‘Whatever Happened?’ by Philip Larkin is a six stanza poem that is separated into four sets of three lines, or tercets, and one final couplet, or set of two lines. In total, there are fourteen lines, making ‘Whatever Happened?’ a sonnet. This becomes even more obvious when one looks at the rhyme scheme.
The first two tercets follow a pattern of ABA BCB. Then, the next two rhyme: CDC EFE. Finally, there is the couplet in which rhymes, GG. The couplet is referential of Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnets but the rest of the rhyme diverges somewhat. It could be determined that the other twelve lines are a combination of the Shakespearean and Petrarchan forms.
The speaker begins the poem by stating that he was traveling, along with one or more companions, and they had their clothes ripped, money stolen, and got into a fight of some kind. The exact circumstances are never revealed, but it was a series of awful experiences. They climb back on board the ship, and as soon as they set sail, the memories and emotions start to fade. They are even more distant the next morning, and still further as the days pass.
By the end of the poem, the memories are more like photos than actual experiences. The speaker ends by questioning the source of emotions and memories and how one contains, or lets go of them. They still exist for him as nightmares, but they have largely faded from his life.
You can read the full poem here.
In regards to the meter, the lines do not follow one single pattern. The number of syllables jumps back and forth, (as does the location of the stresses) between 10 and 11. This feature mimics the every-other-line rhyme scheme. That is until one gets to the fourth stanza. From that point, until the thirteenth line, there are only 10 syllables per line. The poem concludes with one last 11 syllable line.
Larkin makes use of a number of poetic techniques in ‘Whatever Happened?’ There are moments of alliteration, with phases like back on board,” and enjambment with the transition between lines two and three of the second stanza. A reader can also spot caesura when lines are divided in two, usually due to a comma, and there are equal syllables on each side. One comma-less example is in stanza three, line three.
Analysis of Whatever Happened?
At once whatever happened starts receding.
With trousers ripped, light wallets, and lips bleeding.
In the first stanza of ‘Whatever Happened?’ The speaker begins by stating that the mysterious event is “receding. This means that the memory of it, or the date of the event itself is moving into the past. It occurred “At once.” At this point, it is entirely unclear what is happening in the text, but the next lines inform the reader that there is someone with the speaker. They are together, experiencing the drama of travel.
The moment that the event starts to fade away is when the speaker and his companion/s climb “back on board” their ship. They are “Panting,” as if they just exerted a lot of energy—perhaps from climbing on board. But, the third line explains that there is much more to it than that. The speaker and his companion/s had a very hard time wherever it was they were just visiting. It ended with them having their “trousers ripped” and wallets lightened (they might’ve had their money stolen, or swindled). They also got into a fight, perhaps with those who stole their money. Their “lips” were “bleeding.”
Yes, gone, thank God! Remembering each detail
All’s kodak-distant. Easily, then (though pale),
The second tercet of ‘Whatever Happened?” begins with an exclamation. The speaker is happy that the memory of “each detail” is slowly disappearing. It was tough for the travelers to have these thoughts in their minds for one night. It kept them up, as they tossed and turned. They dwelled on what happened to them the previous day, worrying about what they should do next, and any mistakes they might’ve made.
Luckily, when the sun rises on the next day, everything is picture perfect. It was “kodak-distant.” This is of course a reference to the camera brand, Kodak. By using this phrase, the speaker is comparing his memories to a photograph. They have as much ability as a picture does to harm him now. This allowed them some, as they state in the third tercet, “Perspective.” It does not mean that they are totally in the clear though. They still appear “pale” as if in shock over the events of the previous day.
‘Perspective brings significance,’ we say,
What can’t be printed can be thrown away.
The third stanza of ‘Whatever Happened?’ begins with the travelers stating together that they now have some “‘Perspective’” on the situation. It allows them to look more easily at what happened in the past.
The comparison to photography continues with the travelers pulling out their “photometers.” These are devices that allow one to measure the amount of light in a scene. Once measured, they can snap their photos. This is how easy taking and discarding memories is. If they “can’t be printed” they “can be thrown away.”
Later, it’s just a latitude: the map
‘Such coastal bedding always means mishap.’
The distance from the memories grows as they move farther away. “Later” days after the events, they are just marks on a map. The past is just “latitude,” a number they could pull up to remember what happened to them.
This distance comes with acceptance. They are able to look at the past and say to themselves that bad things sometimes happen, and there’s nothing one can do about it. In particular, they relate “mishap,” a very small word for a very bad day, to “coastal bedding.” Wherever they were traveling, and whatever happened to them, it makes sense now that they are at a distance. It was “unavoidable.”
Curses? The dark? Struggling? Where’s the source
Of these yarns now (except in nightmares, of course)?
In the last two lines, the speaker ends with a number of queries. Originally, the terrible times they had on their trip were associated with “Curses” and “The dark” and “Struggling.” But now they question how real those things were and what it means to become distant from an event.
The speaker also asks “Where’s the source” of their misadventure now? It doesn’t exist, since they aren’t interacting with it. The “yarns” or long tales of misfortune they could’ve told, are only present in “nightmares.” The fact that these last five words are in parenthesis indicates that the travelers are not as free from the past as they might like to think.