“The Whitsun Weddings” is a deceptively leisurely sounding poem in eight ten-line stanzas. The title refers to the British tradition of marrying on the weekend of Whitsunday or Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter) to take advantage of the early summer “bank holiday” or long weekend. The rhyme scheme (ababcdecde) and meter (the second line of each stanza has four syllables; all the others have ten syllables each) are highly structured but unobtrusive.
The first-person speaker, who seems to be identified with Philip Larkin himself, is on his way by train from Lincolnshire to London for the weekend. He has no apparent connection with or interest in weddings at the outset. The first two stanzas describe a normal journey through the countryside on a hot afternoon. The train is nearly empty, and the speaker watches the landscape indifferently, happy only to be on his way “away.”
In the third stanza, the speaker begins to notice “the weddings.” He admits that he misunderstood the noise at first, taking it for “porters larking with the mails,” but as the train pulls out of the station he watches the wedding parties left behind, the brides and grooms having boarded the train. The fourth, fifth, and sixth stanzas turn to the details of those groups that are left behind. They are clearly identified as lower-middle-class, presenting simultaneously funny and poignant appearances: girls in“parodies of fashion” and “jewellery-substitutes,” “mothers loud and fat.” The speaker becomes more and more interested, and he keeps seeing “it all again in different terms.” In stanza 6, he moves from the surface details to the significance of the weddings for the fathers, women, and girls. The train, “Free at last,” “hurrie[s] towards London.”
In the last two stanzas, the speaker watches the newlyweds inside the train and again assumes his superiority by noting that “a dozen marriages got under way.//and none/ Thought of the others they would never meet.” The speaker, however, despite his sense that he is the only one to notice the connections among all the couples, sympathizes strongly with them. He attributes to them the potential “power/ That being changed can give,” and he himself has also been changed.
This poem relies upon the careful development of the speaker’s personality, with very little figurative language until the last two stanzas. As the reader travels with the speaker, the speaker’s stance in relation to his country, the wedding parties, and the newlyweds both develops and changes. By participating in that development, the reader comes to share a delicately balanced view of tradition and change.
The details early in the poem establish the speaker as an almost stereotypical businessman-or professional man on his long weekend “getaway.” He is aware of the time (“I was late getting away,” the train leaves at “one-twenty”) and at first wants only to ignore the noise of the weddings and continue his reading. In these same stanzas, however, the details of the scenery hint at the timeless and timely landscape of the poem. At the end of the first stanza, the three elements of sky, land (“Lincolnshire”), and water “meet,” establishing a sense of unified, timeless beauty despite such counterdetails as “floatings of industrial froth” and “acres of dismantled cars.” These paradoxical elements prepare the speaker and the reader for the similarly mixed view of the wedding parties and newlyweds in the next five stanzas.
As the speaker begins to pay attention to the wedding parties in stanzas 3 and 4, he assumes a superior, almost satirical tone: “girls/ In parodies of fashion,” and, at the next stop, fathers with “seamy foreheads;...
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mothers loud and fat;/ An uncle shouting smut.” Yet even in this context, the speaker begins to notice some deeper significances, especially for the females. Although the girls wear “nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,” they are nevertheless “marked off” and participating in something that is especially significant for them.
The speaker moves from his satiric mood to a more sympathetic view in stanzas 5 and 6. In stanza 5, he steps back from the details and realizes that everywhere in England “the wedding-days/ Were coming to an end” as “all down the line/ Fresh couples climbed aboard.” In stanza 6, he notices, instead of the cheap clothing and unattractive bodies, “each face” and its ability “to define/ Just what it saw departing.” Watching these faces, the speaker imagines what those definitions might be and arrives at some sense of the meanings of weddings: “children frowned/ At something dull; fathers had never known/ Success so huge and wholly farcical.” The females, however, have more poignant and ambivalent definitions:
The women sharedThe secret like a happy funeral;While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, staredAt a religious wounding.
As stanza 7 begins, the speaker is watching the couples on the train: “A dozen marriages got under way.” The significance of the changes in their lives is summed up in two key similes reinforcing the paradoxical nature of marriage and its promise of fertility. First, the speaker thinks of London with “Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat,” using a traditional symbol of sustenance and fertility as that toward which “we were aimed.” Second, at the conclusion of the poem, the brakes slow the train, giving “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” This simile, too, suggests aiming at something unknown and unknowable—such as the future—yet, somehow, leading to the life-giving “rain.” These gentle and generous similes demonstrate how far the speaker has come from his initial indifference. As the poem ends, he realizes, and brings the reader to realize, the immense importance of marriage, with its continuity and fertility, and the value of the traditional rites and customs within which those marriages begin.
Hassan, Salem K. Philip Larkin and His Contemporaries: An Air of Authenticity. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1988. A survey of Larkin’s poetry that focuses on the role of time and attempts to place the poet among his important contemporaries John Wain, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, and D. J. Enright. Contains a separate chapter on The Whitsun Weddings and helpful discussions of Larkin’s prosody.
Martin, Bruce K. Philip Larkin. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A significant early overview of Larkin’s poetry and fiction. Makes use of the then-limited biographical information and the social contexts of the poetry.
Motion, Andrew. Philip Larkin. London: Methuen, 1982. Places Larkin initially within the tradition of Thomas Hardy and William Butler Yeats, then in that of his Movement contemporaries. Ably captures the poet’s wide range of subject matter and treatment, and discusses his symbolist tendencies. Anticipates, in many ways, the author’s subsequent biography of the poet.
Petch, Simon. The Art of Philip Larkin. Sydney: University of Sydney Press, 1981. A helpful, brief introduction to the Larkin’s verse, organized by volume. Emphasizes Larkin’s status as humane poet who closely, if critically, examines important aspects of human experience.
Rossen, Janice. Philip Larkin: His Life’s Work. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. An accessible and intelligent discussion of Larkin’s poetry, organized thematically. Particularly useful on the subject of Larkin’s “Englishness” and on the use of direct and even obscene language in his otherwise conservative and formal poetry.