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:
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.
Conversational and rhythmically sound, Larkin begins to relate the anecdote of his train journey in ordinary language, describing both the train’s interior and its setting. But think of this instead as a description of a life - Larkin's early childhood was in some respects ‘late getting away’: he was educated at home until the age of eight by his mother and sister. Neither friends nor relatives ever visited the family home; Larkin developed a stammer at this time. Life may have seemed to him ‘three-quarters-empty’; after the flurry and pressure of being born, with ‘windows down’, perhaps the surroundings were hot and ‘all sense/Of being in a hurry’ passed away. Ostensibly the descriptions of minor details as the train pulls away lead up to the famous line ‘Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet’, which has been seen as a beautifully apt description of the exact scenery of that part of the country, but could also be Larkin claiming that countryside for himself, it being close to where he spent most of his life. In the ‘river’s level drifting breadth,’ Larkin conjures the central image of the poem, a linear movement of water and of the train, which is also an image of Life’s progression through time.
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 rhymes are so well blended as to be hardly noticeable, and Larkin evokes the summer season, full of ‘Wide farms’ and ‘short-shadowed cattle’, but contrasted with ‘Canals with floatings of industrial froth’. Similarly, the pleasant sweetness of ‘hedges dipped/And rose: and now and then a smell of grass’ is juxtaposed with ‘the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth’ and the approach of the next town, ‘new and nondescript … with acres of dismantled cars.’ These are very English contrasts and endear the poet to the reader using that easy familiarity with the urban and the rural. But a sense of contrast and a little mystery is evident throughout, even when Larkin starts to pay attention to the wedding parties:
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
The sunlight ‘destroys/The interest of what's happening in the shade’, Larkin claims, and yet he also says that he is reading, and therefore cannot be that interested in what the sun is revealing to him either. It’s the girls he notices, ‘grinning and pomaded’; he tends to turn any group into a generalised stereotype, in this case ‘All posed irresolutely’. But it’s the continuation of the last line of that stanza into the next one which again brings to the fore a deeper question: ‘watching us go'
As if out on the end of an event
To something that survived it.
This could be said of the living watching the dying: something leaves, something is waved goodbye to - something ‘survived it’. This is what catches the poet’s attention - one gets the impression that he lays the book aside now:
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-ochers that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest
Yes, we have the generalities - 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 so on, all Larkin shorthand for the commonplace and common, his way of telegraphing a cynical disapproval of people unable to see through these things - but if we accept that this train journey has now taken on a deeper symbolism, this is Larkin observing humanity symbolically too.
The rhythms of the next lines, running over the ends of lines and even of stanzas, conveys the sense of a railway journey, but also the images coalesce to form a kind of tapestry of life’s events:
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;
There’s more to this than a charming but cynical set of observations about a particular train journey: this is about the search for a level of meaning previously provided by religion:
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding.
Then the life of humanity, captured by the image of the train moving relentlessly towards a great city, moves out of the realm where marriages take place and into its final stages, approaching death. ‘They’, loaded with all of Larkin’s cynicism, becomes ‘we’:
Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Whereas before fields contained ‘short-shadowed cattle’, now they are ‘building-plots’ -perhaps burial plots? The cattle earlier cast short shadows, but now the shadows grow longer. And as Life runs out, there is only just long enough to note the closeness of death:
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.
Only the poet, from his unique position of being able to observe all of the parties as they boarded, can sum up the philosophical questions neatly: ‘and none/Thought of the others they would never meet/Or how their lives would all contain this hour.’ He ponders their final destination, again combining the urban, rural and almost Biblical imagery, ‘I thought of London spread out in the sun,/Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat’ as he realises that this apparently random collection of people and wedding parties does actually have an intended goal: ‘There we were aimed.’
As the moment of termination arrives, the pace picks up, the walls close in and the sense of impetus and finality grows stronger:
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.
As the actual instant of death or the end of this ‘frail/Travelling coincidence’ occurs, Larkin permits himself and the reader a suggestion of a switch from a forward-hurtling train motion to a swelling sense of falling, as though something - it’s stated passively and it isn’t certain who or what - has been shot like an arrow beyond death:
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.
It’s almost vertigo. But the final image can hardly relate to Cupid’s arrows - he never fires a shower of arrows but shoots one at a time. And here, arrows become rain. The simile of the arrow-shower is magically transformed and softened into the rural image of a rain-shower. That the whole thing occurs out of sight is both Larkin’s irony and a suggestion that from a mortal perspective of course these things cannot be seen. But it is a swelling ‘sense of falling’, not a receding one.
Larkin may have slipped a religious poem by us after all.