Philip Larkin: “The Whitsun Weddings”
Although Philip Larkin turned down the office of Britain’s poet laureate following the death of John Betjeman in 1984 (it ended up going to Ted Hughes), Larkin had already inherited Betjeman’s cultural place in Britain and was one of the country’s most popular poets. Three of his poems, including “The Whitsun Weddings,” appear in The Nation’s Favourite Poems (BBC, 1996), an anthology of the 100 most popular poems in the UK; only T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats have more.
Larkin was Britain’s poet laureate of disappointment. His cynicism was softened only by his skepticism, which only rarely admitted any expression of new possibility, as in his late poem “The Trees”: “Last year is dead, they seem to say, / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” (For Larkin, there’s as much emphasis on the word “seem” as “afresh.”) But Larkin was more famous for his satiric stanzas. It’s a good bet that those who know anything of poetry in Britain—as well as many who don’t—know by heart the opening stanza of “This Be the Verse”:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
Larkin’s popularity seemed to grow from this disabused temperament, which captures the feelings of those who think they do not like poetry, as well as those who think they do. It was Larkin, after all, who ended his poem “A Study of Reading Habits” with the lines “Get stewed: / Books are a load of crap.”
Yet for all his meanness, there is also irreverent wit and a melancholy mitigated by his resolve to look at life as it is. Readers came to trust him; his poems have a sense of psychological scale, candor, and a thorough ease with metrical forms that place Larkin firmly in a British poetic tradition. If his vision is elegiac, one of gradual diminishment, it is also one of rich and nuanced emotional response. Larkin is a great poet of middle age, whose instinct for social satire amplifies his sense of poignancy. Betjeman describes Larkin’s work as “tenderly observant”; that he could also be bracing and acerbic implies his complexity. (Robert Pinsky’s description of the poems as “sour, majestic refusals” captures it well.) In its harmony of change and loss played against the melody of the poem’s wedding narrative, “The Whitsun Weddings” (1958) shows this contradiction to great effect. The poem may be Larkin’s best.
Whitsun, or Whit Sunday, is the seventh Sunday after Easter (Pentecost), deep into spring, when people often marry. During the ’50s, it was also an opportune weekend to wed because of financial advantages afforded by the British tax code and, as a long weekend, a good one for holiday traveling. This may explain why Larkin saw so many wedding parties during an actual train ride in 1955, which gave him the germ of the poem.
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river's level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
The opening, so characteristic of Larkin, is conversational yet rhythmically firm, announcing the anecdotal mode and quickly establishing the sensation of the city’s hurrying bustle dropping away with the train’s departure. In the “river’s level drifting breadth,” Larkin creates an image of continuity between sky and city and water that the train itself mimics; it is the central image of the poem, the form of an unfolding movement that connects distinct locations and points of time.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
Larkin manages the easy naturalness of his voice so flawlessly that one hardly notices the poem’s rhyming stanza structure (ABABCDECDE), a kind of shortened sonnet (the quatrain is Shakespearean, the sestet Petrarchan). Keats invented this stanza for his summer odes, and Larkin’s formal allusion evokes the summer season, its redolent promise and pastoral sweetness. Just as Keats never loses sense, in the summer odes, that abundance comes from the process of mutation, of organic breakdown, in Larkin there is never any sweetness without much sour. The fantasy of the pastoral landscape, its farms and hedges, gains grittier reality with the “floatings of industrial froth,” like the plumpness of Keats’ sensual imagery and musical phrasing in “To Autumn” turned rancid: the smell of grass competes with the stale smell of the cloth seats inside the train carriage. Such pungent realism goes a long way in setting the stage for the plausible yet fantastic coincidence of coming upon a sequence of wedding parties:
At first, I didn't notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what's happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go
I find “what’s happening in the shade” a little strange, I have to say. Larkin’s initial confusion that the girls are actually men —that is, “porters larking with the mails”—becomes somewhat charged in the crossed wires of homonym. To what degree one can read the “larking” as the Larkin only a Freudian would dare imply, yet to anyone listening to the sounds the poem makes, Larkin’s pun on his own name appears like a signature hidden in a painted shrub. But I marvel at Larkin’s suave mastery with the modulations of verse movement, the way the run and pause driving each line generates rhythmic tension.
Verse movement is like the muscular contraction in the athletic body of the poem; one place to pay attention to it is at the ends of lines. Larkin’s sentence runs over the boundary where the line ends in the first three lines, then again in the fifth and eighth, pausing in between to create a complex rhythm. (Larkin, an enthusiast for New Orleans and swing-era jazz, has a hot feel for rhythm; all his poems swing, and swing hardest at the ends of lines.)
As each line unfolds, Larkin also controls the release of information: one line adds to the image of another without becoming overloaded by too much detail. The technique is classical: clarity, concision, and balance of image, action, and statement. But the style is all his own. The image of the grinning and pomaded girls “in parodies of fashion” is classic Larkin, demonstrating his flair for making vivid and distinct even those shared characteristics that turn individual figures into “types.” One finds it again in the fourth stanza, in “mothers loud and fat,” “an uncle shouting smut,” and in the perms, gloves, and fake jewelry to which people seem grotesquely reduced:
As if out on the end of an event
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewelry-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
This fourth stanza introduces a new formal event to the poem. Where previously the syntax of the poem stopped or paused at the end of each stanza, here it runs over the stanza boundary quite violently, in the middle of a phrase, in order to complete the syntax in the first line of the next one (the fifth). No accident, the poem repeats the move twice, in the same position, in subsequent stanzas; the effect establishes an expectation of overrunning (the speaker is in a moving train, after all):
Yes, from cafes
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
Larkin’s genius for abstracting from experience is heightened in this poem, in which his talents so brilliantly serve the narrative of a simple discovery: that each unique wedding party is in truth like all the other wedding parties gathering that day, a perception only the poet realizes, because he is in the privileged position of witnessing each one. He is the single consciousness of the poem; just as sky and Lincolnshire and water meet along the visual line of the river, so all the Whitsun weddings meet along the train-line and the line of consciousness that belongs to the poet, a paradoxical still point moving through time and space.
To even a casual reader of the social satire at which Larkin excels, the frowning children, the proud fathers, the sentimental girls are all genuinely funny, but their depiction also displays their humanity, common with the poet’s own: “Free at last, / And loaded with the sum of all they saw, / We hurried towards London.” What they have seen, the poet too has seen; and as “they” become “we” in the collective hurrying, they join him, and so are joined to him.
The poem refuses any sentimentality suggested by such a formulation, however, by insisting on each individual’s separateness, not unlike the way each passenger arrives at his or her own destination, alongside the others on the train:
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl—and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
It’s here that Larkin creates a kind of heightened platform for the drama of his statement “There we were aimed” (the opening sentence of the final stanza). It’s a dramatic moment in the speech-act of the poem:
There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
The train, now “aimed” at its London destination, becomes an arrow; and whose arrow could it be, on a day of so many weddings, but Cupid’s? Cupid’s arrow, which changes indifference to desire, carries a valence greater than even the god can know: for what begins as indifference and turns to love also turns to new forms of neglect, of difficulty, of disappointment (“And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled / A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.”). Keats’ apprehension of the swelling autumn fruits turns, in Larkin’s poem, to an experience of vertigo. Yet the power of this final image lies not in the Romantic allusion, but in how Larkin uses a cliché, a shower of arrows.
In classical mythology, Cupid never fires a shower of arrows; he takes aim and shoots one at a time. In this poem, the arrows of Eros become the arrows of Mars—the arrows of war, shot by a body of archers. (Larkin claims he discovered the idea in Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V.) Larkin takes the dead image of the arrow-shower and revivifies it by turning it into an image of real rain. While the poem implies the inevitable disappointment of love, the arrows of rain is a visionary image of expansion and release; and it’s an irony to say so, because the transformation takes place “out of sight.” Somewhere, the poem says, an arrow-shower is becoming rain; if love is turning somewhere to disappointment, the arrows of war are changing somewhere into a source of life. Where the fact of the rain is mundane, even all too routine, the transformation is startling, even magical.
In Larkin, the heroic gesture never stands; it is always re-scaled to the domestic. Here the technology of war is re-naturalized, just as each human life on the train (itself an arrow) leaves the bow only to dissolve midair into falling rain. (The rhyme of “train” and “rain” charges the correspondence at a subconscious acoustic level.) All things return to the conditions of nature; if the process entails loss, it is paradoxically a redeeming loss, for the process of losing has in it the wonder of mutation, which is a source of poetry itself.
Joshua Weiner was born in Boston and grew up in central New Jersey. He is the author of three books of poems, The World’s Room (2001) and From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013).Weiner earned a BA from Northwestern University and a PhD from...