The Whitsun Weddings is the first poem by Philip Larkin in his collection of that name.
I have been reading Clive James’ ‘Poetry Notebook’ and this is one of his five favourite poetry collections the others being – Richard Wilbur (Poems 1943-1956), W. H. Auden (Look Stranger! 1936), Robert Frost (Collected Poems) and W. B. Yeats (The Tower, 1928).
Considering The Whitsun Weddings – There are eight ten line stanzas. The poem’s rhyming scheme is – abab (Shakespearian quatrain) followed by cdecde (Petrachan sestet).
The first two stanzas …
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.
The poem is about a train journey in England on a hot Whitsun weekend in June 1954. If you read these lines aloud you will get into the ‘clickity-clack’ rhythm as you follow the syllabic track of the words. I consider the journey as one from Hull to London and if you ever traveled by steam train through England in those years you would identify with the created imagery.
Stanzas three and four …
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
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
In these two stanzas we see that out of the lethargic heat (sun destroys/
The interest of what’s happening in the shade) something is happening at each station. The sounds of gaiety (considered as noise) are initially thought to be porters larking around with the mail in fact it is wedding parties seeing bride and groom depart – perhaps to a honeymoon in London. Larking about is a nice pun on Larkin himself who was probably in the clouds in word thought taking time to be arrested on what was going on around him.
Stanzas five and six …
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
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
He now takes close notice at each marriage farewell and there is some generalisation … a happy funeral is that nice contrast in the death of one life and the start of another … weddings being a happy occasion, however a mother may lament at no longer having a daughter at home – on the other hand she may be glad to have her married. Marriage considered a religious wounding – words that marry with that famous arrow-shower in the last line – and typical Larkin negativity however realistic.
Stanzas seven and eight …
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
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.
Twelve marriages – brides and grooms – hopefully they wouldn’t be considering all the others they would never meet – having stated religiously that they have met their one and only – nor indeed would they be thinking of how life had now been contained by their commitment to each other.
The last two sentences bring the journey to a close and all the young lovers disappear into the clouds never to be seen again in an arrow-shower. Larkin obviously thinks there are stormy times ahead and the arrows of Eros (love and Cupid) become the arrows of Mars—the arrows of war, shot by a body of archers. (Apparently Philip Larkin claimed he discovered the idea in Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V.)
But out of the storm comes rain and rain has that nice rejuvenating effect on nature. It is nice to know that Larkin thinks marriage is environmentally friendly!
Clive James states that although there may not be much ‘joy in Larkin’ he does get ‘the whole truth of life’s transience into unforgettable beautiful poetry, and it is hard to think of a greater joy than that’.