Nomination: Sinking like sediment through the day [13 May 1949. From Collected Poems (1988)]
May 1949, the month this poem was written, found Larkin at an emotional low ebb. That spring, his relationship with Ruth Bowman had come to an end, the success of his two novels was behind him and not to be repeated, and his collection In the Grip of Light had been rejected by every publisher he had approached.
Poems that his slough of depression did yield that March, April and May reveal a disillusioned, self-pitying persona apparently convinced that he has nothing to live for, that failure beckons. ‘Neurotics’ (‘You drag your feet, clay-thick with misery’); ‘I am washed upon a rock’ (‘My heart is ticking like the sun: /A lonely cloud drifts in the sky. /I dread its indecision. /If once it blocks the light, I die’); and ‘To Failure’ (‘You have been here some time’) – none of these offer a hint of either the observant, enthusiastic young Larkin of ‘Wedding-Wind’ or the ‘Two Guitars Pieces’, or the mature poet who could temper a sombre view of life with self-mockery and wit. ‘On Being Twenty-Six’, also written in May 1949, offers a gloomy diagnosis: ‘I feared these present years, /The middle twenties’:
I thought: this pristine drive
Is sure to flag
At twenty-four or -five;
And now the slag
Of burnt-out childhood proves that I was right.
What caught alight
Quickly consumed in me,
As I foresaw.
Talent, felicity –
These things withdraw,
And are succeeded by a dingier crop
That come to stop.
‘Sinking like sediment’, at first sight, offers more of the same, though with images of a startling originality: the huge enclosed flask of the summer day, its ‘bitter carpet’ of sediment, identified as ‘horror of life’, and the frightening idea of ‘a fuse’ (which I take to be all the life in a green shoot, as in Dylan Thomas’s ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’) in the process of disintegrating ‘right back to its root’. This is challenging stuff, and it achieves description of the near-indescribable: ‘Huge awareness, elbowing vacancy, /Empty inside and out’, which ‘replaces day’, thrusting it right out of consciousness. This is certainly a poem of far more promise and substance than the others.
It is its third and final stanza that confirms this, and – in my view – allows a forward glimpse of the later Larkin, the one whose work had no difficulty in finding a publisher:
Out of the afternoon leans the indescribable woman
– a sudden entrance, a human manifestation, which is also life, the whole unknowable life that lies ahead, that will not reveal in advance whether it’s worth grasping or not: a brilliant invention, whose brief exchange with the poem’s persona is astonishingly comprehensive and clear:
‘Embrace me, and I shall be beautiful’ –
‘Be beautiful, and I will embrace you’ –
What’s encapsulated here is surely the seed of the debate in much of Larkin’s later work – ‘Next, Please’, ‘Send No Money’, ‘Self’s the Man’ and ‘Dockery and Son’ come to mind. And then the poem ends, ‘We argue for hours’ – and I find myself laughing aloud. And this was May 1949!
‘Sinking like sediment through the day’ is, surely, the turning-point for that disappointed, self-absorbed young man. To me it’s evident that this is the work of the twentieth-century giant of a poet whose self-knowledge, wit and compassion embraced and included his readers, and collected them by the tens of thousands.