Monday 18 October 2021

Weddings Anniversary

 On this day in 1958 – some months after the event – Philip Larkin signed off on one of his most famous poems. 'The Whitsun Weddings' was widely thought of as his best – perhaps it is – and seemed to represent, along with 'Church Going', the essence of Larkin: until the likes of 'Aubade' and, heaven help us, 'This Be the Verse' came along to complicate the picture. 'The Whitsun Weddings' remains one of Larkin's most popular works – it made it into the BBC anthology of The Nation's Favourite Poems – and it shows him at his most (in Betjeman's phrase) 'tenderly observant'. It flows beautifully and easily, everything perfectly modulated, its Keatsian rhyme scheme (ABABCDECDE) barely apparent. The arresting final image – inspired, Larkin claimed, by the arrow shower in Olivier's film of Henry V – gives us one of Larkin's greatest endings (and he's a poet of great endings). A disenchanted world is suddenly, mysteriously re-enchanted.
Anyway, it's a fine poem, one that is always worth rereading. Here it is – 

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
    Waving goodbye
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.


  1. The Whitsun Weddings will be forever lodged in my head due to an argument I had about it in class with my english A Level teacher - he insisted that 'pomaded' meant 'drunk on pomade' - I took exception to this and corrected him that the drink was called Pomagne and Larkin was surely referring to hair wax - and the teacher sent me to the headmaster for talking back in class!

    Still to this day I am haunted by the injustice :D

    1. Thanks Wormstir. What nonsense teachers talk..

  2. " we raced across
    Bright knots of rail"
    is genius