Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Philip Larkin – Letters to Monica (1947-1950)

Easter Sunday [6 April], 1947
Warwick

My dear Monica,
I am busy proving the falsity of the dictum that to a well-stocked mind the word dullness has no meaning — it has a great deal of meaning for me: I might almost say the meaning of meaning. I hope this is not so with you. I hope you are doing whatever you like best, a lot.

4 April 1948
73 Coten End, Warwick

My dear Monica,
Throughout this troubled holiday I’ve been wondering how you are — whether when you arrived home you managed to recuperate. I do hope so, although I suppose it is simply a case of being fattened for the slaughter, or the arena, once again, isn’t it? Why don’t people all dislike work as I do? Am I wrong or are they? Is it natural to like work? Then this is another of the numerous cases of what is natural being confused with what is good.

23 July 1950*
12 Dixon Drive, Leicester

My dear Monica,
I have just been weighing my new Journal: it weighs 2 lbs 2 oz. The first little record of my schooldays weighed 3 ½ oz: how monstrously the ego has flowered since! Before I start it I am going to have My life and hard times stamped on the back. In gold.

(*L.’s letter dated 23 July 1950 is the first (apart from one dated 7 January) to survive from that year.
L. is replying to a letter of Monica’s, dated 19 July, which evidently refers both to a recent meeting and a recent letter of L.’s, the first of which ‘upset’ Monica. She comments:
‘It would be ridiculous for four years’ perfect friendship — it was perfect to me anyway — to be upset by an hour’s stupid folly, for that’s what it was, I was exhausted & miserable & overwrought, it was hysteria [...] You, as a man, will be aware of the valuable & well known & utterly consoling truth that All Women Are Unreasonable (so it doesn’t matter how they act or what they say, you need never pay any attention). Well, I claim my sex’s privilege. So do stop beating yourself, tho’ I’m sure you take a perverse pleasure in it, but goodness, I really should be upset if I thought we were going to be made melodramatic [...] I value you very much. In fact I believe I like you better than anybody I've ever met...’)
1 October 1950
...How nasty my writing looks.
Well, I’m afraid you won’t have had the distraction of novelty to take your mind off our parting. This will be meeting you on your return & I hope it will take the edge off seeing your old colleagues again: I hope too your room doesn’t look sad be lonely now my lethargic cadging figure isn’t in it. Truly I shall always remember the fireplace & the cricket-bin & all the battery of things on the mantelpiece, Fifi & blue Neddy & the flowered lamp. Your life there has come into extremely sharp focus for me now: heating milk, singing in the kitchen, drying stockings, etc. You make it seem quite unusual and fascinating. (‘Huh’ — ‘at the whiskey again'). I loved every time I visited you, & do want to thank you again & again for being so kind, so gracious be so generous. All three of you.
10 October 1950
[…] I'm sorry my thanks went down the wrong way: truly I meant no harm. I was only trying to say that I didn’t take you for granted. Of course I can see dozens of ways in which thanking would sound nasty. But you must remember that there’s absolutely nothing of the confident male about me: it’d be better perhaps if there were.

And the Yeats was only obvious because I’d heard you say you wanted one an evening or so before. I had a great love of him when I was 21-22 which has since waned considerably. Now I can’t stand the fervent unreal atmosphere of all his moods, his wild-old-man stuff, his arrogance — he is the very antithesis of D.H.L. & Hardy. However, he can write. I haven’t got the full edition: mine stops at 'A woman young & old'. I don’t think you’d find in him any of the perçant quality you talk about. He is all much too unreal. For me that emotion is always connected with the past, and usually with love: and the person who whispers most immediately past my guard is the great dealer in those two things, Hardy. 'Not a line of her writing have I, not a thread of her hair, If it’s ever Spring again, Spring again’: at these first lines my spine contracts & a shiver runs over my ribs. And as another random example I do quite see what K.M. means with 'Le temps des lilas et le temps des roses', & the clear voice, in her 'Journal'*, don’t you? [...]

(*Le temps des lilas, by Maurice Bouchor (1855-1929); Katherine Mansfield, Journal, 29 February 1920.)

14 October 1950
The weather was clouded windy & cold, & Carrickfergus reminded me of what I imagine 'Scotland' to look like - stone ugly houses, hideous churches & chapels, & an air of moral unbending discomfort everywhere. So I ducked into a cafe with a coal fire & asked for egg & chips — ‘Naw eggs’ — & sat reading your letter through again. When I’d finished the sun was out, & I felt inclined to return home though I had thought of staying the evening, having dinner at the one hotel, & reading 'Wuthering Heights'. But the ill-concealed 'dullness' of that, coupled with the prospect of riding home in the dark, decided me against staying & I pedalled back against the strong wind. This gave me time to look at the view which before you get near Belfast is good: the Lough is wide and choppy, the hills on the landward side green & with sudden smoke-coloured shadows.
The sky was full of changeable sunlit clouds as it nearly always is: if England is a brewer’s advert, Ireland is a railway poster. At Whiteabbey I thought of Trollope, who wrote his autobiography there, & just before Whitehouse (yes, it's really called that) I found a 'peacock', yes, a live one, standing on the margin of the road, looking a bit disgusted with the 20th century. Where it had come from I can’t think. Belfast greeting me with its fearful cobbled streets, making me realise how saddlesore I was: in all I’d done about 25 miles.
…A nice outing, though rather a lonely one.

If you’re still feeling fed up with your life, I sympathise & can say I shd feel just the same. Let us admit quite freely that any sort of enthusiasm for salaried employment is quite foreign to both of us. Before very long I can see that I shall be giving a paper to the Northern Irish branch of the ALA — at least, I can’t 'see' it, it’s just not visualisable. But you know the kind of thing. Salaried employment is the norm, the 'status quo': now I have always felt quite out of touch with the norm & the 'status quo'. The idea of entering into it & being successful in it & 'caring' about it — fantastic.

21 October 1950
Dear White-and-gold,
[...]
I don’t know the poem you quoted either: what is it? Mine about Mrs P. was from Auden’s 'Dover'. I read his collected shorter poems recently. Not expecting to be impressed, I was impressed: by the liveliness and the variety. How clever these people are. I also happened on a poem called 'Dublin' by MacNeice & that also depressed me by its extraordinary talent. Despite all we say about them, Auden & MacNeice have 'talent' whereas the tiny fish have not. Poetry is like everything else: if you’re not 2/3rds of the way there already, it’s not worth starting.
Regarding literature, I was interested by your D.H.L. remarks: any judgments on him are to me like a stick incautiously poked into the cage of a tiger: I bound to savage it. Yet in these days I grow more & more unwilling to try to say anything about D.H.L.: he is so enormous, so shifty, so deceptive, fascinating, & evanescent — also I get the odd feeling that I am 'inside' him, staggering helplessly from aspect to aspect, & quite unable to see him as a whole. Or objectively. He has always meant so much more to me than any other writer. I have adopted his conclusions so uncritically, that half the time I have been living in a sort of interchanging dream, where I am him & he is me. There are times when I belittle him & really get him down, then find what I am shaking so furiously is a little stuffed.
[…]
However! rereading all this makes me think it sounds like the outpourings of some Swedish girl you have had over for the summer, & who has just discovered ‘Daysh Lawnce’. If I might add a word about your remarks, I think Lawrence was a complete egoist in the sense that he felt how beautiful life could be 'if he had his way'. He’d never make the compromise required to settle in society. After all, we agree ourselves that work is quite boring & people quite tasteless, but I at any rate haven’t the courage or the energy to do anything about it. You can get away from the Acacias & the office if you have sufficient wits to earn money otherwise & sufficient resilience to do without the balms of familiarity & custom & the benefits of the herd. D.H.L. had both & I admire him enormously for it. Abroad he was not happy (don’t forget his health kept him out of England) but he was at least Lawrence. At home - well, I don’t know what he wd have been. I just can’t imagine. For the rest, he was painfully ingenuous about this leading business, almost totally dependent on Frieda (which doesn’t surprise me, since the greater yr capacity for loving the greater yr dependence on the object of love), and condemned to second rate people since first rate ones wouldn’t abrogate their personalities to him as everyone had to do. As — finally — for ambition, he was ambitious in a conventional way when a young man: (‘I s’ll make a thousand a year!’) & also snobbish (‘My wife’s father was a Baron’): later on he wanted to use the powers he felt he possessed for the benefit of mankind: but having been kicked in the teeth several times I think he gave up any idea of self advancement, & only wanted to be let alone & to leave Frieda enough to live on when he died.

26 October 1950
Bought “Mrs Dalloway” on Wed. I have been reading it since — ‘You write so well, Virginia, so damned well’: who said that? K.M. — well, yes, but there is much wooden & dead in V.W. Any ‘real people’, any ‘psychology’ comes off very badly. She spins her vision of life, & does it well. But she has not the depth of that KM story about the canary or Ma Parker, or ‘The Daughters of the late Colonel’. The difference between V.W. and K.M. is the difference between E.M.F. and D.H.L.
It is discouraging to reflect on KM’s experience & apprehension of pain & suffering & to reflect how little she has become ‘known’ by it — I mean to say ‘Mansfield!’ suddenly brings to the mind’s eye a bright Russian-doll-childish person, not the lonely Shakespeare-annotating invalid of the ‘Letters’. You — or rather the ‘Sunday Times’ — would never call her a mistress of the human heart, so little did all she ‘went through’ express itself in full. Do you see what I mean by all this? I feel there is small hope for less gifted ones.

28 October 1950
[...] Regarding poems, the fundamental reason I am shy of sending them is that they’re not very good. If I were sure of a generous ration of congratulations from you I’d send them like a shot, but — well — They’re not all like “At grass”, you know. In fact only “At grass” is like “At grass”. The others are far more modern & less polished. For all my nightly labours under my lamp looking out over the tramlines I have only done one since arriving.

1 November 1950
They tell me Shaw is dead — I never see a paper, except the “Belfast News Letter” (‘Ulster Protestants Telegraph Rome — Pope Warned’). If I had a black tie I’d wear it: he has given me much pleasure at odd times. A world without Shaw seems definitely a postwar one, doesn’t it? He has been there, & nearly the same age, ever since I can remember. I always meant to see him, too, by some means, but now he’s gone & I haven’t done. Ah, well. [...]
5 November 1950
[...] Very little has been done today. I spent this morning writing home, a job that becomes extremely difficult sometimes. In fact I expect it lies at the bottom of the day’s unsatisfactoriness. My mother’s patient attempts to find someone to live with so that she need not bother either of us make me very uncomfortable. When I lived with her I was consumed with desire to get away - it seemed a prime necessity, like breathing – but now I am away it seems very shabby & callous of both of us that she shd have to be bothering her head about advertisements and pretending to like people when really the ordeal of setting up house with a complete stranger will be as miserable to her as to me. I long to tell her to stop troubling & bring everything over here, but I know that it would be final self-destruction as far as I was concerned. It seems to me insulting to do anything else, as well as selfish and ungrateful, and it’s no use not helping people when they need help on the grounds that someday it’ll be possible to help them enjoyably...
[…] Well, that’s enough about that particular aspect of my affairs: it will all boil up again at Christmas, as you can well imagine. I quite dread it: selfish again. О flames! Forgive me for bothering you about it.
[…]
I’m so glad you like Barnes, & you are certainly welcome. I dislike telling people my likings too, but if anyone really agrees then my pleasure may even increase. He is a strange writer, undistinguished for many pages and then suddenly becoming not only ‘good’ but ‘subtle’: don’t you think that of say ‘The wind at the door’ (I don’t mean the rhymes)?
[…]
I’m glad too that your work is more under control now: I grinned at ‘the usual half-interest in it has returned’. How well I know it. [...]

20 November 1950*
О dear! I do seem to have created a bad impression lately: I’m awfully sorry about ‘hostility’ — [sketch of war mask] — it’s quite unintentional & must spring from being a bit rushed & my natural sub-sarcastic way of talking sounding much nastier when written down.

(*The poems L. sent Monica on 20 November were ‘Wedding-Wind’, ‘Spring’, ‘Wires’, ‘Coming’ (‘On longer evenings ...’), ‘Modesties’ (‘Words as plain as hen-birds’ wings’), and ‘The Dedicated’.
She commented (21 November):
I like best "Wedding-wind" & "Spring", & I don’t like the Wild West one at all — it’s all right, but I don’t like it at all... "Wedding-wind" I like extremely, it’s a lovely title, breathing Hardy & Housman; and, marvellously, breathing a genuine rusticity - that’s a horrid word for it - a real countrified air, like you was bred & born in it. Stables, horses & chicken-pail anyone could do; but candlelight, floods, the girl’s apron — these are the real close intimate touches [...])

25 November 1950
[…] How often in life is one offered one’s desire, on conditions rendering acceptance impossible!

[…] The two English lecturers are Braidwood & Monaghan. Both are men, 30-40, Braidwood a pipe-smoking, garden-digging, kiddy-loving moustached Scot: Monaghan a redfaced, owl-eyed, entirely humourless & graceless Irishman.

[…] Wednesday morning. Sunlight pours in: I present to it a sullen face. My dear boys [neighbours] didn’t go to bed till 2 last night: it really isn’t their fault: they made no serious noise after about 12.45, but once the train of insomnia has been lighted in me, there it is.
Two docile negroes, in bed sharp at midnight - that’s my ideal... (following yr practice of annotation I may remind my future editor that I’m talking about the ideal occupants of the room above).

…I obtained & read Oscar Wilde & the Black Douglas [(1949) by the Marquess of Queensberry] recently.
And all this about Oscar’s ‘horror of coarseness’ etc. merely irritates me as a sort of hypocrisy. Actions are coarser than words. However, I can’t see that he had anything to grumble about: he had a jolly good time, & anyone who chooses to bring a libel action against a speaker of widely-known & easily-verifiable truth is sticking his neck out so far that he might well be taken for a giraffe, though what one would take a giraffe for I do not know. One remark I noticed: ‘He (Lord A.) apparently goes to the races every day, and loses, of course. As I wrote to Maurice to say, he has a faculty of spotting the loser, which, considering that he knows nothing at all about horses, is perfectly astounding.’ It’s hard to grumble at the source of such as that.

[…] Thursday night. Instead of having supper tonight I went alone through driving rain to see 'Gone to earth' [film version of novel by Mary Webb, 1917], then ate out, then called on the Warden for tea & ‘good talk’. I have now recovered from the yearning discontent aroused in me by this as by nearly all films: my mind is a pool: if stirred, it grows muddy. That is to say, if the frosted artificially-sealed bivalve behaviour of my life is fissured, disquieting fumes of emotion rise through the cracks. I get a faint idea of what I suppose other people are feeling all the time: also I have a sense of looking down into the struts of things, seeing the pretty-nearly-objective truths about things like family life, death, having children, & all the appalling veracities I try for the most part to exclude from my daily life.
[about film 'Gone to earth']... then sensing ‘the death pack’ & running home: a quick impressionist sequence of little animals seeking shelter & some brutal destruction riding out at large: striking the correct note, which wasn’t sustained, of the cruelty of the world as symbolised by the foxhunt.

[…] No final decision yet, of course, but straws show which way the wind is blowing.
26 November 1950
Saki says that youth is like hors d’oeuvres: you are so busy thinking of the next courses you don’t notice it. When you’ve had them, you wish you’d had more hors d’oeuvres.

28 December 1950
I was safe with Ratty & Toad & all the rest of them — animals all, as you quoted so very aptly.
[…] And for my part I always find home depressing, not for its fault entirely, but entering it is to leave the harmless universe of make believe I inhabit & encounter the real world where children are reared & are a nuisance but will be alive after you are dead, & where people grow old & have to be looked after not because you like them but because they are breaking up, & where style in words & behaviour counts for nothing at all. But what I dislike about my bunch is that they are PHYSIOLOGICALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY INCAPABLE OF ENJOYING THEMSELVES. They have nothing nearly so wrong about them as you say yr Mother has, yet they go about thrashing themselves into deeper ecstasies of misery till I want to shake them till their teeth chatter.

Philip Larkin – Letters to Monica

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