09 November 2023
‘Whitsun Weddings’ and
Philip Larkin’s train
journey with a ‘frail
Philip Larkin is one of Britain's most popular poets, despite controversy about his personal life and opinions, and despite his reputation for being dour and grumpy. In 2003, almost two decades after his death, he was chosen as ‘the nation’s best-loved poet.’
Despite Larkin’s misogynist and often racist views, his crude and cruel turn of phrase, and his sometimes right-wing opinions, his poetry is down-to-earth and authentic, and speaks frankly about life and the human condition.
I have long been interested in his family connections with Lichfield, and to an extent his connections with Coventry and Belfast, and I have written about him occasionally for magazines. With his many and often serial affairs and dalliances, it is difficult to think of him as a romantic, and certainly not as a romantic poet. Yet ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is one of his best-known poems gives the title to one of his most successful collections.
As we travelled in and out of London by train last Friday and Saturday, we were more than a little self-conscious, wondering what a coincidence it would be should anyone would notice how we were dressed or what we were about in the way that Larkin noticed wedding couples and wedding parties 60 years ago during the train journey he describes in that poem.
The Whitsun Weddings, a collection of 32 poems by Philip Larkin, was first published by Faber in London on 28 February 1964. It was a commercial success by the standards of poetry publication, with the first 4,000 copies sold within two months. That volume cemented Larkin’s reputation and includes many of his best-known poems, including ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Days’, ‘Mr Bleaney’, ‘MCMXIV’, and ‘An Arundel Tomb’.
‘The Whitsun Weddings’ was written and rewritten and finally published in this collection in 1964. This is one of three poems that Larkin wrote about train journeys, and it is one of his’s longest poems. He describes a stopping-train journey southwards from Kingston upon Hull, where he was a librarian at the university, to London on a hot Whit Saturday afternoon.
It has always been supposed the poem was based on an actual train journey Larkin took in 1955 on Whitsun Saturday, a day that at the time was popular for weddings. However, there was a rail strike that weekend, and John Osborne of the University of Hull, author of Radical Larkin, points out that this particular journey is unlikely. Instead, Larkin’s letters refer to two journeys that may have been conflated in the poem: one to Grantham, that was not at Whitsun but when there were some weddings; and one to London, that was not at Whitsun, and when there were no weddings.
The narrator in the poem describes the scenery and smells of the countryside and towns that the largely empty train passes through. The train’s windows are open because of the heat, and gradually he becomes aware of bustle on the platforms at each station, eventually realising that this is the noise and actions of wedding parties that are seeing off couples who are boarding the train.
He notes the different classes of people involved, each with their own responses to the occasion: the fathers, the uncles, the children, the unmarried female family members. He imagines the venues where the wedding receptions have been held.
As the train continues on into London, the afternoon shadows lengthen and rain begins to fall, and his reflections turn to the permanence of what the newly-weds have done. The significance of this is huge for them, and seems to give Larkin an ultimately disappointing message, suggested by the poem’s final phrase.
The Whitsun Weddings, by Philip Larkin:
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.
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 jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
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
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
Travelling 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.