The Whitsun Weddings

by Philip Larkin

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549

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.

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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 would never meet/ Or how their lives would all contain this hour.” Several details in the poem underscore how destiny operates in ways no person among the passengers can understand: “There [at London] we were aimed,” “it was nearly done, this frail/ Travelling coincidence,” and finally, “there swelled/ A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” In the moment lives a sense of “all the power/ That being changed can give.” The train ride becomes finally a metaphor for life as it moves onward, propelled by a common stream of marriages. Mutability, the inevitable pattern of change that governs life while remaining so unsusceptible to understanding or governance, is one large theme here.

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Much of the poem’s appeal lies in its snapshot social realism. In minutely observed if mildly satiric detail, Larkin’s observer represents the working-class wedding parties: men “grinning and pomaded, girls/ In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,” “mothers loud and fat;/ An uncle shouting smut,” young girls who “stared/ At a religious wounding,” imagining some bride’s impending surrender. The note that “each face seemed to define/ Just what it saw departing” is precise in its relativism. Images of “short-shadowed cattle” and “the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth” vivify the witnessed drama. Meanwhile, unobtrusive figures enrich the poem’s texture: “tall heat that slept,” a typical personification, and the similes of the last two stanzas are examples.

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Latest answer posted July 31, 2018, 9:22 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

Formally “The Whitsun Weddings” is much like “Church Going.” Its eight stanzas are each ten lines long, all lines but the second (which is two-stressed) showing the elegantly “natural” iambic pentameter that Larkin managed with such skill. The ababcdecde rhyme scheme suggests that the poet conceived of his stanza as quatrain-plus-sestet, the latter in the manner of Italian sonnets; enjambment, however, usually blurs the division, and run-ons in syntax between stanzas occur often.

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