The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1940-85)… in Quotes

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The Selected Letters of Phillip Larkin 1940-85, edited by Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber, 1992)

1) To J.B.Sutton – 10 August 1943

“Yesterday I was 21 – thank you again for the ‘El Greco’ card – and it doesn’t interest me. Yesterday, too, I had to go to London for a Civil Service interview, which was a bit flustering. They asked me what I really wanted to do, and I said ‘Be a novelist’. I had to stick to it, too—but if you’d known how presumptuous it sounded… Aaahhss!! (expressing disgust). Particularly as I have been trying to write a proper story all week, and failing miserably. For the present I seem to have lost all touch with the mystery that lies at the bottom of creating art…”

Reading Larkin’s poetry, you would describe the man as being anything other than Romantic. His work draws from the quotidian of his suburban life in Hull – from renting out a room (‘Mr Bleaney’), to train journeys (‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Here’) to going for a walk in a park and getting irritated at everybody (‘Toads Revisited’) – but here Larkin shows signs of being engrossed by the ‘mystery’ of writing and creating art, a very Romantic idea, and something which is incessantly lurking in his thoughts.

2) To Norman Iles – 26 August 1943

“Dear Norman –

Sorry there has been a noticeable hiatus between my receiving your last letter & my writing of this. Time drifts by, & any resemblance to a serious & valuable existence is entirely coincidental.”

In his letters, as in his poetry, Larkin makes clear his obsession/awareness of the passage of time. He was a man who sought to live a ‘meaningful’ existence, but he often demonstrates difficulty in discovering what is ‘meaningful’. He was, on the other hand, an expert on the meaningless in life…

3) To J.B.Sutton – 29 November 1946

“Every now and then a ghostly hand grabs the seat of my trousers and hauls me several feet off the ground, and I hear a ghostly voice say ‘Philip Larkin! You and your sharp sensitivity to words! What have you written since August 1945? Cock all!’ The hand then releases me and I come a terrible bash on the cobbles.”

Written 3 years after the first quote, this demonstrates Larkin’s obsession with the production of literature. I’m no psychoanalyst, but this image of a Christmas Carol-esque ghoul interrogating Larkin is fascinating and, for me, underlines the meaning that the production of literature has for Larkin; to defy this ghoul, to defy death and live on in the world. I also love Larkin’s hilarious description of his recent output:- ‘Cock all!’ This is quite typical of the letters and Larkin is constantly effing and blinding to his hearts content.

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4) To J.B.Sutton – 9 September 1948

“It greatly irritates me that these days are taken away, we are robbed of our lives, by employers & the like.”

Once more Larkin worries about the passage of time and ageing. Neil Corcoran (in English Poetry Since 1940) describes Larkin as ‘pre-eminently a poet of the terror of ageing’ and such quotes makes it clear to see why. In his poetry, he often concerns himself with how we, as human beings, spend the passage of time (see ‘Here’, ‘Toads Revisited’). Yet he often comes to the contradicting conclusion that it doesn’t matter what we do in life as nothing we can do has any meaning (gleeful fellow!). So when he comes to the end of ‘Mr Bleaney’ and announces ‘He warranted no better’ he has to add a sceptical ‘I don’t know’ – who is he to judge?

5) To J.B.Sutton – 15 September 1948

There is “a quarrel between the necessity & beauty of being united with a woman one loves, & the necessity of not being entangled or bullied or victimised or patronised or any of the other concomitants of love & marriage.”

As in his poetry, Larkin frequently denounces marriage in his letters. In this one, where he discusses the treatment of marriage in a DH Lawrence (Larkin is a huge DH Lawrence fan) novel, his language clearly extolls how he feels about marriage. This is something mirrored in poems such as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ where the significance of the weddings become on a par to

An Odeon [going] past, a cooling tower, And

Someone running up to bowl…

Ouch…

6) To Norman Iles – 30 December 1942

“we only have one fire nowadays & although I can light a gas fire in the dining room if I like, the pressure is so low you have to dangle your balls on it before you feel any heat.”

This is Larkin on the perks of student life. Throughout his letters with his closest friends (especially Norman Iles, Kingsley Amis (Author of Lucky Jim), and J.B.Sutton) Larkin is downright crude and vulgar. When such letters were released Larkin’s reputation took a sudden dive as people became aware of some of his more controversial views. Nevertheless I find such passages as this full of the vibrancy of youth and incredibly funny. As I sat wrapped in several layers to keep warm in my student accommodation, I could certainly connect with Larkin’s pain!

Larkin

7) To J.B.Sutton – 24 March 1949

“My great trouble, as usual, is that I lack desires. Life is to know what you want, & to get it. But I don’t feel I desire anything. I am unconvinced of the worth of literature. I don’t want money or position. I find it easier to abstain from women that sustain the trouble of them & the creakings of my own monastic personality.”

I felt this quote contains a resonant truth, that life ‘is to know what you want and to get it’. Spot on. A truly modern philosophy. But as I near the end of my degree and decide on a career and what I want to do for the next 45 years, something that I will enjoy and will be meaningful and fulfilling(in the Larkinesque context), I empathise with Larkin’s sombre tone here. It is also surprising to have Larkin question the value of literature, something he seemed to strive for and build his life around. I feel it shows his breadth of mind and sceptical nature, although this is often interpreted as being a deep cynicism. This is certainly something to take on board when reading his poetry, which is often accused of criticizing but never offering anything in return.

8) To Kingsley Amis – 20 August 1943

“marriage seems a revolting institution, unless the parties have enough money to keep reasonably distant from each other—imagine sharing a bed with a withered old woman!

No, sir. A lonely bachelorhood interspersed with buggery and strictly-monetary fornication seems to me preferable…”

Aged just 21, Larkin certainly knew what he wanted. And he got it – spending his bachelor life as a librarian in Hull writing poetry in the evenings after doing the dishes, as he writes in Required Writing. His strong disapproval of marriage is once again made explicit here. I don’t think he was ever going to be convinced?

9) To J.B.Sutton – 30 October 1949

“My views are very simple and childish: I think we are born, & grow up, & die.”

For a man who reflected so deeply on life, society, religion, traditions, marriage, children, work, etc, Larkin seems to have perceived life as being quite simple. For me, this quote runs throughout his poetry. He was a man who questioned every pillar that society was built upon, but consequently struggled to find meaning in the world. Even literature, at times, became worthless, as seen above. Such being the case, all that is left to do is to live life. But always be sceptical, and stand toe-to-toe with the truth. Don’t let tradition or fashion or social rules cloud it.

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Illustration by Larkin

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