The Whitsun Weddings (poem analysis)

The Whitsun Weddings is a well-known poem by Philip Larkin, a British poet. Whitsun, or Whit Sunday, is the seventh Sunday after Eater, when people often get married. This poem was written during the 1950’s, an auspicious time to get married as there was a financial uplift in the market. Larkin wrote the poem on a train ride, thus explaining his witnessing of so many wedding parties that inspired him to write this piece. Throughout the poem, one can see the vivid imagery and the naturalness to his tone of voice.

 

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.

The opening lines of the poem are very personal, and conversational as if Larkin is speaking to us rather than to the paper. The imagery is vivid as one can almost feel what he feels, and smell what he smells. For example, we can instantly visualize it in our minds when he mentions the hot Saturday afternoon, and describes the windows of the train, all closed. Next, he remarks about the hot cushions, which leads us to believe that it is a warm, lazy afternoon. The way he mentions the description of the view from his window seat, instantly makes one feel as if they’re looking from their own eyes. Larkin is careful enough to indicate the senses. For example, when he mentions the hot cushions, the blinding windscreens, and the smell of the fish-dock. And thus, one feels as if they’re beside the poet as he travels, watching out the window through his eyes instead of reading it on paper. Next, Larkin connects the sky to city and water. As he is embarked upon a train, this line is heavily influenced by his journey. He says that the sky and city and water create a sense of continuity that connects different locations and different points of time.

 

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.

 

In this stanza, Larkin’s tone of voice becomes even more real and natural. The way he describes things seem so real. For example, when he says “smell of grass
displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth” one can almost smell the staleness of the cloth seats inside the train carriage. He also mentions the “slow and stopping curve”, “the wide farms”, “the short-shadowed cattle”, and “canals with floatings of industrial froth” which seem quite real and believable as one witnesses this even today.

 

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

 

Here, Larkin uses a classical technique where he controls the release of information as each line unfolds. That is, one line connects to the image of another without overloading it by too much detail. Larkin gives the reader a vivid imagination in the line where he describes the “grinning and pomaded” girls in “parodies of fashion, heels and veils.”

 

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 jewelry-substitutes,

The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers that

 

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.

 

The vivid and distinct imagery can also be found here when the poet mentions the description of the family members of the brides. He also has an ability to note down the minor of the minor details and write them in an effortless fashion. For example, “the perms, the nylon gloves and jewelry”, also “broad belts” all seem to be intricately but brilliantly placed in the poem. However, one cannot deny that this exhibition of wedding parties also reveal the poet’s view of their social class.

 

Yes, from cafes 
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.

 

However, this stanza introduces a new event to the poem. One can clearly see the poet abstracting from his experiences in this stanza. He is brilliant enough so as to put forward the idea that all wedding parties are not unique, they are but the same. However, this perception is only viewed by Larkin as he has witnessed each wedding party that day. Also, one can see the satire in Larkin’s tone of voice. Some might find his description of “frowning children, the proud fathers, ecstatic women and sentimental girls” funny, but this also shows that each is human, just like the poet. It shows human nature, moods and feelings, too. And so, as the poet witnesses the weddings, he becomes a part of them. With the lines, “Free at last, And loaded with the sum of all they saw, We hurried towards London.” Note how “they” becomes “we.”

 
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 
Traveling 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.

 

Here, Larkin says that the newly married couples leave their families and join the train. Again, the way Larkin describes the views from the windows of the moving train is quite imaginative for the reader as one can immediately picture it happening inside their head. He speaks of newly-weds getting on the train and leaving as something symbolic; he juxtaposed emotions that contradict each other. For example: happiness and loss. Marriage represents both- it is joyful, while, at the same time, it also symbolizes a loss. However, in the last stanza the imagery turns out to be quite symbolic. Larkin thinks of London “spread out in the sun” like a golden field and the post districts “packed like squares of wheat.” Throughout the whole poem, Larkin used real and actual imagery, however, here the poem ends in a metaphorical note.

 

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