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

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