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!

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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

W.H. Auden, ‘In Praise of Limestone’: A Walk-Through Guide

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‘In Praise of Limestone’ by W.H. Auden

When I first encountered this poem a little over a week ago, it caused me problems. From the outset it is a complex landscape poem whose images can be difficult to penetrate. But bear with me, as it is a poem which deserves re-reading and bears fruit when doing so. This post is dedicated to the poem and will hopefully offer readers a way into the poem’s fascinating landscape.

‘Landscape’ being a key word to this poem. Taken quite literally, this poem reads as a dedication to a limestone landscape, with it’s ‘surface fragrance of time’, ‘secret system of caves and conduits’, ‘little ravine whose cliffs entertain/ The butterfly and the lizard’, etc etc. So essentially Auden, like the Romantics before him, has taken the limestone landscape (presumably symbolic of the British landscape which contains lots of limestone) and has written a poem ‘in praise of’ its beauty? This would be a deception and it is a long way away from what Auden is attempting to do in this poem.

If we look at the very first line, Auden’s subject for the poem becomes immediately apparent:

“If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,

Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly

Because it dissolves in water…”

Proceeding through the poem, we find that this landscape in fact mirrors and symbolises the people which inhabit it, the so-called ‘inconstant ones’. Note how Auden does not use the word ‘limestone’ here, but rather the ambiguous ‘it’ in the first line. Why does he do this?

Another question to pose here is the significance of fact that the limestone ‘dissolves in water’. Why is this significant? The British Isles is known for its limestone landscape which is changed and shaped by the weather. However, as we know, Britain’s climate is moderate and is rarely submitted to extreme weather conditions. This means that the landscape, which dissolves and changes slowly, is used to progressive change. Something which Auden seems to think significant somehow. The poet builds on this image later when he writes:

“…accustomed to a stone that responds,

They have never had to veil their faces in awe

Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;

…Their eyes have never looking into infinite space

…Their legs have never encountered the fungi

And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives

With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.”

So Auden is basically reminding us of Britain’s temperate climate. It might be a little wet and windy, but we are fortunate, he seems to say. We don’t have to deal with any volcanoes, tsunamis, the wicked beasts of the jungle or such terrors. Fair enough. But so what? Isn’t a poet supposed to tell us something blumming useful?

Well hang around. As mentioned above, the poem discusses the people who inhabit this landscape and actually suggests that their personalities and characteristics are shaped directly by the landscape itself. The first stanza contains an interesting image of a mother and son which is certainly worth discussing:

“What could be more like Mother or a fitter background,

For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges

Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting

That for all his faults he is loved…”

The image is fairly simple and quite charming. But what has it got to do with the landscape? It seems to me that Auden takes the values of the knowing wisdom and loving acceptance of the Mother and carries them over to apply to the landscape. One notable and essential feature of the poem is the personification of the landscape, which is exemplified in descriptions such as ‘the springs/ That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle‘, and this personification certainly at work in this image. Also the progressive nature of the landscape which changes incrementally also makes me think that this is another aspect of the motherly image. Your mother constantly sees you grow on a day to day basis and observes you as you change from an infant crawling around the living room in a nappy with food drooling from your gob into the ‘flirtatious male’ of the poem leaning against a rock almost John Lennon-esque. In the same way the landscape develops with the constantly dissolving, eroding limestone. Also if we think historically about the British Isles, we see this same nature of incremental change being part of our history. We haven’t been successfully invaded (Hoorah!) for God-knows how long. Also, we have never witnessed any civil eruptions in the form of a revolution, unlike those crazy Frenchies back in 1789! The only form of disorder we could think back to is the Civil War but other than that, the British Way is to change the law of the land little by little, year on year. “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “Drink Tea” or whatever the motto is nowadays.

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And no wonder he is writing a poem ‘In Praise of’ us, look at how logical and level-headed and just generally great we are! Or not. Auden does not seem wholly impressed by these aspects of our personality. In the first stanza, referring back to the image of the mother and son, he seems to imply that our constant comfort and ease leads to vanity:

“…. From weathered outcrop

To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to

Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,

Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish

To receive more attention than his brothers, whether

By easing or pleasing, can easily take.”

In the same stanza, Auden writes of the ‘short distances and definite places’ of the landscape, suggesting that Brits enjoy their stability and comfort and would not like to commit to too much, especially not far-away places. This simplicity is insinuated once more in the second stanza where he refers to

“the band of rivals… engaged

On the shady side of a square at midday in

Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think

There are any importance secrets…”

So basically, being the simple, straightforward folks that we are, when we talk to our rivals we talk at ease because we are far too transparent to keep secrets from one another. This simple-nature is also at fault for our conception of God. During that epoch church numbers were dwindling as people’s religious beliefs waned (probably due to the effects of the World Wars) and so this is an interesting critique of religion during the period. According to Auden, the British are

“…….. unable

To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral

And not to be pacified by a clever line

Or a good lay…”

In other words, habituated to our temperate climate, we have never experienced the true extremities of nature or the nature of God which exist in the world, giving us a rather simple conception of Him. If we sin, we can always go to church to sing a few hymns and all will be forgiven. Jolly good! Except not according to Auden, according to whom we seem to be plagued by our insular experience.

“… This is why, I suppose,

The best and worst never stayed here long but sought,

Immoderate soils where the beauty was no so external…”

The best – people for whom the British existence was too simple – and the worst – people who had sinned and knew they had to repay on earth in a more realistic manner – cannot simply bide their time in this straightforward, basic lifestyle, according to the poet. Instead they have to flee to a foreign climate, symbolised in the poem by ‘the granite wastes’, where things are much tougher and demand more of the human character. The granite landscape, like the landscape, is personified almost in a demon-like manner as it ‘cried’ and ‘purred’ to the reader.

“…”Come!” purred the clays and gravels,

“On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers

Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb

In the grand manner…”

This distant, foreign landscape offers the trials and tribulations necessary for your personality to grow. The best and the worst of the British desire this challenge and will seek this foreign landscape. Auden himself moved to the United States at the outbreak of WWII in 1939 and perhaps this was Auden challenging himself in foreign climes. Most of us, however, are content with our cosy lives in the UK and fail to grow by challenged ourselves with the granite climate.

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By the final stanza, then, Auden appears to have made his mind up about life on the British Isles. Thus he poses the question:

“… A backward

And dilapidated province, connected

To the big world by a tunnel, with a certain

Seedy appeal, is that all it is now?

Judging by what he’s told us already, we feel we already know his answer and might expect him to leave the question as it is, rhetorically. But no, instead he decides the poem with an intriguing:

“… Not quite:”

Has Auden changed his mind? Is he bi-polar or something? What’s wrong with this man!? In the following lines he writes that

“… The poet,

Admired for his earnest habit of calling

The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle…”

which, to me at least, means that the poet’s role is simply to state the truth, to tell things as they are. The first thing to note is how this idea of the poet conflicts the ideas of the poets who came before him, particularly the English Romantics such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, etc. For them, the poet is a prophet, somebody able to see truth and beauty in the world which the ordinary man in incapable of viewing. As Shelley put it, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Yet not for Auden. So Auden in this poem is “calling/ The sun the sun” and telling the truth about Britain. This is how it is, but now he seems to be saying that this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing:

“It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself

It does not neglect, but calls into question…”

Towards the end of the poem, Auden moves on to discuss the very nature of humanity. Being human, for Auden, is being inconstant. Being unpredictable. Being instinctive. This is a potent message in an era where the advancement of technology and robotics seem to question the indispensability of mankind in the workplace and elsewhere in the world. Yet for Auden

“…  not, please! to resemble

The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water

Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these

Are our Common Prayer…”

Thus the poem has changed here from being a critique of British mannerisms and habits to a plea for change, for spontaneity and random actions in day to day life. We must challenge ourselves, place ourselves in difficult situations, visit strange places, do weird things. Why? To improve ourselves as characters. Carpe Diem. “Try everything once except incest and morris dancing” (Arnold Bax). Along those sorts of lines I guess.

“…when I try to imagine a faultless love

Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur

Of underground streams, but what I see is a limestone landscape.”

In the last three lines the poem Auden evokes “the life to come”. What he seems to say is that the “limestone landscape” which he has been discussing and critiquing, is what he seems when envisaging heaven. What? How can he criticise it and then say it’s heavenly?! Well as he has stated earlier in the poem, the limestone landscape of Britain is associate with a certain stability, tranquillity, ease of mind and comfort. A place of rest, almost. While on earth we need to challenge ourselves, achieve something, let ourselves grow by exploring new climates, it is in the afterlife where we should achieve calmness and peace. It thus seems fitting that after many years spent in New York and in Austria exploring the world of ‘granite’, at the end of his life Auden returned to England, perhaps to seek the serene beauty of ‘the [chuckling] springs’, ‘the caves and conduits’ and ‘the murmur/Of underground streams’ that flow through our limestone landscape.

Please note this is just my own reading of the poem and I encourage you to dig deeper that I have, exploring the poem’s landscape in the same way Auden urges us to explore the granite landscape of foreign climes.

Thanks for reading!