Philip Larkin letters to Monica: 'Oh, I am sure that you are the poet of this generation!’
Philip Larkin’s letters to Monica Jones, his muse and longest-term lover, shed new light on her involvement in his creative process.
By Anthony Thwaite
03 Oct 2010
Monica Jones met Philip Larkin in 1946, when she was a lecturer in English literature at Leicester University, and he was a librarian there. They were both 24. Over the 40 years that followed, they fell in love – and corresponded. She was his muse and his critic – both literary expert and lover (one of the unmarried Larkin’s many, although Monica, according to another of his lovers, Betty Mackereth, was his “soulmate”).
“Monica was his sounding-board,” says Anthony Thwaite, Larkin’s friend and the editor of Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica. “From soon after getting to know her in the late 1940s, she was the person he showed his poems to – before that it had been Kingsley Amis, a contemporary of Larkin’s at Oxford. But as he began to know Monica’s mind, judgment and sensitivity, he started trying out his poems on her. And, as you can see from the letters, he is often found agonising over his work.”
Although their affair lasted four decades, Philip and Monica only actually lived together in the four years prior to Larkin’s death in 1985. Jones, who was too consumed with grief to attend his funeral, subsequently became his executor and destroyed, at Larkin’s behest, all of his diaries. She continued to live in the house they had shared in Hull until her own death in 2001, and afterwards 7,500 pages of letters to her from Larkin were discovered. They form the most revealing and detailed chronicle of Larkin’s intimate life, and are seen here for the first time.
What follows is a series of exchanges that focus on the couple’s discussion of Larkin’s work as he was producing it, and which, many years later, Monica Jones taught her students.
November 20 1950 Queen’s Chamber’s, Queen’s University, Belfast, where Larkin is now working as a sub-librarian
Here with the six anticlimaxes. [The poems Larkin sent Monica on November 20 were Wedding-Wind, Spring, Wires, Coming, Modesties, and The Dedicated.]
[…] I do seem to have created a bad impression lately: I’m awfully sorry about “hostility” - it’s quite unintentional & must spring from being a bit rushed & my natural subsarcastic way of talking sounding much nastier when written down. But trying to remember what I wrote doesn’t enable me to recall any real hostile intention, quite the reverse. I thought recent letters had been conﬁdential and affectionate.
November 21 1950 Monica to Philip
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.
November 26 1950 Queen’s Chambers, Belfast Sunday night. 10.45.
Grateful acknowledgements of your mild judgments on my six things (as Kingsley [Amis] would call them: somebody – Browning, perhaps – always spoke of his poems as “his things”; since when KWA [Amis] has also done so, with comico-sardonico-ambiguous effect): you are very lenient. Not of course that I am not prepared to raise my hackles in defence of my chickens, illogically: however, I won’t, because it’s all a question of ear, really. The prairie one [referred to by Monica as “the Wild West one”] was the only Belfast one – written straight off before breakfast in pyjamas. Wind is about the oldest – 1947 or so. Dedicated is fairly old, too. The other 3 are all Dixon Drivers [written when Larkin was living in Dixon Drive, Leicester, 1948–50]. Spring last spring. On the whole I think Wind is the best: I wish I could write more like that, fuller, richer in reference: I am quite pleased with the to-me successful use of the floods & the wind as fulﬁllment & joy. Shouldn’t write like that now! Then I like Modesties. Spring is “smart”. The Dedicated is just but faint. And the prairies – well, just a little verse: no wings. I do tremble, though, to think of your getting your claws on the real rubbish!
January 13 1951 Queen’s Chambers, Belfast
I think there were one or two misapprehensions of my last: certainly I don’t want to be bucked up with little talks on the Duty of Happiness. I was just saying that most of my miseries didn’t deserve the solicitude you show for them. And my poem was really an attempt to capture my feeling on returning here: a sense of amazement that what we wait for so long & therefore seems so long in coming shouldn’t take a proportionally long time to pass – instead of zipping away at the same speed as everything else:
No sooner present than it turns to past
We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long:
Right to the last
We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long:
But we are wrong.
Only one ship is seeking us, black-
Sailed . . .
Undistinguished-looking stuff, now I write it down in longhand. […] I can hear it raining – you realise my room sticks out like a promontory, like the front of a ship, catching all the weather that’s going. But the blessed quiet! I can go to bed at midnight now, & know I shan’t hear that booted ape blundering about overhead. Sleep! Sleep!
June 19 1951 Queen’s Chambers, Belfast
A word. I sit at nearly 10.30pm, reading lamp perched on my side-ended travelling-trunk, looking out of my west-facing window, where the redness of the sky has subsided to grey – the low meandering solid grey of the hills, and the watercolour streaky grey of the sky. […] Hay fever hovers around. Waves of sadness occur, like the ﬁne breath of a garden.
I think the prosaic quality you censure in verse is beautifully exempliﬁed in a bit of Spender which I believe runs
For you are no Orpheus,
She no Eurydice:
She has truly packed and gone
To live with someone
Else . . .
At this point the poem falls blubbering to its knees. I expect I do it sometimes, though I don’t ﬁnd it at the spot you indicate in At Grass – would you prefer a comma after sky? Truly I have no theories about poetry at all, but I do think that most fascinating effects are got by playing off the rhythm and language of speech against the rhythm and language of poetry. They are not long, the weeping and the laughter [from Ernest Dowson] – And when she wakes she will not think it long [from Christina Rossetti] – Everybody else, then, going, And I still left where the fair was? [from Thomas Hardy] – such lines are so successful to me that some other poets fade to nothingness beside them in entirety. […] And by the way I send no poems because I do not ﬁnd any I have the face to make known to you. They are all just dull, or frivolous, or incompetent. And there is no social conscience about them!
July 30 1953 Monica to Philip
As for yr complaint – I might as well deal with it once for all & never no more – about “the wood of my conservatism” as you call it, if you really can’t stand a bit of that, you need never hear it again [. . .] I certainly thought you didn’t care either way, & imagining that speech was free thought you could equally well hear me talk as anybody else; I certainly never knew you fancied yrself a Socialist, & I must say you’ve kept it pretty dark . . . It seems to me that either you’ve intended to conceal it or you don’t know much about it, for you certainly don’t talk like it. All politics preys on the basest sides of human character, relies on it, brings it out; I don’t like it any more than you do.
August 5 1953 Belfast. Philip to Monica
You know, I’m sure you’ll hoot, but what prompted your remarks about politics, my thoughts on’t? Did I say “wood of conservatism”? Or write it? I can’t place it at all – what was it in connexion [sic] with? Wood? Babes in the? Bowls? Beer from the? Really, I know I say my poor old brain is, etc., but I hope I’m not forgetting something of the last 14 days. No: or perhaps I’m turning into the type – the Montherlant type – who “does not forgive, but forgets – really forgets – . . .” I hope not. Anyway, I don’t mind what you say: all reasonable enough, surely, & the idea of my brooding and fretting over your political opinions is enough to make a Staffordshire cat laugh. You know I don’t care at all for politics, intelligently. I found that at school when we argued all we did was repeat the stuff we had, respectively, learnt from the Worker, the Herald, Peace News, the Right Book Club (that was me, incidentally: I knew these dictators, Marching Spain, I can remember them now) and as they all contradicted each other all we did was get annoyed. I came to the conclusion that an enormous amount of research was needed to form an opinion on anything, & therefore I abandoned politics altogether as a topic of conversation. It’s true that the writers I grew up to admire were either non-political or Left-wing, & that I couldn’t ﬁnd any Right-wing writer worthy of respect, but of course most of the ones I admired were awful fools or somewhat fakey, so I don’t know if my prejudice for the Left takes its origin there or not. But if you annoy me by speaking your mind in the other interest, it’s not because I feel sacred things are being mocked but because I can’t reply, not (as usual) knowing enough. […]
By the way, of course I’m terribly conventional, by necessity! Anyone afraid to say boo to a goose is conventional.
I’ve written a tiny little poem since returning, hardly a poem at all:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
And to seek where they join
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the ﬁelds.
Don’t take it seriously, but it’s a change from the old style. […]
[The above lines are a draft for Days, eventually collected in The Whitsun Weddings (1964).]
November 14 1954 Belfast. Philip to Monica
I’m not keeping “the rabbit one” from you [“rabbit”, “bunny” or “bun” were Larkin’s terms of endearment for Monica]: 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:
￼Caught in the centre of a ￼ soundless ﬁeld
As hot, inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a brief reply;
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
It’s not much of a poem. But of course I felt strongly enough about it. I hardly dare ask what you think of it. I strove (queer word) to give the essential pathos of the situation without getting involved in argument. Give me your opinion on sightless/soundless. I believe rabbits are both blind and deaf, so either wd do – a ﬁeld with no sights or sounds in. Oh dear. Is this “using” the rabbits? Honestly, my motives are really good – better than the poem, I’m afraid.
[The above lines are variants in Myxomatosis, which Larkin appeared to have completed in its ﬁnal form on September 28 1954.]
August 18 1955 Monica to Philip
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.
September 26 1955 200 Hallgate, Cottingham, E. Yorks [Larkin is now head librarian at the University of Hull]. Philip to Monica
Back to this dreary dump,
East Riding’s dirty rump,
Enough to make one jump
Into the Humber –
God! What a place to be:
How it depresses me;
Must I stay on, and see
Years without number?
– This verse sprang almost unthought-of from my head as the train ran into Hull just before midday. I’m sure no subsequent verse could keep up the high standard. Pigs & digs rhyme, of course, likewise work & shirk, & Hull & dull, but triple rhymes are difﬁcult. Anyway, it gives an indication of how I’m feeling. Fearful change from life as it was lived on the island. [. . .]
I suppose in sum I miss you, and the happy life we led on Sark, & dislike being back at work & in these sluttish surroundings, and having said that much (!) I should really pipe down, rather than list feeble grumbles. But o, ’tis true, ’tis true.
February 12 1956 Cottingham. Philip to Monica
I’m absolutely sick of my tomb poem [An Arundel Tomb] & thought I wd send it you unﬁnished as a token for St Valentine’s Day. Not that it’s in any sense a valentine, but to give you something special from me on that day. It’s complete except for the last verse, which I can’t seem to ﬁnish: but I can’t feel it is very good, even as it stands. It starts nicely enough, but I think I’ve failed to put over my chief idea, of their lasting so long, & in the end being remarkable only for something they hadn’t perhaps meant very seriously. Do let me know what you think of it.
April 18 1971 Hull. Philip to Monica
Thanks for the welcoming letter, very kind of you. I really don’t know that I’ve much to report. […] Talking of pwetry, as Kingsley used to call it, I suggest
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
I think this is better. Or do you think
They foist on you the faults etc?
That might be better. Causons, causons, mon bon. “Foist” is faintly farcical, wch is good – better than “ﬁll”. Shall it be foist? (The last shall be foist.) No: there is then too much emphasis on the two yous.
THIS BE THE VERSE
They ---- you up, your mum and dad;
They may not mean to, but they do.
They hand on all the faults they had,
And add some fresh ones just for you.
But they were ----ed up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one anothers’ throats.
Man hands on misery to man;
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Saturday, 16 October 2010
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