Written in October, 1958, and published as the title poem in Larkin’s 1964 volume, the odelike poem “The Whitsun Weddings” bears formal and thematic resemblances to “Church Going” but shifts its focus away from the Larkin speaker and toward the collective social event that he witnesses, voyeuristically, while making “A slow and stopping curve southwards” from Hull to London. The poem is thus only partly “about” the speaker, whose presumed bachelorhood serves as foil for the “dozen” wedded couples who, at stop after stop, board the train to journey with him toward their separate and communal destinies. The details of the poem that focus on the speaker seem little more than a cumulative medium for framing what he sees: “I was late getting away;” “At first, I didn’t notice what a noise/ The weddings made/ Each station that we stopped at;” and, near the end, “I thought of London spread out in the sun,/ Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat.” Through much of the poem the speaker says “we,” including others on the train with himself and—incrementally—all the couples who join their microcosmic ride.
The poem seems provocative and mildly fatalistic in its conclusions about what the observed phenomena mean. The ironic sense that the couples are wrapped in their own excitement so as to be unaware of participating in any larger pattern governs the poet’s conclusion, where “none/ Thought of the others they...
Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings is his first collection of poems to fully embody his mature style. His early work, collected in The North Ship (1945, 1966), shows strongly the influence of Romanticism, especially that of William Butler Yeats and Dylan Thomas. In his second collection, The Less Deceived (1955), there is a move toward ironic, measured, occasionally bitter poetry. That shift in tone and in style reflects his involvement with the group of poets known as the Movement, whose practice generally adhered much more closely to Thomas Hardy than to Dylan Thomas. Indeed, much of the Movement’s program centered on a rejection of both the mytho-experimentalism of modernist poetry and the “sloppy excess” of late-phase Romanticism. Instead, these poets—Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings, Donald Davie, John Wain, and Kingsley Amis—sought a more traditional versification and a more accessible message, and they exerted a tremendous influence over poetic practice in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and beyond. Their irony, skepticism, empiricism, and anti-modernism pushed British poetry in a radically different direction from the freewheeling American poetry of the same period. What the Movement poets shared was an experience of wartime and postwar privation and disappointment. Indeed, Larkin suggested that the severe limitations placed on wartime Oxford University, where he was an undergraduate, did much to shape both his worldview and his poetry.
That sense of limitation is at work from the first page of The Whitsun Weddings. In “Here,” the opening poem, the speaker describes his northern English city (presumably Hull, where Larkin was for many years head librarian at the University of Hull), in terms of its modern squalor and meanness. The image of contemporary wretchedness recurs throughout the book, notably in “Sunny Prestatyn” (the kind of oxymoron that delights Larkin), in which a travel poster of a bathing beauty is disfigured by obscene graffiti before finally being ripped down and replaced by a Cancer Society poster. In “Here,” he contrasts that urban blight first with isolated villages out in the countryside, where life is less demeaned, and finally with the “bluish neutral distance” of the ocean, where existence is “unfenced.” The openness contrasts with the hemmed-in quality of city life and the constant reminders of the lack of horizon, yet the openness is ultimately “out of reach.” The image anticipates the infinite nothingness of the title poem of High Windows (1974) in suggesting the impossibility of attaining freedom and limitless horizons in this life.
The horizon becomes even more delimited in “Mr. Bleaney,” where the speaker meditates on the previous occupant of his tiny boardinghouse room. The speaker knows many of the mundane details of Mr. Bleaney’s existence: where he summered, that he spent Christmas with his sister in Stoke-on-Trent, even his eating preferences. What he does not know and wonders about is whether Bleaney shared his own sense of loneliness and failure, whether having only this pathetically small room convinced him that it was all he deserved. The room is a kind of coffin, a place that reminds the speaker of his final end, and as such it becomes an instance of death encroaching on life. That sensation is reinforced in the next poem, “Nothing to be Said,” which notes that all human activities lead equally to death. It concludes that such information to some people “Means nothing; others it leaves/ nothing to be said.” Delineating a divide between people for whom an awareness of mortality is meaningless and those for whom it means everything is characteristic of Larkin, who sees himself as one whose eyes are wide open to harsh reality.
Characteristic, also, is the play on the word “nothing.” That such knowledge “means nothing” suggests that it lacks meaning but also that it hints at nothingness. For Larkin, nothing indicates not merely an absence but an entity in its own right. Larkin consistently embraces that paradoxical understanding, so that leaving “Nothing to be said” can be interpreted in the literal sense and also to mean that a knowledge of the void must be explored and articulated. Otherwise, there would be no point in writing poetry in the face of nullity.
Emptiness and disappointment are the hallmarks of the twentieth...