Precarious idyll: Philip and Monica holiday on the Isle of Sark in the summer of 1960
The publication of a selection of Philip Larkin's letters in 1992 provoked a memorable spasm of academic sanctimoniousness. What the letters revealed in Larkin's private life — womanising, racism, class hatred, habitual recourse to pornography — was seized as an opportunity to belittle the poetry. Lisa Jardine deplored Larkin's verse as ill-suited to the "diversity and richness of contemporary multi-racial Britain", and Tom Paulin, reviewing the letters in the TLS, reviled them as a "distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became." What Clive James called "a rush of dunces" followed. No matter that many of these camp followers had, in the past, asserted the impossibility of writing possessing meaning, while at the same time proclaiming the death of the author. If a sufficiently sordid meaning could be come by, then it would serve as a stick with which to beat an author raised from the dead for the sole purpose of being once again killed.
Letters to Monica, a generous selection of Larkin's correspondence with his lover and companion Monica Jones, recently released in paperback (Faber & Faber, £12.99), offers more for the sanctimonious to purse their lips over. For instance, take this rueful passage from a letter of 1965, in which Larkin touches on his problems with women:
Not telling you of the affair in the first place, or of its wan latter recrudescences, was just infantile precaution — I didn't want to hurt you, & I didn't want to give it up. I had in consequence more trouble with Maeve [Brennan], who had to accept my departures & your arrivals, & our holidays — usually she did so resignedly, but she occasionally told me off. You can see what a dislikable & discreditable position it was. It could only have been accepted by someone as weak & selfish as myself.
Even when being self-unsparing about his weakness and selfishness, Larkin is unwilling to write carelessly. "Truly" (he had written to Monica 14 years beforehand) "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." That phrasing refuses to decide between saying that the majority of poetic fascination is achieved by this route, or rather that this route leads to the (rare) pinnacles of poetic fascination. But either way, that principle of playing the Parnassian off against the demotic is at work in a slightly diffuse way in that quoted passage, where it gives shape to Larkin's confused and contradictory purposes (apology, explanation, exculpation, confession, self-chastisement). The Hardyesque poeticism of "wan latter recrudescences" sets off and recommends the plainness of "I didn't want to hurt you, & I didn't want to give it up". The adult word "infantile" sets up the moment a few lines later, when Larkin indeed metaphorically occupies the position of the child, and is "told...off" by Maeve.