Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica
Edited by Anthony Thwaite
(Faber & Faber, 475 pp., $49.50)
A good place to start on the protagonists of this curious correspondence—culled from some 1,400 letters discovered after the addressee’s death in 2001—is the wrap-around photograph that takes up most of both sides of the book’s dust jacket. The picture shows a grassy cliff-top on the island of Sark. It is, clearly, summer. On the front side, facing right, is Philip Larkin: tall, slim, balding, elegantly dressed in sports jacket and tan pants, with sandals as a concession to the holiday season, and unencumbered except for what looks like a pair of binoculars. Turn the book over, and there, looking out to sea leftward, so that they are back to back, is Monica Jones. She sits perched on a gorse-topped outcrop, copious blonde hair pinned up at the back of her head. She is dressed for hiking, in no-nonsense dark pants and jacket, and wearing a big heavy rucksack. They are together, but they look carefully separate. This, it turns out, is no accident.
At first sight, this mise-en-scène reminded me of those penny-pinching British vacations, so popular with students, in the years immediately after World War II, when austerity flourished, rationing remained in force, and foreign currency was severely restricted, so that the Channel Islands were often the nearest that hopeful holiday-makers could get to Going Abroad. But appearances can be deceptive. In fact, the photograph was taken in 1960, three years after Harold Macmillan declared that most Brits “had never had it so good.” Philip and Monica were both then approaching forty, and in good professional jobs: if not wealthy, at least reasonably well off, with neither of them supporting a family or paying off a mortgage.
One senses a subtext here of lower-middle-class ethics. When we learn elsewhere, and from some hints in his letters, of Larkin’s parsimoniousness with money, the discovery does not come entirely as a surprise. Nor does his dislike for venturing anywhere beyond the British Isles—a trait that he shared with literary characters as diverse as John Betjeman and Kingsley Amis, not to mention Nancy Mitford’s father, Lord Redesdale, the model for Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love, who was fond of saying that “abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.” Hence the Channel Islands and, later, the Hebrides: sea and mountains without—a cherished national myth—all that tedious business involving passports, Monopoly money, dysentery, and being shaken down by Frogs, Wops, or Dagoes sheltering behind a stream of incomprehensible jabber, plus a culture founded on shameless bribery and ooh-la-la.
Philip and Monica were contemporaries at Oxford—where they both got Firsts in English, but never knew each other—between 1940 and 1943. (Larkin’s bad eyesight meant he was not called up.) They first met at the end of 1946, when both were appointed to positions at Leicester University College, he as an assistant librarian, she as a lecturer in English. At the time of the Sark holiday they had been an item, as the saying later went, for at least ten years, much of it spent agonizing over the pros and the cons (in Larkin’s case predominantly the cons) of marriage. The photograph also makes them look as though they had, in some sense, been living in a time warp: there is an unmistakable air of the late 1940s about them, and each in his or her way—Larkin more noticeably, as their correspondence hints—had a distinct aversion to the unwelcome business of growing up.What a 1960 photograph will suggest, first and foremost, to a reader of Larkin’s poetry is the opening stanza of “Annus Mirabilis,” published in 1967, and, along with “This Be the Verse” (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” etc.), perhaps his most-quoted lines. “Sexual intercourse,” Larkin wrote, “began/In nineteen sixty-three,/(which was rather late for me).” In his depressed Eeyorish way, he may have merely been announcing (as his second stanza suggests) his own failure to be born at the right time so as to embrace a sexual revolution that was both reasonably safe (pills, diaphragms, no AIDS yet, and so on) and not conditional on marriage; but in fact anyone could be forgiven for the assumption that, owing to earlier social pressures, he was portraying himself as a late developer who only came to the full joys of sex at the ripe old age of forty-one. It is impossible that so meticulous and self-conscious a craftsman should have missed this highly misleading ambiguity.
The truth is that sexual intercourse began for him as early as the spring of 1945, when he was in charge of the public library at Wellington, a small town in Housman’s Shropshire. He had met Ruth Bowman there two years earlier, when she was a schoolgirl of sixteen. They shared a love of literature, which he as librarian encouraged; they were both shy people; the town talked. They began having sex regularly after Ruth’s eighteenth birthday, and did in fact become engaged. What Larkin ruefully described as his “misengagement” dragged on long after he and Monica met in 1946, and was only resolved, amid emotional stress all round, in 1950—Monica and Philip became lovers that summer. The whole episode is immensely revealing of Larkin’s remarkable capacity for producing self-exculpatory reasons for dithering endlessly between two ongoing affairs. At the same time he was juggling his close and needy relationship with his recently widowed mother, Eva. Though her sillinesses could bore him to distraction and drive him into frenzies of rage, she “was more than a respectable excuse for dodging the frightening or complicated things in his life,” as Larkin’s biographer Andrew Motion observes; “she crucially influenced the accents and attitudes of his poems.”
There is a quite extraordinary degree of self-centered solipsism here. In all his relationships, then or later, it was Larkin’s own interests that were, almost exclusively, uppermost in his mind: how far did Ruth, or Monica, or his mother, further or hinder his ideal of unencumbered freedom? What services could they perform that might be traded off against a certain diminution of that freedom? Inevitably, his poetry was pressed into service to justify this attitude. Even when he found Eva a house in Leicester, it was the increased threat posed by her resultant proximity that spurred him into his engagement to Ruth, while at the same time, as Motion says, “making it clear [to Ruth] that marriage would not automatically follow.” Nor was it as if he didn’t know what he was doing. His letters to his old school chum James Sutton make this all too clear. “No one would imagine me to be madly in love,” he wrote about his engagement, “and indeed I’m more ‘madly out of love’ than in love, so much so that I suspect all my isolationist feelings as possibly harmful and certainly rather despicable.”
Against this, Larkin’s claim that the engagement was “to give myself a sincere chance of ‘opening out’ towards someone I do love a lot in a rather strangled way, and to help her take her Finals” sounds embarrassingly self-justificatory. What tends to confirm such a verdict is that the pattern—carrying on intimate relationships with two women at the same time, unable or unwilling to decide between them, to the long-term exasperation and misery of both—was, a decade later, to repeat itself exactly, when Monica, the newcomer in the earlier affair, became the maîtresse en titre (whom Larkin found endless reasons not to marry, but could not renounce), and found their relationship now threatened by her lover’s budding romance with Maeve Brennan, his sub-librarian in Hull. Innocent, growingly devoted (their on-and-off affair lasted over eighteen years), and at first never letting this highly sensual relationship reach the point of actual intercourse (she was a firm Catholic), Maeve represented the most dangerous challenge to Monica’s inherently precarious position.
In 1961, Larkin suffered a sudden collapse, blackout, and brief hospitalization, for which no certain physical cause could be found. (Late onset epilepsy was suggested, but the symptoms never recurred.) It is tempting to see this—and some have done so—as evidence for an irreconcilable inner conflict. All the old arguments that he had trotted out to pacify Ruth—his distrust of marriage, his need for privacy—were now refurbished for Monica, whose sharp critical intelligence was not taken in for one moment. He promised to give Maeve up, and for a while he did; but in the summer of 1965 Monica—who herself remained unswervingly faithful to Philip during the entire course of their relationship, and would have been only too happy to marry him—discovered, to her cold fury, that he and Maeve were back together, and that he had been systematically lying to her about what was going on.
Watching him trying desperately to weasel his way out of this impasse is revealing. In a crucial letter that August, quoted at length in Motion’s biography but, for reasons one can only guess, missing from Thwaite’s collection, Larkin analyzes their entire life together, excusing himself on the grounds that “I’ve always tried to get you to see me as unlikable, and now I must be getting near success,” so that it wasn’t as if she hadn’t been warned. He then adds, magnanimously, “At least your sacrifice of yourself to me was superior to frog-marching me or anyone to the altar rails.” He doesn’t want to hurt her; he also doesn’t want to give up his affair with Maeve. And there is much more of the same, on and on.
One unexpected result of all this is to reveal Larkin as not so much underhanded in his dealings with his lovers (though that he was) as quite colossally imperceptive. He sometimes confided to friends that while he felt he ought to marry Monica, he wanted to marry Maeve. How he could have been so stupid defies the imagination. Maeve represented all that he most needed, on his own account, to escape from: conventional family life, a Catholic emphasis on numerous children, suburban innocence. (Over fifty when she read “Love Again,” Maeve had to have it explained to her what “wanking” meant.) Monica, on the other hand, not only shared his intellectual interests (and, fine teacher that she was, proved his best critic), but also took part with zest in his Beatrix Potter fantasies. She matched him drink for drink, serving gin in goblets described by one obituarist as being the size of small fishbowls; she even managed to combine Peter Rabbit & Co. with a Rabelaisian delight in Larkin’s particular brand of literary pornography. An only child, she seems to have had no more interest in starting a family than he did. On the face of it, she was the nearest thing to an ideal partner Larkin could ever have hoped for.
Yet her moves toward independence unnerved him almost as much as Ruth’s familial urges. When, on the death of her parents (over which he offered her minimal comfort), she was able to buy a delightful little vacation home at Haydon Bridge in Northumberland, decorated it in Regency style, and invited him to visit, his initial reaction was disapproval. A place of her own decreased his power over her. The journey north, he worried, would be a time-consuming expense. She won him over by offering him, for the first time, an undisturbed secret retreat, a private rabbit-hole where, as Motion explains, “they lazed, drank, read, pottered round the village and amused themselves with private games.” One of these, extended over years, involved systematic obscene (and sometimes very funny) alterations to the text of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Flight from the Enchanter, a nice reconciliation of childish fantasies with adult dirty-mindedness. Why, oh why, I kept asking myself as I read more and more by and about him, couldn’t the idiot see when he was truly well off?
At this point we need to remind ourselves that had Larkin not been a famous poet, the indecisiveness and self-interest dominating his relationships with women would have been of no great interest to posterity. But a famous poet he was, and arguably a great one, and one piece of his public myth that has proved immensely attractive is the idea that he deliberately, and selflessly, sacrificed mere personal connections, above all marriage and familial ties, to the lonely demands of literary creativity. In the last resort, the Muse came first. This notion took something of a beating with the first selections from Larkin’s letters to be published, and Motion’s uncomfortably penetrating biography made short work of his worst self-exculpatory posturing. But recently there has been a reversion to the idea of the self-denying, artistically committed poet. Above Monica’s head on that wraparound dust jacket is a quotation from a review by Hilary Spurling, not normally given to hyperbole, who remarks that “what beats most steadily between the lines is the depth and strength of his commitment which makes other more eventful lives seem essentially frivolous, if not empty, by comparison.” Well, does it? Do they? In the light of the reasonably copious biographical evidence, the letters to Monica in particular, this claim looks less than convincing.
What emerges, with daunting clarity, is the fact that Larkin’s psychological make-up—combining, in contradictory style, an oft-expressed urge toward solitude with a paralyzing fear of death, the latter hardly rendered more remote by his genially self-indulgent lifestyle—would have been exactly the same had he never written a single poem in his life. Not only were his basic patterns of behavior deeply formed, but they became apparent very early. Some were more revealingly expressed than the admissions that in later life his public persona allowed itself. The fear of death recurs like a drumbeat even in his earliest poems. He keeps yearning for solitude, only to complain of loneliness when he gets it.
Women are a major distraction and pitfall from the get-go, and he can never make up his mind about them. “Sex,” noted the young masturbator in his pocket diary for 1950, “is too good to share with anyone else.” A year earlier, another diary entry informs us that “as far as I can see all women are stupid beings. What is more, marriage is a revolting institution.” His other main objection to it was that it came too expensive. These private thoughts, be it noted, surfaced during his engagement to Ruth and at the onset of his lifelong affair with Monica. In a review in 1959, looking back, he referred to his revelatory discovery that it was not people that he disliked but children: “their noise, their nastiness ... their back-answers, their cruelty, their silliness.” He might have added his other underlying distastes for them: they drained away time, money, and attention.
Thus the most intriguing factor about Larkin’s supposed commitment to a quasi-monastic life devoted to the Muse is how little he in fact adhered to it. Ovid’s dictum—Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor, “I see the better and approve it, but follow the worse”—might have been written with Larkin as its prize example. He committed himself, unnecessarily, to a mass of casual literary journalism. Far from avoiding relationships with women, he undertook two long-lasting major affairs, as well as quite a few other dalliances on the side, that absorbed an enormous amount of his time and energy.
What on the surface he wanted, and more or less admitted, was to enjoy all the conveniences of an available lover without most of the concomitant financial or emotional responsibilities. In 1964, he wrote to Monica of “how nice it would be to have you beside (or under!) me ... just gathering your great smooth hips under me & shoving into you as I felt inclined,” a statement surely in the running for the least romantic declaration on record. Not surprisingly, in a rambling discussion of their attitudes to sex, we learn that while Monica wants personal emotion in making love, he does not see the act that way at all, and to pretend otherwise would be faking it. No one, least of all he himself, had a clue what went on in his strangulated subconscious.
Most strikingly of all, Larkin’s oftrepeated claim to detest what he poeticized as “the toad work” was in fact largely camouflage for its exact opposite. In 1968 he began a letter to Monica with the following verse:
Morning, noon & bloody night
Seven sodding days a week,
I slave at filthy work, that might
Be done by any book-drunk freak.
This goes on till I kick the bucket:
FUCK IT FUCK IT FUCK IT FUCK IT.
These words were written after more than a decade in which, as a librarian (despite his barrage of self-deprecatory throwaway remarks), he had shown himself conscientious, inventive, well-informed, hard-working, and even somewhat professional, while midwifing the first of the postwar British university libraries to birth, something that no “book-drunk freak” could ever have done. It was not his poetry for which fellow librarians most admired him. The Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull stands as a monument to his brilliance in a career that he affected to despise. He organized every aspect of its planning and its building, acquiring for the purpose a vast amount of technical and architectural knowledge.
Nor was this a one-shot. Even back at Wellington, at the age of twenty-one, in his first job, he had transformed an old-fashioned dump (“this hole of toad’s turds,” he called it) into an attractive venue, more than doubling the number of registered borrowers and books issued. All the energy and imaginative application that went into his professional career had been learned from his father (along with those extreme right-wing views for which he later became notorious), and were probably on that account systematically played down. By 1962, however, when he wrote “Toads Revisited,” free time had come to look less attractive, a haven for the stupid or the weak, while his in-tray and “loaf-haired secretary” (Betty Mackereth, with whom he had a late-flowering affair that produced at least two recently discovered poems) offered comforting stability. This, of course, did not stop Larkin from grousing about work; he was as ready to contradict himself at need as Walt Whitman.
As by now should be apparent, Philip Larkin was not only a complex and elusive character, but also tended to present different, and carefully edited, sides of his personality to each of those friends (mostly women) with whom he had any kind of intimacy. In the ugly vocabulary of our day, he was a master compartmentalizer. In Maeve’s company he scrupulously avoided any touch of the four-letter words and pornographic high jinks he so relished with Monica or Kingsley Amis, so that when Maeve was faced with this side of him after his death, her initial reaction was one of shocked astonishment. The similar dismay generated in readers of his selected correspondence and Motion’s biography by these and other unpalatable traits, such as his racism, gloomy depression, and occasional outbursts of sour misogyny, have tended to give a darker impression of him than the facts warrant. One of the most valuable features of Letters to Monica is the substantial revision of this picture that they cumulatively present.
In this correspondence, Larkin brings whimsical self-deprecation to a fine art. He is a bald vulture sitting on a crag; a plant in a pot that nobody waters; an egg sculpted in lard, with goggles. He compares himself to the ridiculous Mr. Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm, whom women saw as “a mischievous faun—he thought.” In his own mind—at the age of thirty-five!—he seems “to walk on a transparent surface and see beneath me all the bones and wrecks and tentacles that will eventually claim me: in other words, old age, incapacity, loneliness, death of others & myself.” He has done nothing with his life. Even his appointment as the youngest university librarian in England sends him into fits of miserable anxiety and rigid terror, “as though I had agreed to command NATO forces in Europe.” His Belfast chief, J.J. Graneek, remarked not surprisingly that “he’d never seen anyone react to success like it.” Yet Larkin can also respond with rapt delight to a Dickensian Christmas landscape, to early summer flowers (may, hawthorn, chestnut candles, cowparsley), or to birdsong at dawn—though early deafness was soon to isolate him. Few moments are sadder than the one when, on a country walk with Monica, he finds out that he can no longer hear the lark singing high overhead.
Despite all this, Monica again and again brings out the light, cheerful, witty side of her elusive companion. She also (as the quotations from her end of their correspondence make clear) has no time for his evasions, and shows herself a match for him intellectually. In these pages, she often figures as the voice of common sense, sanity, and reason. It is a real cause for regret that the correspondence does not present her letters in full. I found myself watching out eagerly, as I read, for her next contribution to the exchange: ripping up Philip’s vague claims to socialism; pinpointing D.H. Lawrence’s inconsistencies over women; trying to inject some reality into Philip’s relationship with his mother; flinging off strong insights into Thomas Hardy’s poems; lecturing Philip on his marital notions (“you can’t marry just because you think it’s a moral duty & a nasty one”); getting Amis’s number (he wasn’t just making faces, he was trying them on, because he did not know who he was); and, sadly, in 1962, after learning about Maeve, telling Philip: “Anyway, I accept, don’t I, & without private reservation or grudge, that you don’t like me enough to marry me; then it seems rather unkind for you to want to tell me so, & perhaps tell me all the things that are wrong with me.” We get just enough of Monica to sense just how much we have lost by not having the lot.
For Larkin she is his rabbit, his “dearest bun” (and often represented as such, aproned, in surprisingly skillful little sketches included with his letters). Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame are familiar and much-quoted authors—early on we find Monica giving him the Rackham-illustrated Wind in the Willows as a Christmas present—who offer them a ready-made escapist world when their adult relationship becomes too difficult. As so often, Larkin is aware of this: “When we meet ... I grow stiff & silent, and never move off the ground of rabbithood, which is all very well but prevents discussion of the real situation.” It is, as he says, “ironic that two such articulate beings [should] understand each other so poorly,” though I suspect one of his lurking anxieties was that Monica in fact understood him too well. Yet whatever he did, whatever she said, for four tumultuous decades they remained together, if separate, and for the last few years, when sickness made inroads on both, not even separate.
In some of his letters, the terror of replicating his parents’ loveless suburban ménage takes over. “Do you think if we married we should ... live in a semi-detached house called ‘Oakdene’?” he asks, and goes on to muse over “the bakelite handle of the ‘french window’ ... the kitchen audible in the lavatory & vice versa.” He dismisses his fears as “a horror story,” and he is sure that “we’d do better than that”—and yet he acts almost as though their individual wills were powerless to prevent some such depressing slide into ugly misery once they had uttered the fatal words “I do.” The dithering and wavering, of which there is a good deal, becomes at least understandable in the light of such dark fantasies. “Doing’s what I’m bad at,” he remarks at one point, and the painful accounts of his attempts to find digs or flats confirm this. After a particularly convoluted screed about Maeve, “I suppose one shouldn’t be writing letters like this at 44,” he writes, “one ought to have got it all sorted out twenty years ago.” Even the most sympathetic reader may be forgiven for agreeing, firmly, with both statements.
Perhaps because the bulk of these letters date from a comparatively early period in their relationship—the best ones are those written during Larkin’s time in Belfast and the first years of his appointment at Hull—cheerfulness, not to say flippancy, keeps breaking in. This makes some of these letters almost as much fun to read as those of Kingsley Amis, with whom Larkin conducted a lifelong correspondence—while at the same time never ceasing to attack his great friend to Monica, in letter after letter, for insensitivity and laziness, and ignorance about jazz, and psychological obtuseness, and keeping a dirty and disorganized house, and being a hack writer. Since Amis had, notoriously, modeled the appalling Margaret Peel of Lucky Jim directly on Monica, and become filthy rich as a result, this may be understandable, but it does give one pause for thought.
No wonder Larkin was insisting, as early as 1954, that his diaries must be destroyed after his death. Even more significantly, at the time of his hospitalization in 1961, he refused to let Monica stay in his apartment during her visit to him because of private papers and diaries left lying about there, “& I couldn’t face anyone I thought had seen them, let alone being willing to expose you or anyone else to the embarrassment & no doubt even pain of reading what I had written.” It would have been intriguing, in an awful way, to find out what Philip’s unspoken thoughts about his “dearest bun” really were; but after his death Betty Mackereth, his faithful secretary to the end, shredded and then incinerated some thirty volumes of his diaries. I doubt whether we understand his poetry any the less as a result.
Back, finally, to essentials. In the last resort it is the poems that matter. They are what justifies—if justification be needed—this long inquiry into the patterns of their author’s life. How far, by and large, do Larkin’s letters to Monica Jones enhance our understanding of his creative work? At first sight, not all that much. The correspondence is certainly that of a literary duo: allusions come thick and fast, and casual judgments with them. Who cares, we are asked, about “asses like Blake or bores like Byron?” How much of the impetus forMoby-Dick (“a kind of fishy Dickens”) came from “sublimated liking-to-talk-to-sailors”? We get neat parodies of Chaucer’s Pardoner and Manciple, a contemptuous attack on Leavis (“Stupid little sod, the ideas rattling in him like peas”), a paean of praise for Robert Graves’s notoriously anti-conventional Clark Lectures, The Crowning Privilege, and quite a few unannotated quotations, ranging from the Elizabethan Chidiock Tichborne’s verses written the night before his execution (“And now I live, and now my life is done”) to the irritated exclamation of the little Japanese baroness in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies: “Oh, twenty damns to your great pig-face.”
What we do not find, surprisingly, is all that much about Larkin’s own work, let alone Monica’s role in it. He dedicated The Less Deceived to her, but besides asking her advice about a title, and whether to include “Church Going” (an uncertainty that takes one aback, since it is unquestionably one of his best poems), there is very little: she offers him occasional ideas on details, which he often rejects. Of “Dockery and Son”, contrasting the life of marriage and children with his own view that “life is first boredom, then fear,” Larkin writes in 1966 that “I shall spend the rest of my life trying to get away from that poem,” at which point Thwaite ends his citation, so that we do not know if there followed a reason why. He dreams of rewriting James Thomson’s The Seasons, but he can’t do it. We hear about “empty-page staring.” One short poem that started out as a self-parody (“The local snivels through the fields”) gets into the serious corpus. He states at one point, intriguingly, that “I often feel poems have to have some falsity in them, like yeast, or they won’t ‘rise,’” but he fails to elaborate. Inspiration is essential: “If I’m not inspired, nothing will ever be done.” And later: “In the absence of this [poetic] impulse nothing stirs.” Apart from the usual moans about writer’s block and the frustrations of the creative life, that is about the sum of it.
It is some years since I studied Philip Larkin’s poetry with any care, and I decided at this point that the time had come to reread his entire output. This I did, and the results surprised me. I had never been as enthusiastic about him as most of my friends: in particular, I had never seen how the author of sour or bloody-minded squibs such as “The Life With a Hole in It,” “The View,” “This Be the Verse,” “Self’s the Man,” or even “High Windows” could come to be described, by many, as Britain’s “best-loved” twentieth-century poet. In accordance with conventional judgment, I saw his talent as peaking in 1964 withThe Whitsun Weddings, and declining bleakly thereafter, with too many poems essaying, not always convincingly, variations on the same old personal obsessions that he had lived with since childhood. Like A.N. Wilson, I disliked being told what to think, and sometimes saw Larkin, as he did, as a character perilously close to the uncle “shouting smut” in “The Whitsun Weddings.”
But studying his collected poems, in chronological order, radically modified these old preconceptions. I still set aside the satirical potshots, such as “Annus Mirabilis” or “Self’s the Man,” as clever and manipulative exercises in light verse, most often designed (“Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself”) as propaganda in defense of his own way of life. The themes—transience of youth, inevitability of age and death—remained the same. What came as new, with the force of a revelation, was the steady, inexorable growth of poetic skill and creative depth, to the very end. There are flashes in the early poems—in the final stanza, for example, of “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album,” encapsulating “a past that no one now can share,/No matter whose your future; calm and dry,/It holds you like a heaven, and you lie/Unvariably lovely there,/Smaller and clearer as the years go by.” In “Church Going” and “An Arundel Tomb,” Larkin’s confidence and skill are steadily growing, so that in the (deservedly famous) final stanza of the latter he can—contemplating the sculptured medieval couple, hand clasped in hand—voice the kind of truth that so much of his life and correspondence was spent nervously undercutting:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
With all this in mind, I went back to Letters to Monica, and saw how much, in his own twisted and inarticulate way, they do indeed embody Larkin’s own yearnings, choked always under his self-preservative instinct (“The difficult part of love/Is being selfish enough... My life is for me./As well ignore gravity”). All this is (as he himself said of money singing) intensely sad: almost as sad as the fact that what I regard as his greatest poem, “Aubade,” one of his very last, should be a final and near-perfect summing-up of the death that he constantly faced and feared,
... the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we
And shall be lost in always.
Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible,
nothing more true.
Yesterday I listened, in a cold chill, to Larkin himself reading “Aubade,” as no one else could, and now from outre-tombe: an unforgettable, and scary, experience. It more than confirmed my opinion of the poem. It also aroused, not for the first time, my heartfelt sympathy and admiration for Monica Jones, whose single-minded devotion to an extremely difficult and contrary genius not only fostered a clutch of great poems, but stimulated one of the oddest and most improbably touching love stories of the twentieth century.
Peter Green is an emeritus professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin, a professional translator, and an occasional poet and novelist. This article originally ran in the July 14, 2011 issue of the magazine.