Saturday, August 11, 2018

Nothing will be good enough to look back on/ Philip Larkin to Monica (1956)

11 January 1956
200 Hallgate, Cottingham, E. Yorks
Dearest bun & only,
[…] I’m trying to write a poem on something we saw in Chichester. Can you guess what? [...] [It was in Chichester a little later that L. and Monica saw the ‘Arundel tomb’ - see Dec. 1955]

As regards Kingsley’s life, well, I’d certainly like to work 3 days a week six months a year, & THE REST NOTHING. He & Hilly struck me as a pair of DIRTY RICH CHILDREN - they have no worries, they REFUSE TO SUFFER; no jealousies - Hilly tells me how Kingsley was ‘t’rrifically necking old Miggy’ (i.e. Margaret, her sister) on New Year’s Eve, and so on & so forth - not enviable, but I envy him his lazy life & his absolute refusal to do or worry about anything ‘nasty’. No wonder he can write. A pity he didn’t marry a virago, but then he never wd, he’s far too clearsighted, though he couldn’t have foreseen the money. Well, this is stupid jealous talk. [...]

26 January 1956
200 Hallgate, Cottingham, East Yorks
[…] What I’d really like is the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry!

[…] How time goes. I laid down my pen at 9 & picked up my pencil*: now it’s 11. I’ve added 6 1/2 lines**, but only 4 are ‘firm’. It’s nice & quiet up here - almost all it is nice & .[...]

*L. almost always used pencil for writing in his poetry work-books.
** Of ‘An Arundel Tomb’.

26 February 1956
200 Hallgate, Cottingham, East Yorks
One might say ‘Penicillin is stronger than death, sometimes’ with fair truth, but ‘love is stronger than death’ reminds me of that slogan ‘Britain (or London) can take it’, wch irritated me in the same way. It surely meant that people can stand being bombed as long as they aren’t bombed. If A says ‘we can take it’, & В is hit by a bomb, then clearly В can’t take it, so A’s statement only means ‘A can take В being bombed’: similarly ‘love is stronger than death’ means ‘A’s love is stronger than B’s death’, which is self-evident. A’s love is not stronger than A’s death. At least we’ve no reason for thinking it is. Does all this sound very Bertrand Russellish? Perhaps it is not as logical as I think. Of course love is not just a word: I don’t mean to be ‘cynical’ about it. Nor do I want to enlist myself under it because, again, it isn’t just a word, I can see clearly that my life isn’t governed by it. Some bright lad (E.M.F.?) said the opposite of love wasn’t hate but individuality (personality, egotism) and I’ve been feeling increasingly that it is this that keeps me from love - I mean love isn’t just something extra, it’s a definite acceptance of the fact that you aren’t the most important person in the world. Here again I feel a fallacy lurking: if A isn’t the most important person in the world, then why shd В be? The better conclusion wd be that if A wasn’t, then nobody is. Of course I'm not speaking of love as an emotion but as a motive, that leads to action, which seems to me the only real proof of a quality or feeling. Do I sound like some horrible young don, half-Jewish, at Birkbeck College? Don't let me. There isn’t anything very new about my remarks: obviously people who think themselves the most important person in the world are ‘immature’ - part invalid, part baby & part saint, as I wrote.

8 May 1956
192A Hallgate*, Cottingham, E. Yorks
[…] We ought to have talked about holidays more - how little time we have together! I was reading about the Carlyles tonight in V.S.P. [V.S.Pritchett in the New Statesman]: “Their worst agonies seem not to have come from their common hypochondria, her jealousy or his monstrous selfishness, but from not getting letters from each other on the day they were expected when they were separated.” Do you think people will write like that about us when we are dust? My dear rabbit! [...]

*L. had recently moved into this, the top flat of his colleague Ronald Drinkwater’s house.

10 September 1956
192A Hallgate, Cottingham, E. Yorks
[…] I often feel poems have to have some falsity in them, like yeast, or they won’t ‘rise’.

27 September 1956
192A Hallgate, Cottingham, E. Yorks
[…] The flat is a trial [L. was in process of moving to 32 Pearson Park]. Nothing seems likely to come […] I really don’t know when I shall get in. […] I went down at lunch, & felt displeased with it all. The front door rattles. The children below were audible. The stairs are supremely squalid. Hum. Ha.
[…] Ah, don’t talk about our lives and the dreadful passing of time. Nothing will be good enough to look back on, I know that for certain: there will be nothing but remorse & regret for opportunities missed not only for getting on the gravy train but for treating people decently.

27 October 1956
192A Hallgate, Cottingham
[...] No, you misjudge me about public speaking - it’s the desire of the cripple to ice-skate, the asthmatic to sing in opera - I long to wait for the laughter to die down, & then recommence. ‘But the motion before us, Mr President, Sir...’, my crisp firm voice reaching effortlessly to the back of the hall, my buttonhole, my evening dress, surrounded by eager pompous young faces. Ah! La rêve! [...]

4 December 1956
32 Pearson Park, Hull
[...] Flurry of insults in the December “Encounter”! [A dismissive review of New Lines in the October issue by David Wright was followed in the December issue by letters, including one by Robert Conquest.] I’m afraid Conquest isn’t much of a champion in any case. And an ‘ignoramus’ in the “Listener!” [At this period most book reviews in the Listener were anonymous] Well, well. The Irish 6d [In ‘Church Going’] was meant as a comic compromise between GIVING NOTHING and giving REAL MONEY - like the Musical Banks. Well, I wd sooner be insulted by Tom Scott [Combative Scottish poet who wrote much in Scots] than praised by Pamela Hansford Johnson - poetry a public activity, oh go and boil your stupid opinionated Scotch head, you haggis-fed clown. [...]

Talk about making the sun run: we certainly filled Sunday afternoon well & pleasantly. I liked the pudding & the sauce, very much, too. Does that sound funny? I expect it does. And that quite remarkable gold turf of cloud filling half the sky when we left. I expect you think I behave one way one time and another another. This isn’t the place to go into it all, and I’m not sure I could anyway - not without talking for several days, for fear of seeming to lay more emphasis on one thing rather than another - but I am always worrying about what I want for you, for mother, for myself - or think I want. Of course worrying is all cant. Action is the thing. But don’t think I think ‘everything is all right’. [...]

I may let the university magazine [L. means the Leeds University Poetry and Audience, to which he had earlier contributed two poems and a book review. ‘An Arundel Tomb’ had already appeared in the May 1956 London Magazine] have “Tomb” this Christmas, in wch case I’ll let you have a copy. I don’t, myself, like it very much: it belongs to that period after publication when one tries to write ideas of poems instead of real poems. In fact I think it’s embarrassingly bad! and I fancy you will too when you see it again. Real poems have more bite to them. “Mr Bleaney” is more real. “Lambs” is not bad: better than “Tomb”. [...]

8 December 1956
32 Pearson Park, Hull
[…] I’m sorry if I neglect to answer things in your letters - to some extent I’ve ‘always’ done it: my parents, & Kingsley, complained similarly. There may be several reasons - carelessness, forgetfulness perhaps, tho’ I always write with your last letter beside me (some may get missed thereby). I’ve always tried to avoid the ‘I-was-interested-to-hear-you-had-been-to-Sevenoaks-you-would-find-Uncle-Edgar-very-changed-I-can-just-see-you-trying-to-appreciate-the-roses!’ kind of letter, a sort of repetition of the one received. Sometimes I don’t answer because I can’t think of anything to say, or anything ‘profitable’ to say. These will no doubt be the cases you chiefly complain of. But never am I trying to squash you, or cause you uneasiness or pain. Quite the contrary. (Tuesday.) I shouldn’t think you could be ‘too intimate’ in that way - and in any case it wd be the height of bad manners to believe you could, since you are otherwise so close to me. [...]
I don’t reckon I ‘understand’ you at all, even if I do sometimes! Doesn’t it always seem cheek, ‘understanding’ people? Do you reckon to ‘understand’ me? Sometimes you seem to, but sometimes I feel you ‘trust’ me rather than understand me - curious feeling, like finding a rabbit has crawled into one’s overcoat pocket when you take it down from the peg. You try to lift it out, but it is determined to stay, so after a while you leave it, though for all it knows you may be going to the kennels... This is ‘just a thought’, not meant as a parable or allegory, but for your Diverfion.
Probably not comprehensible! [...]

I’d very much like you at least to see this place, but as I once tried to explain it’s hardly possible for you to stay under the same roof & though there’s a hotel across the park it seems rather miserable for you to stay there. It might be best for you to look at it & then both of us go on elsewhere. (The people underneath aren’t going away at Christmas.) What an awful long way I am from everywhere. [...]

Philip Larkin - Letters to Monica

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