P Philip Larkin

The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin

‘The Whitsun Weddings’ by Philip Larkin is a meaningful poem that reflects post-war Britain. It is one of Larkin’s most famous.

Philip Larkin was what was known as a poet of the Movement. His poetry and poems, such as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, was written in such a way that it reflected the lack of importance of Britain in a post-war world, and also echoed the changes that Britain was going through. The shift from a mostly-rural to a mostly-urban economy was also something that Larkin touched upon, as well as the idea of Britain being a little bit outdated in terms of technology and innovation. Larkinian poems are never about a bright future, but always hinting at unhappiness that is just below the surface.

Postwar ennui in Britain reached an all-time high in the years following 1945. Britain was an economic mess – suffering from the loss of their colonies, austerity measures, and a staggering debt that the war had pressed it under. This was echoed, partly, in the poetry of the time. Poetry written then was all about looking back to better days, getting back to the idea of the brave and noble Great Britain of kingdoms and Queen Victoria. It was all about nostalgia; a sense of belonging that had been stamped out of England by this point.

The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin

 

Summary of The Whitsun Weddings

Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings was the title of one of his books of poetry, published in 1964. It is one of his longest poems, at eight stanzas of ten lines each, and it describes a train journey from Kingston upon Hull through the countryside. As the train churns through the heatwave that the narrator describes, he gradually expands his view to take in the people that are around him, including a wedding party that is seeing couples boarding the train. The Narrator thinks, for a little bit, about the people and their response to the wedding, cynically breaking them down into their appearances. As the train moves southward, he turns instead to the newlywed and considers the hugeness of what they have done, and how ultimately, it is only a big deal to the couple getting married.

Like with all Larkin poems, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is melancholy and bitter, with a vague sense that nothing will ever be right.

You can read the poem in full here.

 

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
(…)
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

Larkinian poems focus on microcosm worlds, full of the daily hustle and bustle of people getting about their business. In the opening, the narrator’s life is measured in numbers: one-twenty, for time, three-quarters-empty for the train; he creates, in the space of a few lines, this world that, at once, seems both important and hurried, as well as empty and slightly sad.

Larkin also had a tendency to write on trains for quite a few of his poems, as he found that this gave him the opportunity to observe life without participating in it. Larkin has always been, first and foremost, an observer and a note-taker of life; a librarian of the moments, but not really taking part in it.

 

Stanza Two

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
    For miles inland,
(…)
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

English countryside was considered – both in poetry and beyond – to be some of the most beautiful that the world has seen. England poetry, in particular nature poetry, had been built on this idea of the English countryside. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in The Herefordshire Landscape:

A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;
Such nooks of valleys, lined with orchises,
Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
And open pastures, where you scarcely tell
White daisies from white dew, – at intervals
The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out
Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade, –

The notion of the Romantic countryside, according to Larkin, has been sullied by the presence of modernization: the canals ‘with floating of industrial froth’ with towns ‘new and nondescript, / approached with acres of dismantled cars’. Ironically, although Larkin abhorred the Romantic ideal of nature and the countryside, Robert Rehder believed that Larkin had more in common with the Romantics than he wanted there to be. His focus on the individual consciousness – as seen in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ – and on isolation is a very Romantic notion.

Note also the misery in those lines, the despair of a defaced countryside. At the time, England’s landscape was gently changing from mostly-rural to mostly-urban: a huge influx of people had moved out of London during World War II, afraid of being bombed, but after the war, they moved back in droves. The increasing joblessness made further droves of people move after them, thus leaving England in a patchwork state of being, one that Larkin echoes in his poem. There is something miserable and scrabbled about the English countryside that Larkin is writing about now.

 

Stanza Three

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
(…)
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

Larkin believed that he needed to be aloof in order to write poetry, which was chiefly concerned with man – however, Larkin had a general distaste for the people he saw, labeling, for example, people as ‘sullen flesh inarticulate’ and ‘ageing and bitter’. He is too aloof from the audience he wants to communicate with. Note the way that he refers to the girls ‘in parodies of fashion, heels and veils / all posed irresolutely’, making them into waxwork people, making them frozen in place, and more like mannequins than human beings.

 

Stanza Four

As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
(…)
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Here again, Larkin attempts to individualize them, however the use of plurals – ‘fathers’, ‘mothers’ – suggests sameness. The speaker seems to be describing them from an omniscient standpoint, however the attempt to describe them in broad terms, and the use of the plural form, is reductive in its capacity. Andrew Crozier wrote, about this poem, “the people are generalized through grotesque detail which is away on the verge of registering distaste.”

Larkin once famously wrote that he wanted to write poetry that “offered something nothing else could, something more than reading, watching television or going out with some girl … compulsive contact between reader and writer.” However, this very distance that he laboured under leads the people he writes about to become parodies. By leaning on stereotypes, he reduces them to nothing more than cardboard place settings.

As Foucault wrote, Larkin’s writing “functions as a procedure of objectification and subjection” where he turns the individual into something he can describe and analyze, whilst trying to maintain individuality. In Larkin’s poems, however, whole sections of people blend together.

 

Stanza Five

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
    Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
(…)
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known

Larkin’s description of the wedding and the chaos surrounding the event is as minimizing as his description of people. By painting the wedding party with a broad brush, he makes the event itself seem ordinary. Although there is chaos and movement in this stanza, Larkin’s writing makes it seem as though it is playing in stop-motion, moving so slowly and so painfully that it has no hope of changing. Despite the fact that Larkin is writing about life, his poems have a distinct lack of living creatures in them.

Furthermore, the wedding is placed as something ordinary. Colin Falck, a Larkinian critic, called this the “ever-deepening acceptance of the ordinariness of things as they are”, and it is the aptest description for the way that Larkin writes. His poetry takes things and makes them ordinary and commonplace, and it is partially due to the fact that Larkin strove to write simple poetry. By writing his simple poetry, he makes everything as ordinary as possible.

 

Stanza Six

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
(…)
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

The movement from detachment to involvement is documented particularly in this stanza. Larkin goes into more detail here, though again reducing the people that he’s describing by painting them with a broad brush. The train finally starts to move again, pulling Larkin away from his introspection about the ladies and the wedding party, but for a brief few stanzas, Larkin’s involvement in their lives led the reader to also become involved in their lives, thus opening up ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ on a secondary level. It is also worth pointing out the innate misery of the words – notice, for example, the way the landscape is described here:

‘Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast / Long shadows over major roads, and for / some fifty minutes, that in time would seem’

The countryside is dying, pockmarked by modernity.

 

Stanza Seven

Just long enough to settle hats and say
    I nearly died,
(…)
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

It is worth noting that more personality is given to the inanimate British countryside – of which we get the only description – than is giving to the people that Larkin strove to describe. This is a particularly Larkinian trait – objects have a far more involving personality than people, for Larkin. In ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, almost every line goes on about the British countryside, its ruination, and the buildings that are causing said ruination, whereas the people are painted with one big brush, marking them out as materialistic, wedding-mad, and loud, with a distinctly classist way of writing about them that makes them seem as though they’re lower-class. The countryside, on the other hand, is lovingly described, and its presence in the poem can be felt far more acutely than the people whom Larkin tried to describe earlier.

 

Stanza Eight

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
    Bright knots of rail
(…)
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

For Larkin, the poet depended on his readers, and when a poet is abandoned, it is not entirely the readers’ fault. Modernism gets the blame for making poetry too obscure for the average reader, thus lessening the poet’s range. Larkin attempts to reach what he calls the ‘cut-price crowd’ in his poems, i.e. those who might not have an interest in poetry as such but lean towards materiality. His reader is the reader who has ‘no room for books’ and who prefers the ‘jabbering set’. He asserted that ‘the public for poetry is larger than we think, and waiting to be found if we look in the right places’.

His poems are like dialogues – there is someone talking and the assumption of someone listening and understanding. For Larkin, poetry was business, and rock and roll and sex moved the younger generation, not poetry, which he could not compete with. He also believed that his readers refused to meet him halfway and wouldn’t give the poem a chance.

In all his poems, therefore, there is this attempt to reach out to people. It is usually in the final stanza, such as in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, that this attempt to reach out dwindles down to nothing: to a hopeless, melancholy, fleeting presence of emotion.

 

Historical Background

As was quoted in the Paris Review of 1982, “my life is as simple as I can make it.”

Larkin was a bachelor who worked as a university librarian in Hull. He never attended paraliterary/cultural activities (such as poetry readings, lectures, and talks) and ignored and disliked foreign literature. He never went abroad, though he loved jazz and frequently reviewed it in the 60s. He preferred his own company, but he was popular with people because of his insistence on communicating with his readers – and writing in layman’s terms. His poems are ambiguous, but never obscure, and the world we find in Larkin is the world we live in, after all, and hint at happiness that is far beyond our scope.
Larkin was born in 1922, Coventry, and went to Oxford. He graduated with a first in English language and literature and started to work as a librarian. For the first eight years of his life, he was educated at home, with little contact to the outside world, and thus developed a stammer.

Larkin saw himself as an artist and therefore believed that the audience he was trying to reach could not understand him, even with his best attempts at communicating with them.

He published two novels, multiple books of poetry, and won accolades including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. He also edited The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, and turned down the position of Poet Laureate for England in 1984, following the death of John Betjeman. Larkin died on the 2nd December 1985, in Hull, from oesophageal cancer. He was buried at Cottingham municipal cemetery, and there is a bronze statue dedicated to him at Hull Station.

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About
Elise has been analysing poetry as part of the Poem Analysis team for neary 2 years, continually providing a great insight and understanding into poetry from the past and present.
  • Neil Saunders says:

    Britain – especially England, where Larkin was born, and where (aside from a spell in Belfast, Northern Ireland) he lived and worked for most of his life – had ceased to be primarily agricultural long before the poem was written; indeed, it was the first place in the world to experience the Industrial Revolution, and the process of industrialisation would have been well advanced by 1864, let alone 1964, when the poem was published.

    The English countryside, much loved and prized as it still is (despite ongoing encroachment), was perceptibly under threat at least as early as E. M. Forster’s “Howards End” (1910), which foresees and laments its disappearance. As the date shows, Forster’s novel was published before the First World War!

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Your historical information is, of course, correct – However, as we know from people like Ted Hughes who wrote Bayonet Charge based around World War One, which predates his birth poets don’t always write about the times in which they live. However, your knowledge of history is impeccable!

      • Neil Saunders says:

        Regarding my knowledge of history, you’re too kind! My knowledge of (the relevant) history is merely adequate.
        I was making specific reference to the second sentence of the final paragraph of Elise’s commentary on Stanza 2, where she seems to suggest that the urbanisation of England was a recent and ongoing phenomenon in the post-WW2 era.

        There’s no doubt, however, that the concreting-over of the countryside has accelerated since Larkin wrote his poem – something he would have both foreseen and deeply regretted. It’s also rather more than coincidental that the kind of railway journey he records would have been to some extent superseded by the private car on the burgeoning networks of trunk roads, bypasses and (from the late 1950s) motorways, thus making the kind of observations and imagery Larkin employs here quite impossible!

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