“The Whitsun Weddings”, the titular poem of a book by the same name, is perhaps the most-discussed poem by Philip Larkin, England’s ‘poet laureate of disappointment’. With eight stanzas of ten lines each, rhyming like Keatsian odes but just the opposite in mood and temperament, “The Whitsun Weddings” is also probably Larkin’s longest poetical work, and most acclaimed by critics as well.
Whitsun, or Whit Sunday, is the seventh Sunday after Easter. Springtime, on the one hand, has perhaps been “the only pretty ring time” since days even preceding Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On the other, several British tax codes in the 1950s and a long holiday season made the Whitsun weekend even more opportune a moment to marry. The poem describes a springtime train journey with brides and grooms and weeding parties from Paragon Station, Kingston upon Hull, to London. Larkin was a librarian by profession, and after brief tenures of job in Wellington, Shropshire, and Belfast, he finally moved to Hull in 1955 to work at the Brynmore Jones Library.
Larkin thus might have commuted a number of times from the Hull Paragon station, where his 7-foot bronze statue by Martin Jennings stands tall today; the poem is generally said to have been inspired by an actual journey made by Larkin on the Whit Sunday in 1955. Noted Larkin scholar John Osborne, however, thinks that no such journey could have actually taken place due to a railway strike in the 1955 Whitsun. Larkin talked about two rail journeys in his letters, one to Grantham and the other to London, that might have provided him with the idea.
Such is the poem’s lucidity, like a conversation held between co-passengers in a train, that one seldom marks the distinct rhyme scheme from the beginning. The poem employs the typical rhyme scheme of Keats’ odes with a Shakespearean quartet followed by a Petrarchan sestet, a-b-a-b-c-d-e-c-d-e. Nevertheless, while Keats invented this metric to portray the pastoral lushness and vivacity of an English country summer, Larkin slyly manages to invert the whole mood despite his formal allusion. He too invokes the summer as Keats had done in his odes, but a rather claustrophobic one. The pastoral landscape that begins with a Romantic note with farms, cattle, and hedges is suddenly displaced by a grim, rancid urban backdrop. After ‘[w]ide farms’ and ‘short-shadowed cattle’, when the reader might just hope for a cascading stream zigzagging through lush pastures, ‘[c]anals with floatings of industrial froth’ suddenly mars the sensuousness. Now and then ‘a smell of grass’ has to make way for ‘the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth’ until the next nondescript town approaches with acres of, neither verdurous meadows nor the ‘alien corn’ where Keats’ Ruth stood in tears, but ‘dismantled cars’.
As the poem goes on, the claustrophobia builds up alongside a rhythmic tension, and Larkin introduces the wedding parties: pomaded girls accompanied by “fathers with broad belts under their suits / And seamy foreheads”, “mothers loud and fat”, and “an uncle shouting smut”. As he describes the perms, nylon gloves, and imitated jewelleries, Larkin replaces the Romantic picturesque with the postmodern grotesque. With the lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers marking off the girls “unreally from the rest” (emphasis added), the reader probably feels how within the formal limits of a Keatsian ode the poem echoes the Modernist trauma earlier felt by Baudelaire (“Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves / Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant!”) or Eliot (“Unreal city / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn”).
The first-person narrator in the poem, like that of Eliot’s The Waste Land, is the single point of consciousness moving along time and space, the train being its conveyance; no doubt all the Whitsun weddings has to take place along the train route. The train line serves as a metaphorical meeting point, like the horizon yonder where “sky and Lincolnshire and water meet”, between the consciousness of the poet-narrator and that of the members of the wedding parties. The journey together along the railroad also offers an inroad to a collective consciousness, evident from Larkin’s use of ‘they’ to denote the wedding parties later changing to ‘we’: “We hurried towards London”.
The conclusion of the poem once again makes an inverted allusion to Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” that matures with a sense of swelling and ripening fruits: “We slowed again / And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled / A sense of falling”. The arrow-shower he mentions is apparently an allusion to cupid’s arrows, but the multitude of them calls for a warlike condition. Love, which is said to be inspired from Cupid’s arrows, thus becomes inevitably grotesque, gruesome, and disappointing. Nevertheless, even a man as cynical and sceptical as Philip Larkin cannot but see a faint hope of redemption and regeneration in the overwhelming losses, as the arrows become rain somewhere beyond our sight, indicating rebirth and fertility, very much like the scriptural chants that conclude The Waste Land.