Monday, July 30, 2018

If one starts blaming one’s parents, one would never stop/ Larkin - Letters to Monica (1954)

3 August 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] Dearest, what kind of a flight did you have? I thought of you, when I was eating my lunch, soaring through the large cloud-littered sky.
Now I have eaten most of the things you left, & the birds have discovered your crusts, & the cleaner has cleaned up my room (without finding your pen), so the holiday is fading rather horribly quickly, as far as outward show is concerned, but I was very dejected this morning when no rabbit came to my bedside to thump its drum! Slept badly, too.
As you see, I’m enclosing a copy of the churches poem [“Church Going” began to be written on 24 April 1954. Its final draft appears in notebook #4, dated 28 July 1954], & hope you’ll let me know what you think of it. I’m afraid it is not entirely effective, but you must judge for yourself and let me know. I could write plenty of ‘background’ stuff about it, but you had better read it unsupported first: do remember, however, that I write it partly to exhibit an attitude as well as to try to arouse an emotion - the attitude of the ‘young heathen’ of whom there are plenty about these days — the first line, for instance, is designed both as sincere statement of fact & also as heavy irony. [...]

10 August 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] Thanks for all the nice things you said abt my poetry, but I think you put your paw on the flaw in “Churchgoing”, a lack of strong continuity - it is dangerously like chat, 4th leader stuff. 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.

16 August 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] Am getting on very well with “Bleak House” - I do like it. There is more to thrill, & less to irritate or bore, me than in any other I’ve read.

23 August 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] There was such an interesting programme on the radio tonight - some Canon giving a recital of street pianos, playing popular songs of the ’90s, & interspersing them with gossip & jokes of a sort of old-wag order. Very nice! It conjured up to me the sunsets, the mouldering brick streets, the open public-houses full of soldiers off to South Africa, the endless jingle & trot, the children playing with hoops & chalking the pavements, & the old people sitting at their doors on wooden kitchen chairs (a steel engraving of ‘The death of Nelson’ visible on the wall behind their heads), and from round the corner the sound of this twangling hymn, like the harping of Cockney angles. There’s a sentimental passage for you! But seriously I think you wd like this, & much that is on the radio: I do pity you, forced to attend to television night after night.
It was all rather silly really’, to use one of those classic phrases suitable for labelling almost any activity in retrospect. [...]

I suppose I like decisive people if they’ve decided what I’ve decided! not otherwise. But really you mustn’t keep thinking of me as clever by any real standards - I shdn’t be a librarian if I weren’t incapable of any kind of serious thought - I know nothing, read nothing but novels, think nothing - no, really! Prrrff! I always try to comfort myself with Keats’ remark about ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’, & the unsuitableness thereof, for a poet.
Handel, who is ‘This week’s composer’, is playing on the radio at present, & makes me wish you were here, covering the carpet with long alien golden hairs (I still find them, now again, in all sorts о places — shut in books, for instance). [...]

13 September 1954
21 York Road, Loughborough
[…] Depressed myself slightly tonight by reading some scrappy journal entries (all right, diary entries) for the first half of 1941 - I didn’t remember myself as such an awkward young fool, but there we are. A terrible time, just trying to cross from being a schoolboy to being a - well, I don’t know. The depression mainly came from the thought that all I have learnt to do since then is avoid ‘conflict situations’. Even that is something, I suppose. But I am no more master of my destiny than a tomcat is master of the ‘Queen Mary’. The only entry that made me genuinely laugh recounted how I unwrapped a Swiss roll and fitted it over someone’s door handle - can’t remember the man or what happened, but it wd be a queer thing to take hold of after dark.

[…] Journals - diaries - are two-edged weapons! I really must arrange for mine to be destroyed when I die. Nearly bought a will form in Cheltenham, but can’t think of anyone to make executor. Suppose it will have to be the bank. [...]

23 September 1954
30 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast
[…] The Librarianship of Hull is vacant: sounds not a bad place in many ways, but do I want a headship? Damned if I think I do. Member of senate... Committees... all that rubbish. Branch librarian of Bridport is more my line, really. I wonder if I shd ever have the courage to do anything like that? (Of course, I don’t mean the Hull job is mine for the asking: I’m sure it’s not: but one has to think such things over as if they were.)

Friday […] Talking about insufferable things, I found a foul article in “Punch” (15/9) by that poetic-play fool/swine Ronald Duncan called Fewer rabbits, more men. Written in the witless Wodehouse-and-water style of a naval station’s magazine, it celebrated the arrival of myxomatosis at the writer’s village (‘when the first bulging-eyed creature was discovered... it was drinks all round at the pub that night’). I read it very carefully to see if it could be intended satirically but I don’t see that it could be. I therefore wrote a protest to the editor, very mild really, pointing out how unamusing, disagreeable & shameful it was [Letter to “Punch”: evidently not published]. He is bound to have had others. And if I may - entirely without rancour - say so, it is this sort of thing that makes me look down on “Punch” (you remember you once scolded me for it). It may be the backbone of England, but the “New St.” wd never offend in that way, and I judge them accordingly. [...]

28 September 1954
30 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast
Ha, my bonny bun,
[…] I thought of you last night when I was finishing an 8-line poem [‘Myxomatosis’, completed 27 Sept. 1954, published “Spectator” 26 Nov. 1954]: it began as a furious diatribe in response to filthy Ronald Duncan, but it finished as a very casual little anecdote: I’ve sent it to the “Spectator” along with “Church going”. Larkin goes propagandist. I feel shy of showing it to you. I’m afraid it will seem vulgar, or melodramatic, or not savage enough - too much of a literary little ‘human’ verse; not rabbity enough... [...]

2 October 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] No word from ‘Spr’ about my deathless verse [The Spectator had been sent ‘Church Going’ and ‘Myxomatosis’ by L., both of which they were later to publish (‘Church Going’, 18 November 1955; ‘Myxomatosis’, 26 November 1954)]. I should say that “Churchgoing” should be worth a fiver to them at present, arguing as they are about churches & their decay, preservation, sale, etc. - see Betjeman’s poem this week? Lucky he doesn’t pitch on my subject: do you know, as I say I think he’s easily the best English poet today, except me, & we’re not after entirely the same game. I think much of “Chrysanthemums[Betjeman, “A Few Late Chrysanthemums” (1954), reviewed by L. in Q (literary magazine of QUB), Hilary term 1955. See “Further Requirements”], well, a bit trivial, but some of it is quite (i.e. absolutely) admirable – “House of rest”, this is a great favourite of mine; “I.M. Walter Ramsden” - this reminds me of a favourite picture I’ve long carried in my head & never quite formulated: it’s an old photograph, taken in a college (very dark archway) & there are some young men in straw boaters talking together, in the general costume of the S. African War period...

10 October 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] The situation in Dublin was to some extent embarrassing about my poems.
[Donald Davie, Thomas Kinsella and Liam Miller had been considering L.’s poems for publication by the ‘Dolmen Press’ in Dublin. They were turned down. ‘Triple Time’ (completed 3 October 1953), ‘Latest Face’ (February 1951), ‘Wires’ (4 November 1950) all appeared eventually in ‘The Less Deceived’. ‘To Fail’ (later called ‘Success Story’) was completed 11 March 1954, appeared in ‘The Grapevine’ (Durham University), February 1957, but did not appear in book form until the Collected Poems.] 

[…] 4 (out of 12) they all liked, but I can’t remember them now, except “Triple Time”. The one he praised most was “Latest face” (classes in T.C.D. have been analysing this); the one he liked least “Wires” - in fact he thought it ‘very feeble’! So there you are. I was disappointed at the time, but not now. O, another one that aroused general displeasure was “To fail”, but I think perhaps I made an error of judgment in including it. It really is very personal indeed. Somehow I don’t think I shall see a book of my poems published unless I pay for it myself.
The bells are ringing through the dark. It’s just half past six.
8.45 p.m. - Have just finished and typed a poem [‘Places, Loved Ones’, 10 October 1954], not good: slangy, unprofound. As a matter of fact I went a walk today & my head buzzed with ideas, ideas for short poems, that is. Pray the Good Rabbit that I succeed in doing so. [...]

22 October 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
Just now I really have little news to report: Kingsley doesn’t write to me, so I don’t write to him, nor that fat self-indulgent fool Bruce. The Spr. says nothing about my poems, which does not argue that they are very anxious to print them. I don’t myself feel any great spirit rushing in me like a wind. The only live subject of thought I have is this public humiliation in Hull, hypothetical humiliation I should say, since no one has replied to my fat envelope yet.
Monday. Ah! letter from you today. I’m not one of the save-it-to-read-in-the-apple-tree school. I tear it open instantly and walk slowly upstairs reading it, not taking off my scarf & raincoat till I’ve finished. Very nice! We both seem a bit drab at present, witness this letter to date, you with reason, me without. How dreary & depressing this room-hunt is! Everything looks its worst when seen in such circumstances. [...]

30 October 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[…] I do think that she [V. Woolf] is one of the few people (Hardy is another) who set things moving, swinging, quietly, harmoniously, inside one, as if some thaw was taking place. And again it makes you dreadfully miserable, since you apprehend life more keenly, and since you know (or I know) that she’s so far ahead in unselfish observation and transcription.
…actually, that exchange doesn’t really make my point about К.M. that she is enormously dedicated, from page 1 (‘I mean this year to try and be a different person...’) in 1904, to p. 334 (‘to be rooted in life...') in 1922, she was enormously aware of things unquestionably more pure, more significant, more beautiful than she was herself & of the problem of translating them by means of art, by catching hold of their tiny significant manifestations (‘Charles sat darning socks... When he took up the scissors, the cat squeezed up its eyes as if to say “That s quite right”, and when he put the scissors down it just put out its paw as if to straighten them...’). This seems to me to depend enormously on the fact that she did not distinguish between life and art. This is of first importance: no ‘stupid life at its bungling work’, as in H.J. Art is good insofar as it catches life, and, really, the opposite is true too, in KM.
These attitudes are not inclusive, but exclusive - a continual refining, a self-purification. She never said, as I’m afraid I do, well, this is bloody dull, but it’s life, life’s like that; nor, well, this is fine, splendid in fact, but of course it’s only a book, just imaginary. The first would be instantly discarded in favour of the second. And of course you have to think like that to be a writer, just as you have to believe your soap is the best in the world if you’re a soap-seller. If you don’t believe art is better than... no, wait a minute, that isn’t what KM thought. If you don't believe that good art is better than bad life, then bugger off, there’s plenty of room for your sort in the civil service. If you do believe it, then stay and try to convert the whole of life into art, until the smallest action is a ritual, an auto da fe, rejecting what you can't transmute. ‘And out of this... I want to be writing.’ This is leading me into raving, but I feel at present that the 2 things to consider about K.M. are the art-life business as sketched out above, & the question why (generallу speaking) are her stories so unsuccessful (‘a charming talent but not great! Why say great?’ D.H.L.)
It gave me a queer sensation to find that she wrote J.M.M. a letter ‘to be opened after her death’ on Aug. 8th 1922 - the day before I was born! I can’t see this letter has ever been published.

I’m sure the envelope won’t hold all this. Good night; bless you, dear paws. S. [for Seal]

6 November 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
Have also bought the K.M. “Journal” - I was so interested in the things you said about her & it, though I forget much of what I said that you are replying to*. Do you see what struck me? The incessant harping on the conviction that the aperçus in which ‘life’ seemed most piercingly summarised (e.g. ‘On the wall of the kitchen there was a shadow, shaped like a little mask with two gold slits for eyes. It danced up and down’) put on her not only an artistic obligation to record them, but a moral obligation to ‘live up to’ them. This is stressed again & again & again.
I think (but of course I’ve never been a girl) you do her less than justice in implying that ‘wanting to be a different person’ was only self dramatisation. In its numerous contexts it reads to me more like the ordinary reaction of any person who sees anything beautiful - a wish to return thanks, or to - this is more like it - to struggle towards a state of mind in which such perceptions would be more common, and in which they wd be of some practical use. After all, that is what one feels about such things, if only one could rely on them for help, seriously! Of course, I only bother about this idea because her noticings (is that the English equivalent?) are so extraordinary. I am quite sure nobody has ever written to touch her, not even Lawrence. That sentence, or pair of sentences, about the shadow on the wall, seems to me to contain such a lot: the suggestion of a gaiety, sinister because heartless, at the very centre of life - yet only a mask! What looks through it is still a mystery.

Of course I don’t deny there is a lot about her I don’t care for. The childish racket, & its element in her marriage & in her writings (worse!). The fits of temperament - but of course she was ill. The self will - yes, but after all, she knew that if she could but get away she could do something, left to herself. One doesn’t get rid of one’s family by being a decent person.

Monday after lunch Light drifting skies, rain seeming to be wafted up from the ground, making an umbrella useless...

[*In a letter dated 3 November 1954, Monica wrote:
‘I’m touched and amused to see how, always, a little of KM shakes a letter out of you to me - it does, doesn’t it? [...] I do hope I’m not getting tired of her [...] I feel I know too much about that kind of writing-in-a-diary: naturally in those days I called it a “journal” too. I can smell it out in her absolutely - I know when she’s writing the truth & when she’s making it up, I’ve done it all myself... It seems awfully presumptuous to say this, when she did do something I never do & never will, that I wouldn’t say it to anyone else for anything [...]’]

14 November 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] I’m not keeping ‘the rabbit one’ from you: it’s only that in it I kill the rabbit, which makes it totally out of character & rather like a piece of journalism. I’ll transcribe it [Variants of “Myxomatosis”, which L. appeared to have completed in its final form on 28 Sept. 1954]:

Dear bun, I know what you mean about turning life into art - I sometimes have you with me for long stretches, noticing things together - actually that sounds horrible, but yesterday I walked up the Lisburn Road, a very dull road, for about 2 miles, a road nobody would ever walk along for pleasure - rather like, say, the Melton Road in Leicester, but I enjoyed it & so wd you, & I thought as much at the time. Simple pleasures!

23 November 1954
[1 Anti-seasickness tablets.
2 The blank is filled with a tiny self-sketch of L. as a seal.
3 L. was thirty-two.]

Wednesday Home again. Bright frosty morning. Feel very low, & as if I had agreed to command NATO forces in Europe. О bun! Hugs. Seal. [...]

28 November 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
My dear,
[...] Your letter helped me to dispel some of the misery that hung about me like indigestion in the middle of the week. I was absolutely rigid with terror all Wednesday. Graneek said he’d never seen anyone react to success like it. Success, forsooth! It has been a whirl of congratulations, & Ashby pulling off his glove to shake hands, & nothing-succeeds-like-success, & resigning (brrrr!), & noting various reactions. They all seem fairly friendly about it, except a fat fool of a law professor called Montrose - a Billy-Bunter Roman emperor - & I thought I detected signs of chagrin in Brian Tate. But this is accompanied by no word from Hull: it might all have been a dream, or a nightmare. Suppose it was? Should I mind? Well... in a way - with the strong sensible bit of my mind - I should.
But there’s a feeling strong upon me of penetrating further and further into the wrong kind of life. О to be a Controller of Stamps! [L. is thinking of a title given Wordsworth, and in effect a sinecure] I can’t reconcile this career stuff at all: perhaps it is Yeats’ ‘theatre business, management of men’, or my ‘mask’. Or perhaps I am blindly following a pattern laid down by my father. Or perhaps it’s just the way things happen: I want to move, & the only move is upwards. I’d sooner move sideways, like a crab!
Did you notice the rabbit poem, tucked away in “the Spr” on Friday? [‘Myxomatosis’ was published in the Spectator, 26 November 1954] Wonder if I shall receive any letters about it. I don’t like the broken line: the first half has insufficient carry-on from the first 3 lines; the second is rather stupidly enigmatic, suggesting a farcical interpretation, like a belch or something of the sort. But I like lines 5 & 6, & lines 7 & 8 are vitiated only by the unspoken ‘Yes, & you may not’ hanging about them I should have done better to choose something more incontrovertible for my finale, but the thing was written in such a tearing hurry I didn’t stop to consider such niceties. I do hope you find it respectful to the awful state of yr nation. I should hate it if you thought I was just earning a couple of guineas from their sufferings. [...]

Monday My hat, I felt bad today - couldn’t sleep last night, and cut the library after lunch till about 4.15 pm. I felt ghastly, also depressed and scared. What a hopeless character mine is. In 1950 I ran away from England & the problems it held, but really they’re still there unchanged & now I’m going back to them... Five years older, five years poorer, five years colder, five years... can’t think of a rhyme. Surer? Surer of what? Brrr. [...]

7 December 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] I feel be-etter now: of course your letters cheer me up, make me feel wherry full of beans! I am all right, scared about Hull of course, but ready to shorten my lines to almost any extent to meet it. Really, the fat salary is the only attraction.

Let me explain the family situation - last Christmas & Easter were hell at home: I don’t know what was wrong, possibly Mother was trying to bounce me into ‘doing something’ - anyway, I told myself ‘You must never come back to England till she is dead and gone if you want a quiet life.’
But my sister grumbled that things wd be better if I could come home oftener, & that she had it all the time, etc., which seemed reasonable to me, hence my return, at length. But M. now drops hints of ‘sharing a house’ or ‘dividing a house into 2 flats’ for herself & (hypothetical) companion, & for me. This was not what I had meant, at all. On the other hand I don’t want to hock my weekends so that I never get any peaceful recuperation, 10 hours’ travelling in 3 days, great stuff. But again I don’t imagine that any companion would ever be found so that I shd be tied as at Leicester, if the other course were followed.

At Christmas all this will no doubt be thrashed out. I’m not looking forward to it. Honestly, I don’t know what I want - but I do know what I don’t want! I find the presence or company of my mother largely depressing. It fills me full of a sense of guilt & motheaten pity & wormeaten fear of responsibility and age and death. These things are uncomfortable. Of course, they may also be justified and salutary. [...]

15 December 1954
30 Elmwood Ave, Belfast
[...] I am suffering pangs of conscience about buying my mother a pair of fur gloves. She asked for them. I ought to have refused, really.

[…] As for your strictures about my mother*, no, of course I’m not offended, but I think yr language rather turgid - John Middleton Bunny. I don’t know whether I agree with you or not, really; but, of course, if one starts blaming one’s parents, well, one would never stop! Butler said that anyone who was still worrying about his parents at 35 was a fool, but he certainly didn’t forget them himself, and I think the influence they exert is enormous. I’ve told you before that the only characteristic I can’t trace directly to one or other of them is hay fever! What one doesn’t learn from one’s parents one never learns, or learns awkwardly, like a mining M.P. taking lessons in table manners or the middle aged Arnold Bennett learning to dance. I never remember my parents making a single spontaneous gesture of affection towards each other, for instance.
Of the present situation, well, again I don’t really know what to say. Admitted, my mother is 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. Balanced intelligent people, I know, can adjust themselves and find compensations, but she isn’t balanced or intelligent. It seems to me a vicious circle. If she were more attractive she would have a more interesting life: on the other hand she won’t get it until she’s more attractive. Am I, ultimately, on her side? God knows! In my heart of hearts, I’m on no one’s side but my own.
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!)
Think I’ll have a bath now. I always feel I need a bath more when I’m wearing my blue suit. Can’t explain this...
Later - Duly bathed. I don’t mean, of course, that I don’t like making love with you: that wd be inaccurate - I only mean I don’t take girls to dances or out or that kind of thing - Chwist naher - and I suppose that’s not healthy, i.e. not normal. Still, let’s drop all this, till we can talk about it. I feel much better since having the bath - much be-etter! […].

[*In a 20-sided letter dated 7 December 1954, from 8 Woodland Avenue Monica had written:
‘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...’]
[about Larkin’s Christmas 1954 poem] On 20 December 1954, Monica wrote to L.:
‘A Christmas poem for me! I love it. Don’t you, aren’t you very gravely pleased & proud? A secret present for me - for a secret reason. I can’t say how much I like it. It is better than “The Oxen” for Christmas; your little poems! they are being good ones, in the pretty cards, aren’t they, don’t you think so yourself?’

28 December 1954
21 York Road, Loughborough
[…] Like others of its kind it’s better at telling you things it knows than things you don’t know.
[…] On the other hand it was informative about bunny, & harrowing about cats - the awful barbarous cruelties practised on cats, all because they were connected in the popular mind with witches!

Philip Larkin - Letters to Monica

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