took up together, although Larkin had, and would continue to have, other entanglements. Until late in their long and difficult relationship, the pair lived apart, though they shared holidays. Monica eventually moved into Larkin’s house in Hull in 1983, where he looked after her (she was an alcoholic) until his death in December 1985. She hardly left the house after this – according to Anthony Thwaite, who edited this collection – and died in February 2001.

These letters are very different from those collected in the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-85. Those were spirited, eloquent, witty (anyone who met Larkin would have been struck by the marked self-consciousness of his witty manner, which resembled that of a knight of the theatre). The ones here are far less eloquent. Only a few of them were written before Larkin moved to Belfast in the autumn of 1950, to become a librarian at Queen’s University. His first letter from there begins ecstatically – ‘The evening star rises in front of my window!’ – but moves glumly on to describe Belfast as a ‘wide and cobble-streeted town, lined with frowning buildings in the late Victorian manner & some indifferent shops’. He says he’s already fed up with ‘the Irish male face (craggy, drink-flushed, with greasy black curls & a too-tight collar) & the Irish female face (plump, bad-teethed, pinkly powdered, with a diamanté lizard on the lapel)’. But the five years he spent in Belfast inspired more poems than any other period of his life. In ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ he writes that ‘the salt rebuff of speech,/ Insisting so on difference, made me welcome.’ He delighted in

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Here he relishes the Ulster accent, catching the tang of Belfast Lough and the smell of the harbour quays. When I arrived in Belfast in December 1953 the dry, dusty smell of the wooden quays reminded me of stables, too.

There aren’t many descriptive passages in these letters, but those there are often have some connection with the natural world. ‘I know you don’t like birds,’ he writes in June 1953, ‘but the cool shapely twitterings that rise before daybreak remind me of the dewy tents of leaves they are hidden among, the flowers folded in the darkness, the beady eyes glancing about – “sleep all night with open eye” – and the sense of running into a new day, adventurous and triumphant.’ The quotation is from The Canterbury Tales. Immediately he adds: ‘I hope these purple passages don’t embarrass you.’ A couple of years later he writes:

Near home I stopped and watched half a dozen Jersey cows. How lovely they are! like Siamese cats, almost: the patches of white round the eyes and the soft way the coffee-colour melts into the white underbody. They were licking each other affectionately in pairs, on the chest and along the neck. When one stopped the other would begin licking back! The Peaceable Kingdom!

That unexpected, beautiful comparison to Siamese cats could be the beginning of a poem, as the reference to Edward Hicks’s famous primitive painting suggests, but it didn’t happen. He says – it’s 1955 – that his ‘head is full of ideas for poems, these days, but they vanish as soon as I sit down’.

He often asks Monica’s views on his poems and her comments are acute. In a letter from 1954, Larkin says that she has put her ‘paw’ on the ‘flaw in “Church Going”, a lack of strong continuity – it is dangerously like chat, 4th leader stuff’. Larkin is worried that

the most important emotion – the church as a place where people came to be serious, were always serious, & all their different forms of seriousness came to be intermingled, so that a christening reminded of a funeral & a funeral of a wedding: nowadays these things happen in different buildings & the marvellous ‘blent air’ of a church is growing rarer – this emotion I feel does not come out nearly strongly enough. However, I don’t know what can be done about it now.

The word ‘blent’, a slightly archaic form of ‘blended’, fits the high tone of the poem. Larkin is obviously hurt in his next letter when he tells Monica that Kingsley Amis wasn’t interested in the poem, though he was ‘quite polite’ about it (he didn’t like the use of ‘blent’).

In a letter written after hearing ‘Mr Bleaney’, with its complaints about rented rooms (‘Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook/Behind the door, no room for books or bags –/“I’ll take it.”’), on the radio in 1955, Monica tells him it

sounded so very like you – yr catalogue of the room’s shortcomings! Like you & like me – I smiled at the radio as if I were smiling at you as it was read. And I like your poetry better than any that I ever see – 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.

The Less Deceived, Larkin’s first mature collection, which contained ‘Church Going’ and was dedicated to Monica, was published in 1955 by George and Jean Hartley’s Marvell Press, based in Hessle (Larkin usually referred to Hartley as ‘The Ponce of Hessle’). Larkin wrote that he was ‘simply longing to know’ what Monica thought of it. Thwaite reproduces some of her reply: ‘How nice “Church Going” looks! I wish you cd have altered “that much” – it is a blemish on a lovely stanza of a lovely poem – a bit of grit that scrapes every time.’ Thwaite says she ‘disliked the ambiguity of the demonstrative pronoun, in the fourth line of the final stanza’ of the poem. It reads:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete…

I like the way the hard ‘t’ in ‘that’ picks up the ‘t’ in ‘destinies’ and ‘obsolete’, but Monica was complaining about the imprecision of the meaning.

Larkin often tells her what he’s reading, and sometimes talks about his love of Hardy’s poetry or Lawrence’s novels (Lawrence is ‘so enormous, so shifty, so deceptive, fascinating, & evanescent’). He doesn’t discuss his enthusiasms in much detail, disappointingly, and though he writes of his liking for Samuel Butler (like Larkin, an inveterate bachelor) there is no sense of a continuing engagement with any writer. Kingsley Amis is mentioned sometimes, and Larkin’s attitude to him is affectionate and critical; reading the manuscript of Lucky Jim, he comments that Amis has no idea how people talk. In 1957 he writes about his rejection of Yeats, who had influenced him in his youth. He says that Yeats and Hardy now seem like ‘opposites to me, like Disraeli & Gladstone’, and finds Yeats ‘an utterly artificial poet, dealing in make-believe, arid, ultimately stifling. And so dull!’ He then lists Yeats’s faults and Hardy’s virtues, concluding that he looks forward to the collapse of Yeats’s reputation ‘into “utter non being”’. Despite this, he continued to use Yeatsian compound adjectives, like the ‘sun-comprehending glass’ in ‘High Windows’, written in 1967.

Although Thwaite does include a few excerpts from Monica’s letters, it is a pity not to have more of her side of the story. This book makes clear the heavy price she paid for her love for Larkin. From time to time, he shows sympathy: ‘Your life is awfully hard, I do realise – much harder than mine. Lord knows how you manage, doing everything alone & single-handed, but you do it well. I mean you always look nice & don’t breakfast off pilchards-in-tomato or live among Scottie night-dress cases. Is that any consolation?’ His deep but selfish love for her is evident throughout, though he almost never admits to missing her. When Monica’s mother died, Larkin, who had met her only twice, did not go to the funeral. How did she put up with this?

There is a great deal of agonising over their failure to get married, some evidence of Larkin’s worries about his sexual performance, a lot of cutesy talk about rabbits (they were both fond of Beatrix Potter and their endearments tended to be connected with this), and the occasional mention of why he fancied her:

You and your bottom – you never believe me when I say that while there is certainly a point of no return in that quarter, you haven’t anything like reached it. I lay in bed one morning last week remembering one after-breakfast time when you were looking out of my kitchen window, and let me tuck your skirt up round your waist to be admired. You were wearing the black nylon panties with the small hole in! In consequence of this memory I was guilty of what I believe the Confirmation Books called ‘impure thoughts’, and, worse, late for work. Anyway, better than Ganymede, what?

Larkin begins one early discussion about marriage, in September 1951, by saying:

I see what you mean about marrying all other married folk, but that isn’t what puts me off marriage – or at least what lies at the bottom of my frothy denunciations of that state … I find it more puzzling to know what people think they are doing who get married. To me the strain would be the constant lack of solitude, the never-being able-to-relax, not at midnight, or 3 a.m. or any time of day at all. But the single life of course has its demerits. Is it better to die of disintegration or of continual watchfulness?

‘Two Portraits of Sex’, written the previous year, shows Larkin’s antipathy to marriage:

The wet spark comes, the bright blown walls collapse,

But what sad scapes we cannot turn from then:
What ashen hills! what salted, shrunken lakes!
How leaden the ring looks,
Birmingham magic all discredited.

He then uses a favourite image of the lonely tower of perfect bachelorhood:

And how remote that bare and sunscrubbed room,
Intensely far, that padlocked cube of light
We neither define nor prove,
Where you, we dream, obtain no right of entry.

There is more than a hint of selfish sterility in that ‘bare and sunscrubbed room’, its padlocked, denying cube of light.

Generally, though, he doesn’t think his life has much to recommend it:

I spend my days footling in a job I care nothing about, a curate among lady-clerks; I evade all responsibility, familial, professional, emotional, social, not even saving much money or helping my mother. I look around me & I see people getting on, or doing things, or bringing up children – and here I am in a kind of vacuum … This failure of impulse seems to me suspiciously like a failure of sexual impulse: people conceive novels and dash away at them & finish them in the same way as they fall in love & will not be satisfied till they’re married – another point on which I seem to be out of step. There’s something cold & heavy sitting on me somewhere, & until something budges it I am no good.

Monica seems to have felt that his relationship with his mother was one reason for his inability to commit himself to marrying her. He was both exasperated by and deeply fond of his mother, whom he visited regularly after he moved to Hull in 1955, and whom he described, not long before he returned to England, as ‘nervy, cowardly, obsessional, boring, grumbling, irritating, self pitying. It’s no use telling her to alter: you might as well tell a sieve to hold water. On the other hand, she’s kind, timid, unselfish, loving, and upset both by losing her husband rather early & by being seventy (next month) with both her children showing marked reluctance to live with her.’ This was in reply to a 20-side letter Monica had sent warning him against living with his mother. Thwaite gives this excerpt:

Forgive what may be a terrible page to read, but don’t be robbed! don’t be robbed of your soul! I don’t mean by that exactly, simply, don’t live with your Mother; if you could do it without being robbed, that would not count, but can you, can you even live at all without it; can you? I would say, make the effort, do it, but it isn’t a matter of effort. Anyway, forgive me, & say you do please.

Larkin answered:

You seem to suggest that I’ve yet to throw off my mother & grab myself primary emotional interest in a woman my own age. This may well be true – it sounds true – but it’s not a thing one can do by will power. It’s all too difficult for me to write about: I never got the hang of sex, anyway. If it were announced that all sex wd cease as from midnight on 31 December, my way of life wouldn’t change at all. I tremble to think what mafficking most people would throw themselves into! (Of course I don’t welcome this trait in myself!)

Soon afterwards, in January 1955, Monica writes:

You can’t marry just because you think it’s a sort of moral duty & a nasty one, a punishment that you ought to take – my dear! what a motive! you can’t. (One thing that does make me feel we are ‘suited’ is that you can discuss such an idea with me, & that I can hear it without the least offence, & even with understanding – I do see what you mean. But being ‘suited’ & actually wanting to marry is another thing again, too) & indeed I wasn’t even hurt, not a bit, just interested & sympathetic, really. Well, that’s not a valid motive for marrying, but don’t ask me to list what I think are valid motives. Another thing, & a question for you, is this. If you were marrying (forget the motives for the moment) would you rather marry me than anybody else? I don’t mean just the people you possibly could marry – than anybody you’ve seen?

Larkin replies that ‘I would sooner marry you than anyone else I know, and in any case I don’t want to lose you,’ but worries whether it is ‘fair to marry without feeling “quite sure”’. Weddings themselves are unappealing. ‘Really you couldn’t say anything more to my way of feeling than that you don’t like the idea of getting married. I dare say I could go through with it, but the bitter envy & self-reproach that would spring up if I heard of anyone else getting married, say, in the lunch-hour indicates where my sympathies lie.’ He continues: ‘I think what frightens me most about marriage is the passing-a-law-never-to-be-alone-again side of it.’

It’s clear from his letters and poems that Larkin was a particular kind of puritan, who loved his own company. This is apparent in the sequence ‘Livings’, written in 1971, whose second poem is a monologue by a happy lighthouse keeper:

Keep it all off!
By night, snow swerves
(O loose moth world)
Through the stare travelling
Leather-black waters.

His relish for being alone shines through these lines, though the other two poems in the sequence suggest the sterility of bachelor loneliness.

The discussion went on:

I mean, obviously there must be something, or we should long ago have settled things. If we are so similar and get on so well & should like the same things, honestly, then I don’t see what is stopping us. Do you see what I mean, o wise rabbit? It’s not really fair of me to make this ‘parade of extraordinary honesty & frankness’ – I don’t like it myself – I wish I could decide things, fiercely and for good, and say them – instead of this almost-Russian verbiage, concealing I don’t know what, probably nothing but funk.

His main worry continued to be ‘whether I do more than just like you very, very much and find it flattering and easy to stay with you instead of, well, behaving as folks do, rushing after other people who take their fancy’.

Not all the letters are full of anguished discussion, however. Many have a quotidian wash:

My dear bun,
Well on into the Messiah now – Why do the nations – finished the Riesling – splendid old Hanoverian curlywig, patron of The Foundling Hospital (‘he was liberal even when he was poor, and remembered his former friends when he was rich’) who stroked the head of the infant Geo III and said he was ‘a good boy’, and had come to England & London the year St Paul’s was completed, what a – ah! just starting the Hallelujah chorus, & the shade of Geo. II is starting to his feet in my mind – that is the most wonderful thing any king has ever done, don’t you think –

The letter goes on in this vein (perhaps Larkin was drunk when he wrote it). It ends: ‘The sky is clear tonight, & milder, & full of great snapping stars, & I am dizzy with emotion & Riesling – I upset a glass, as Geo. II might have done, at the New Oratorio Compos’d by Mr Handel.’ The arresting image of the ‘great snapping stars’ might be from a poem.

There is also a great deal of complaining about Hull and his job: ‘I felt awful yesterday, dull & feeble & bored. It strikes me I am extremely lonely here. I don’t think I have ever had so few companions anywhere else … I don’t really know anyone here worth cutting a plate of sandwiches for.’ Of course, he goes on, she is equally lonely, ‘if not more so, though you do have “departmental evenings” – I don’t! My life is really desiccated. Without my work – my filthy salaried employment – I am incapable, flat, aimless, pointless.’

In March 1961, Larkin collapsed at a meeting and was taken to hospital. He wrote to Monica that he hadn’t wanted her to stay in his flat while he was in hospital because he had left ‘a few private papers & diaries lying around’. He tells her that they will have to be ‘burned unread’ after his death, and that he couldn’t bear exposing her or anyone else to the ‘embarrassment & no doubt the pain of reading what I had written’. (After Larkin’s death, more than 20 years later, Monica gave his diaries to his former secretary, who shredded them.)

The marriage discussion dragged on. In October 1962 Monica writes that she has accepted ‘without private reservation or grudge, that you don’t like me enough to marry me’, but feels it is ‘rather unkind for you to want to tell me so, & perhaps tell me all the things that are wrong with me’. He replies that he feels ‘terrible about our being 40 & unmarried. I fear we are to turn slowly into living reproaches of the way I have dallied and lingered with you, neither one thing or the other.’ But there was worse to come.

On 22 April 1964 a 20-side letter from Monica crossed with a short one from Larkin. Both followed a ‘traumatic weekend’ in Hull, as Thwaite calls it, where Monica, distressed about Larkin’s affair with his colleague Maeve Brennan, was ‘physically sick’. ‘I can only say again,’ Larkin writes, ‘that I didn’t want to hurt you because I thought it wasn’t “serious” enough, but anyway I am ashamed of it all. Perhaps it was a good thing to bring the affair into the open – I certainly feel closer to you now than I have done for some time.’ It is upsetting to read this letter: it makes Monica appear helpless and degraded.

‘You mustn’t apologise for crying,’ he writes three months later. ‘Cry all you need. It is not right to think you have to spare me the pain of remorse caused by my injuries to you, is it? … I feel “the situation” hanging over our happiness rather.’ Then he adds: ‘But then I wonder if there is “a situation” – do I really want an R.C. wedding with Maeve & “a reception” at somewhere in Hull … Anyway, dear, I wish I were with you now, especially if you are wearing your mauve dress.’ One notices, as Monica must have done, that ‘Maeve’ and ‘mauve’ chime.

Larkin’s involvement with Maeve continued. He would claim that they had decided not to carry on seeing each other, but Monica was (rightly) sceptical: Thwaite describes her angry annotations to one letter. The effect on her is evident: in August 1967 Larkin says she sounded ‘so drunk on the telephone, it makes me wonder how much you’ve been drinking, knowing how you can outdrink me … I feel: “He drove her to drink.”’ Still, the relationship continued, although there are fewer letters from this period, and hardly any at all after 1972, when Larkin’s mother went into a nursing home in Leicester, enabling him to see Monica more often.

As Thwaite notes in his introduction, the two lovers ‘fed each other’s misery’. That misery, and the spoken intimacy of their style, makes reading these letters feel unusually voyeuristic. Larkin seems to be in control of the relationship; Monica is supportive, sensitive, demanding, and at times helpless. But for all Larkin’s antipathy to marriage, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ tells a different story. In a letter to Monica in 1955 he had described a train journey: ‘1.30 to Grantham – a lovely run, the scorched land misty with heat, like a kind of bloom of heat – and at every station, Goole, Doncaster, Retford, Newark, importunate wedding parties, gawky & vociferous, seeing off couples to London.’ ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ ends with the train’s arrival in London:

… and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Drawing on the arrow shower in Olivier’s film of Henry V, Larkin communicates both disappointment – the ‘sense of falling’ – and a swelling sense of fertility and alert purpose, with more than a hint of tears. Nothing in these letters shows this feeling, and that is what is so mysterious about them. Larkin, for all his anguished honesty, is an enigma.