Nomination: Livings [16 October/23 November/10 December 1971. From High Windows]
Larkin always said that he hadn’t wanted to be a poet. What he hoped for was a life as a writer of prose fiction, a novelist: but after the two early novels it just hadn’t worked out. But the wish may have survived to give strength to some of his very best work. The late poems may be better, in their grounded richness, than the early novels were, or the unwritten ones might have been.
The three poems that make up ‘Livings’ open like fictions, short stories perhaps. It is hard to get more matter-of-fact than ‘things like dips and feed’. The narrator of this first poem, business-man or commercial traveller, even locates himself as might the hero of a 19th century novel, at the —— Hotel in —ton’, where he reads his newspaper, the –shire Times. The scene he welcomes for its familiarity is made up of things ‘Nobody minds or notices’. Yet this special ordinariness already feels dated in the later 20th century or after. In fact, ‘Livings I’ is historical writing, genre fiction, the last line telling us that ‘It’s time for change, in nineteen twenty-nine’. There is the same odd sense of datedness in his second poem, where the choice of lighthouse-keeper for subject is surprising enough (rather as the poet earlier in his ‘Photograph Album’ lines looks at the image of his beloved and reflects: ‘Or is it just the past?) to set the whole somewhere between 1910 and 1940, with its ‘radio’, ‘humped inns’ and ‘lit shelved liners’. In the third poem, the gathering of college dons converse about resurrection and regicide out of somewhere like the late 17th century.
Some critics, knowing that Larkin worked for a while in All Souls College, Oxford, have tried to make this the scene of ‘Livings III’. But this won’t work: ‘Snape’ is outside Cambridge, not Oxford, and ‘sizars’ or award-holding undergraduates are Cambridge, too, not Oxford – and it happens that in any case All Souls College has no undergraduate members. Despite the exactness of ‘nineteen twenty-nine’, and despite a cherished sense of pastness in what is seen, time and place are neither precise nor significant in these poems. Larkin hiself once mentioned to me that he wrote the first part of ‘Livings’ in King’s Lynn, and certainly its ending wonderfully evokes an ancient city on the edge of space, full of sky and evening light. But it is much more important that the speaker is nowhere, is somewhere only fictive, living in ‘–ton’. The business-man and the scholar, whatever their dates, are like the lighthouse-keeper in becoming aware of their world detachedly ‘seventy feet up’ and located off the coast of an unnamed country.
The three men are characterised by their difference of time, place and work – and the actual style and speech in each case finely suggests these different worlds, prosaic in the first, imaginative in the second, urbane in the third. But there are vital similarities. All three are engaged with an evening meal, after work. Their small ritual, whether social, or solitary, or collegiate, comes over as something secure and solid and snug. Each evening scene is balanced against the world outside it, magnificent but dehumanising, certainly belittling: the golden deliquescent sky in the first poem, the ‘loose moth world’ in the second, the ‘Chaldean constellations’ in the winter sky of the third, telling the scholars that other civilisations like theirs have long ago crumbled. 1929, the year that gives the first poem its climax, saw the beginning of the great financial crash that spread from the USA across Europe. It’s hard to believe that the young business-man will survive it. The west-seeking liners in the next poem are ‘shelved’, a word with some dark connotations; the world of the dons is cold and dusty, with little future.
The word ‘Livings’ might mean colloquially, ‘stories of life as it is, ways we work out our time’. But it also has a special sense, referring to the profession and property of an Anglican clergyman. By contrast, nothing ratifies from outside the little rituals of these three poems. But each, and particularly the first and last, carries a depth of feeling that makes ‘Livings’ one of the most individual, as well as most complete, works that Larkin ever achieved. The poet himself was in his way at once business-man and scholar, and found it best to do his own writing high up at the top of a house, a kind of landed lighthouse-keeper. The rituals, whether of work and life or of poetry, hold their own against the dark, as the poem holds the reader, ‘Guarded by brilliance’.