The Whitsun Weddings

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.

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.

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,

As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
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 jewellery-substitutes,   
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.   
    Yes, from cafés
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.
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:

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   
Travelling 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.

Philip Larkin, "The Whitsun Weddings " from Whitsun Weddings. Copyright © Estate of Philip Larkin.  Reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber, Ltd.
Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001)

Writing Ideas

  1. The poem is packed with a number of different sensory experiences. Find all the sights (and mistaken sights), sounds, and smells. How does Philip Larkin convey sensory experience through specific detail? Gather a few sense observations on your own route somewhere. Try building a poem around them.
  2. Take along a notebook the next time you’re a passenger in a car or on public transportation. Pay close, sustained attention to what you see outside your window. As you turn those notes into a poem, think about ways to create a sense of movement within language itself. (For example, although Larkin’s poem includes time markers like “At first” and “All afternoon,” movement is also conveyed through enjambment, rhyme, and sound patterning.)
  3. Try rewriting Larkin’s poem backward: taking the last line as your first line, the penultimate as your second, and so on rewrite the poem line-by-line, adding necessary transition words. What unexpected changes occur in the sense of time, or balance of language and sense? Read your poem out loud.

Discussion Questions

  1. In his poem guide, Joshua Weiner refers to Larkin as “was Britain’s poet laureate of disappointment.” Though this poem is about weddings, its mood is less than celebratory, and the approach is a realistic and impersonal at a cultural phenomenon of a popular wedding weekend. Try to track the tonal shifts in the poem; as you’re attempting to assign moods for certain lines or stanzas, think about how Larkin is creating moodiness through language, line break, and sound. How does he make a poem about weddings feel so somber?
  2. Larkin’s speaker spends the first half of the poem observing what’s outside his window; as the train begins to pull through stations, those landscapes become people-scapes, though the speaker claims he “didn’t notice” the weddings at first. What are the tensions at work between observation and distraction in the poem? Where does the speaker look, and what kinds of value does he assign the things he looks at? Can you imagine these scenes differently?
  3. Perhaps in preparation for the writing exercise above, track how time works in the poem. Where are the time markers, how is time described or signaled? How does the poem itself speed up and slow down through stanza breaks and enjambment?

Teaching Tips

  1. Have your class re-mediate the poem: break students into groups and tell them they are in charge of presenting Larkin’s poem in a different medium. They might choose to illustrate it through images, create a comic strip that utilizes text and image, make a photo essay, or turn it into a play or movie. Ask students to present their new versions to the class.
  2. As Joshua Weiner notes in his poem guide, this poem masks its intricate rhyme scheme in conversational pacing. Have students attempt to “break” Larkin’s code. Type out the poem as prose and distribute to groups of students. Have them attempt to lineate the poem. While you might tell them it’s a poem in eight stanzas, don’t reveal its rhyme or stanzaic secrets! Have each pair or group then write a brief explanation of their choices: why did they break lines where they did? Create stanzas? Then project Larkin’s poem and discuss any similarities or differences between the students’ version and his.
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