Larkin's 'The Whitsun Weddings'


Poetry, like other forms of creative writing, is fiction, in the sense that it is ‘made up’: the poet puts words together not for any other reason but to convey a thought or experience creatively. In that sense, also, poetry follows the same set of laws which fiction follows: it has core concepts and linear patterns, mysteries and moral choices, and draws us in and holds us to the degree that it uses all these things effectively.

Larkin’s poetry, most of which was composed in the largely un-poetic Northern city of Hull, portrays the spiritual desolation of a post-war Britain in which religion has to a major extent failed to provide the meaning that it once did to life. Larkin’s use of local, recognisable images and colloquial language bridges the gap to readers seeking some kind of significance. No modern poet ‘can equal Larkin on his own ground of the familiar English lyric, drastically and poignantly limited in its sense of any life beyond, before or after, life today in England’ said Agenda reviewer George Dekker. Larkin is therefore a good case study for the use of fictive laws in poetry.

Larkin disliked travel abroad and rejected most modern literature including American poetry, avoiding the habit of seeking meaning in a poet’s life and background by professing that his early years were ‘unspent’ and ‘boring’. He grew up in Coventry, the son of a treasurer, but became one of the country’s most popular poets, turning down the position of Poet Laureate when it was offered to him after the death of John Betjeman.

Cynical, skeptical, but possessed of wit and melancholy, Larkin’s poems have a sense of psychological honesty and nuanced emotional response, communicating more often than not a sense of poignancy. ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ (1958) may be his best, and merits close examination not only because of all the above, but because it may demonstrate a layer of meaning not normally observed in Larkin.

Larkin saw several wedding parties board a train during an actual train ride in 1955 taking place on Whitsun, or Whit Sunday, which is the seventh Sunday after Easter (Pentecost), popular for weddings. The poem is on the surface about this simple journey, but it’s possible to see it broadening out symbolically into a statement about a journey through Life, and in so doing, we can begin to refute some of the poet’s own attempts to throw us ‘off the track’, perhaps:

That Whitsun, I was late getting away: