'Dear Mr. Larkin... .'
Larkin was one of those letter writers beloved of archivists, someone who not only attempted to reply to most of the letters he received but who also kept carbon copies of those replies. As a whole the collection will provide, amongst other things, invaluable insights into the literary establishment between 1950 and 1985. There are however some individual items of note which researchers may appreciate.
One of the writers who wrote to Larkin was the novelist Margaret Drabble. On 17 January 1974 Drabble wrote to Larkin asking if he would be interested in writing an article on Thomas Hardy's poetry for a book on the world of Thomas Hardy which she was editing for Weidenfeld and Nicolson.(1) The letter is intriguing because Drabble does not stop there. She takes the opportunity to tell Larkin that she has 'long admired your poetry and Hardy's'. Most intriguing is the postscript:
I'd also like to say how particularly I like 'Born Yesterday'; I thought about it and Yeats a great deal whilst writing my last novel.(2)
This last novel was The Needle's Eye (1972), which has a epigram from Yeats's poem 'The fascination of what's difficult' on its opening page:
The fascination of what's difficult Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent Spontaneous joy and natural content Out of my heart.
Drabble's postscript to her letter raises several interesting points. It stresses the importance of poetry to the prose writer at the time of creating. Larkin's poem 'Born Yesterday' otters an interesting counterfoil to Yeats's mood. 'Born Yesterday' was written in 1954 'for Sally Amis'. In it Larkin ponders over what makes for that elusive quality, 'happiness' with life.
Instead of wishing beauty, innocence, and love on the child and burdening her with expectations, he considers the possible value of ordinariness:
In fact, may you be dull - If that is what a skilled, Vigilant, flexible, Unemphasised, enthralled Catching of happiness is called.(3)
Larkin's subjunctive allows hope and self motivation more sway than Yeats's past tense. He also defines the word 'dull' with lively verbs. One wonders whether Drabble weighed both poems in the balance before deciding on the doleful Yeats as the more representative epigram for her characters' moods and philosophy.
This leads me to my concluding point. Writers have influences on their creative minds which are not necessarily traceable in their texts and yet are crucial to us in assessing the art of their fiction. Letters such as the one dated 17 January 1974 from Drabble to Larkin are minute pieces of a wider picture. Even so they are crucial records of moods, memento mori of a period of creativity such as that which produced The Needle's Eye. Clearly Philip Larkin was a touchstone of literary good taste and an important influence for up-and-coming young writers. Writers move on and away from the texts which influenced them; it falls to archives to preserve the moment when they came together.
1 Larkin turned the offer down. The book later appeared as The Genius of Thomas Hardy in 1976.
2 DPL(2) Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull.
3 The quotation from 'Born Yesterday' by Philip Larkin is reprinted from The Less Deceived by permission of The Marvell Press, England and Australia.
REBECCA JOHNSON University of Hull