By Philip Larkin, Edited by Anthony ThwaiteFaber and Faber
And this returns us to the luckless Monica, whose possibly Aspergerish manners he strove in vain to correct. “I do want to urge you, with all love & kindness, to think about how much you say & how you say it …” Deploying—in a different but surely conscious declension—the most deadly word in the English vernacular, he warned her: “You’re getting a habit of boring your face up or round into the features of your listener.” That was in 1952, with almost 30 years of on-again, off-again stretching still before the pair of them. But he must have caught something of value in her opinions, because he took seriously her part-grammatical objection to line four of the closing stanza of “Church Going,” which is today perhaps his best-loved poem. Ought it to have been “And so much never can be obsolete,” instead of “that much”? Look and see. Even if, like me, you cannot imagine changing a word, you notice that she was a shrewd and attentive reader. (Here might be the place to say that Anthony Thwaite’s meticulous footnoting and cross-referencing have made this book much more capacious and lively than it might have been, as well as affording us a unique view of some of Larkin’s most lapidary poems when they were still fluid and in formation.)
Rising above the low-level rancor and tedium that can make the scrutiny of private anomie so lowering to the spirit, Letters to Monica obliquely shows the civilizing effect that even the most trying woman can exert on even the most impossible man. With the exception of the occasional rather weak joke in passing, Larkin respected Miss Jones too much, it seems, to try any of his vulgar prejudices or cheaper doggerel on her. Most impressive of all, I found, was that even his anti-libidinous propaganda could yield its warm and poetic aspect. Take this stern epistle from 1951:
I think—though of course I am all for free love, advanced schools, & so on—someone might do a little research on some of the inherent qualities of sex—its cruelty, its bullyingness, for instance. It seems to me that bending someone else to your will is the very stuff of sex, by force or neglect if you are male, by spitefulness or nagging or scenes if you are female. And what’s more, both sides would sooner have it that way than not at all. I wouldn’t.
Such an ostensibly repressive and limited view, with its unimaginative image of “both sides,” had been given the most starkly beautiful expression by a poem that Larkin wrote the preceding year. “Deceptions,” suggested by a harrowing anecdote of forced prostitution from Henry Mayhew’s history of the London poor, implicitly vindicated the ruined female victim by pleading indirectly that her foul client was also a pathetic loser and that she, the innocent sufferer, might even turn out to have been “the less deceived.” He by no means omitted to picture the raw, latent violence of her own trauma. (“All the unhurried day / Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.”) Gem-hard, it is also an immediately striking piece of imaginative sympathy. Reviewing it, D. J. Enright gave Larkin a rare moment of (almost) unmixed pleasure by saying, as Larkin proudly reported to Monica, that “I persuade words into being poetry & don’t bully them.” A critic could not have approached more nearly to the core of Larkin’s gift.
It is inescapable that we should wonder how and why poetry manages to transmute the dross of existence into magic or gold, and the contrast in Larkin’s case is a specially acute one. Having quit Belfast, he removed himself forever to Hull, a rugged coastal city facing toward Scandinavia that, even if it was once represented in Parliament by Andrew Marvell, in point of warmth and amenity runs Belfast a pretty close second. Here he brooded biliously and even spitefully on his lack of privacy, the success of his happier friends Amis and Conquest, the decline of standards at the university he served, the general bloodiness of pub lunches and academic sherry parties, the frumpy manipulativeness of womenfolk, and the petrifying imminence of death. (Might one say that Hull was other people?) He may have taken a sidelong swipe at the daffodils, but he did evolve his own sour strain and syncopation of Wordsworth’s “still, sad music of humanity.” And without that synthesis of gloom and angst, we could never have had his “Aubade,” a waking meditation on extinction that unstrenuously contrives a tense, brilliant counterpoise between the stoic philosophies of Lucretius and David Hume, and his own frank terror of oblivion. Many of Larkin’s expeditions to churches were in fact an excuse to visit cemeteries or memorials, in spite of his repudiation of the fantasy of immortality, and with another of the finest poetic results of these—“An Arundel Tomb”—it turns out he had taken Monica along as a companion and later accepted some of her thoughtful proposals concerning its final form. We might agree to find it heartening that, in consequence of a dead-average middle-English Sunday stroll, as the other half of an almost passionless relationship, Philip Larkin should notice the awkwardly conjoined couple on an ancient stone coffin lid and, without forcing, let alone bullying, the language, still tentatively be able to find:
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.