By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is the title poem in Philip Larkin’s 1964 volume of poems. The poem, describing a journey from Hull to London on the Whitsun weekend and the wedding parties that Larkin sees climbing aboard the train at each station, is one of Larkin’s longest great poems and one of his most popular. You can read ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ here; what follows are some words of analysis of the poem’s language and meaning.
Although ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ describes a train journey from Hull to London during the Whitsun weekend (the seventh Sunday after the Easter weekend is Whit Sunday), the inspiration for the poem was a train journey Philip Larkin undertook on the August Bank Holiday weekend between Hull and Loughborough, the midlands town where his mother lived, in 1956.
Larkin fictionalises this actual journey, and relocates the terminus for his journey to London rather than Loughborough, so that he – and we – end up in the nation’s capital. Larkin began the poem in 1956, but it wasn’t until October 1958 that he would finally complete it.
In summary, Larkin outlines his departure from Hull and his subsequent train journey on a sunny Saturday on the Whitsun weekend. The first two stanzas describe the early stages of this journey, with Larkin itemising the details glimpsed from his train window. It’s not until the third stanza that Larkin realises that, when the train stops at each station, newlywed couples are boarding the train, with friends and relations cheering the newly married brides and grooms.
These were the days when many newlyweds would, after their wedding, get the train down to London, so they could then begin their honeymoons (whether by getting a connecting train in the capital to a south coast resort, or, less likely in the days before cheap package holidays, catching a plane at Heathrow to their honeymoon destination abroad). Larkin admits that he had actually mistaken the sounds of merriment from the wedding guests for whoops and other noises from the station porters, and it is only gradually that he comes to realise the pattern of wedding parties at each railway station.
The itemising then continues in the ensuing stanzas, but this time it is the members of these wedding parties that draw Larkin’s observant attention: the fathers with their ‘broad belts’, the ‘loud and fat’ mothers, the rather uncouth uncle who is ‘shouting smut’. This may be high poetry, but it’s not far removed from a Peter Kay stand-up comedy routine about the types of people we all recognise from weddings. (The reference to the colours of the women’s dresses which mark them off ‘unreally from the rest’ is close to Larkin’s critique of women’s clothes and our attitudes to beauty in ‘The Large Cool Store’, which we’ve analysed here.) The poem concludes with the train arriving at its destination in London.
Is ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ a celebration of marriage? The poem seems ambivalent. An analysis of the terms Larkin uses in reference to marriage reveals some scepticism on Larkin’s part: the guests wave goodbye to the departing train as if bidding farewell to ‘something that survived’ the wedding service itself (‘survived’ suggesting perhaps another of Larkin’s great meditations on love, ‘An Arundel Tomb’). The wedding is referred to as ‘a happy funeral’, as if weddings and funerals share more than simply their status as religious ceremonies: the wedding, too, is a farewell ceremony. Bidding farewell to what? To single life, to the youthful phase of their lives, perhaps even to the bride’s virginity. After all, the marriage, or perhaps more specifically the consummation of the marriage on the wedding night, is ‘a religious wounding’.
But the poem is a little more cagey than this. The first two of these three ‘negative’ descriptions of marriage are offered in the form of subjunctive phrases (‘As if out on the end…’; ‘like a happy funeral’). I’m not saying that marriage is a sort of inverted funeral, Larkin’s speaker seems to say, but that it might be viewed like this.
As with many of Larkin’s poems, it’s the little local details that make ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ such a memorable evocation of England in the post-war era. James Wood, in his excellent book How Fiction Works, recalls a teacher friend of his who would give his students Larkin’s poem with key words blacked out. The students would have to guess what the missing word is. In the phrase ‘A hothouse flashed uniquely’, the teacher blacked out that final word. None of his students ever opted for that particular adverb: ‘uniquely’, as Wood puts it, is unique.
This detail underscores the sense that, for all of these people getting married on this Saturday, this Whitsun weekend is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. By virtue of sharing the train journey with them, Larkin catches a residual sense of this feeling of uniqueness, of something special happening. An analysis of the ‘unique’ features in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ reveal just how much care and thought went into the selection of such details.
Similarly, the reference to ‘someone running up to bowl’, viewed from the window of the passing train, captures something which many of us have witnessed but haven’t necessarily taken much notice of. As James Booth puts it in his biography of Larkin, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love, ‘Everyone who has travelled on a train in England in summer has seen this bowler, snatched from sight before his run-up is complete.’ Yet, Booth goes on to argue, it is only the poet who sees the significance in such moments. It is, we might suggest, another variation on the poem’s general theme: that of sharing in other people’s lives but catching only a partial glimpse of them, a few frames from the whole film of their lives.
We never see what happens to that cricket ball, and we never learn what happens to all of those marriages after the wedding day. In the original drafts of the poem, as Larkin revealed on The South Bank Show in 1982, he began to imagine what the various couples would go on to do after their wedding-day, but he abandoned this line. Yet this idea of different lives intersecting thanks to the coincidence of sharing a train one Saturday is preserved in the journey to London described towards the end of the poem.
It might also be significant that the poem focuses on saying goodbye, on leaving things behind: Larkin is leaving Hull behind at the start of the poem (he had moved to Hull in 1955, and would live and work in the city for the rest of his life); the newlyweds are leaving behind their loved ones and climbing aboard the train, taking their first steps on their new life together; their families are waving them off from the platform. The wedding ceremony itself is over, and these newlyweds’ lives will soon reassert their ordinariness, and this special day will be over (‘the wedding-days / Were coming to an end’). And then we have that final image of the whole poem, which sees Larkin likening the brakes of the train as it pulls into its London terminus to an ‘arrow-shower’ that is already ‘somewhere becoming rain’.
This image is troubling, and resists any easy or glib analysis. The poem begins with reference to ‘sunlit Saturday’; it ends, right on its last word, with ‘rain’. ‘Sun’ is present, by chance, in the poem’s very title, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. But Cupid’s arrow, that symbol of love, is already morphing into rain, with all its connotations of the everyday drab world we inhabit most of the time. Or should this rain be understood in the context of the other life-giving images of abundance and fertility we see towards the close of the poem, such as Larkin’s reference to the postal districts of London being like ‘squares of wheat’? (Are those arrows, and that falling rain, even a veiled allusion to what will happen on the wedding night?)
Given Larkin’s own views on marriage – he himself never married, and was sceptical of the institution to say the least – it’s tempting to see the rain in terms of loss and tragedy, as if Larkin is already aware of the truth that those wedding guests, and the couples themselves, are striving to keep at bay, namely that the rest of their married life will not live up to the promise of this day.
But this overlooks Larkin’s ability to capture, explore, and analyse a range of different attitudes in his poetry: he is capable of writing poems in praise of marriage (albeit for other people rather than as a reflection of his own views) as well as poems that are sceptical of people’s reasons for marrying (see ‘Self’s the Man’, the poem he wrote a couple of weeks after he completed ‘The Whitsun Weddings’).
We can analyse ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ as a celebration of marriage, albeit one that is tempered by Larkin’s own scepticism towards marriage, love, and relationships. It is partly the enigmatic and ambiguous nature of the images and tone of the poem which make the poem so richly complex, however we prefer to interpret its ‘message’.
Continue to explore Larkin’s work with our discussion of his poem about the English countryside, and our compendium of Larkin facts; alternatively, discover more classic wedding poems here. If you’d like to read more of Larkin’s work, we recommend The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Larkin with Gin & Tonic, 1961; photographer unknown. First published in Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite. Via Simon K on Flickr (share-alike licence).