The Whitsun Weddings by Larkin
The Whitsun Weddings by Larkin
The Whitsun Weddings by Larkin is a poem about the significance of traditions in relieving the pain embedded in transience of human existence.
💬 So, imagine hopping on a train with Philip Larkin one sunny Whitsun weekend, and off you go through England, passing by weddings left and right, all while you’re admiring the scenery changing outside your window and having a good old chat about how time flies, life is short, and weddings are a bit like that too, don’t you think? 😄🚂💐
The poem The Whitsun Weddings was published in a collection of the same title in 1964. The collection and especially its title poem received public and critical acclaim soon after its publication. One year after Larkin published his collection, he was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. It was also named ‘one of the best poems of our time’ by the Times Literary Supplement. Its historical context is essential to understanding the poem:
1. Post-World War II Britain: The poem was written in the post-war era, when Britain was recovering from the ravages of World War II. In the aftermath of the War, Britain was focused on recovering and rebuilding a nation that had been heavily affected by the war’s destruction. Cities and infrastructure had suffered extensive damage, and there was a need for economic and social recovery.
The War had a profound impact on British society. It led to a sense of national solidarity and unity during the wartime, but it also exposed class inequalities and the need for social reform. This period saw the beginning of significant social changes and a questioning of traditional values.
Britain faced economic challenges as it tried to rebuild its economy. The immediate post-war years were characterized by austerity (means “moderation”) measures and rationing (means “limiting), which affected daily life. There were shortages of various goods, and people had to adapt to a frugal (means “economical”) lifestyle.
2. A Changing Britain
The poem reflects the social and cultural shifts of the 1950s and early 1960s, including changes in marriage and family structures, urbanization, and the emergence of a more consumer-oriented society. Many writers of this period, including poets like Philip Larkin, engaged with the social and cultural changes brought about by the war. They explored themes of disillusionment, alienation, and a sense of loss, reflecting the collective experience of the war generation.
3. The Whitsun Weekend
Whitsun, short for Whitsuntide (the week beginning with Whitsunday, especially the first three days of this week) or Pentecost, is a Christian holiday that falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter. In the UK, it was traditionally a time of religious observance and community celebrations, often involving processions, fairs, and gatherings.
The poem’s choice of a Whitsun weekend as its setting is symbolic. It represents a moment of communal and familial togetherness, often associated with festivities and weddings. This choice underscores the contrast between the personal, individual experiences of the speaker and the broader, celebratory atmosphere of the holiday.
Throughout the poem, the speaker observes various weddings taking place during the Whitsun weekend. These weddings symbolize the rites of passage and the beginnings of new lives for the couples involved. However, the speaker’s detached observation highlights the contrast between the optimism of these events and the speaker’s own sense of isolation and uncertainty.
Whitsun, being a religious holiday, also carries a temporal aspect. It marks a specific moment in the Christian calendar, emphasizing the passage of time. This temporal element ties into the poem’s broader themes of time, change, and mortality.
About the Poet
Philip Arthur Larkin (commonly known as Philip Larkin), was born on August 9, 1922, in Coventry, Warwickshire, England. He passed away on December 2, 1985, in Kingston upon Hull. He is considered one of the most representative and respected poets who expressed a concise and unromantic style that was quite common in English poetry during the 1950s.
Philip Larkin received a scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, an experience that inspired his first novel, “Jill,” published in 1946 (revised in 1964). He self-published his initial poetry book, “The North Ship,” in 1945. He also wrote another novel, “A Girl in Winter,” in 1947. He gained recognition with his poetry collection “The Less Deceived” in 1955. This title hints at Larkin’s and other British writers’ reactions (like Kingsley Amis and John Wain) to the political fervour of the 1930s and what they saw as overly emotional poetry in the 1940s. Larkin’s poetry, though it does contain feelings, tends to express them subtly.
Philip Larkin started working as a librarian at the University of Hull in Yorkshire in 1955. During the years 1961 to 1971, he also worked as a jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph. His job as a jazz critic inspired the essays that can be found in his book titled “All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–68,” which was published in 1970. He later published two volumes of poetry: “The Whitsun Weddings” in 1964 and “High Windows” in 1974. In 1973, he was the editor for the Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. Additionally, he compiled a collection of various essays in a book called “Required Writing,” which was published in 1982.
Impact of Larkin’s Experiences on his Works
Philip Larkin’s life experiences had a significant influence on his poetry, and this is evident in his poem The Whitsun Weddings too. Larkin was known for his keen observations of ordinary life and his exploration of themes like isolation, nostalgia, and the passage of time.
Larkin was often seen as a solitary and introverted figure, and this sense of isolation is reflected in many of his poems, including this one. In the poem, the speaker observes a series of weddings from a detached perspective, highlighting a sense of emotional distance and isolation.
His poetry often features a depiction of the mundane (means “ordinary”) and the everyday. The Whitsun Weddings is no exception, as it describes a train journey through industrial towns and the sights of ordinary people’s lives. This reflects Larkin’s interest in capturing the essence of everyday experiences.
Larkin lived with a strong sense of nostalgia (means “yearning for the past”), and this is evident in his poem. As the train passes through the towns, the speaker reflects on how these scenes have changed over time, which mirrors Larkin’s own yearning for the past and his concern about the loss of traditional values and ways of life.
His poetry is a kind of social commentary. His personal beliefs and views on society often seeped into his poetry. In this poem, he subtly comments on the social and economic conditions of his time, painting a picture of working-class life in post-war England.
Larkin was famous for his emotional restraint and his ability to convey deep emotions through understated (means “indistinct”) language. This characteristic is evident in the poem’s measured and controlled tone, reflecting Larkin’s own emotional reserve.
1. Read and understand the themes of Larkin’s other important poems like Toads, Aubade and Church Going.
2. Read “The Whitsun Weddings” for the first time and note your initial observations.
On Whitsun, a sunny Saturday, I found myself running late and didn’t manage to leave until roughly 1:20 in the afternoon. The train I hopped on was somewhat empty, and the day was scorching. As we began our journey, I couldn’t help but notice that all the windows were down, and the sense of urgency that had earlier propelled me had dissipated. We moved behind rows of houses, traversed a street lined with glaring car windscreens, and even caught a whiff of the nearby fish-dock. Soon, we approached the vast, meandering river where the endless expanse of the Lincolnshire sky met the water.
Throughout the afternoon, under the relentless heat that stretched for miles inland, our train followed a slow, winding route to the south. We passed by extensive farms, observed cattle casting brief shadows, and saw canals adorned with industrial foam. At one point, I caught sight of an unusual hothouse, and we continued to journey past shifting hedges, occasionally catching the fragrance of grass in the air. This continued until we neared the next town, a place cluttered with rows of disassembled cars.
Initially, I paid no mind to the uproar created by the wedding celebrations at each station where we made a stop. The glaring sunlight diverted my attention from the events occurring in the shaded areas. On the lengthy and cool platforms, the lively whoops and playful skirls seemed like the antics of railway porters handling the mail. I remained engrossed in my reading. Nevertheless, as we commenced our movement, we passed by these wedding parties. The individuals, elegantly dressed and groomed, struck poses with an air of uncertainty as they observed our passing train. It was almost as if they were bidding farewell to an event that had just unfolded.
This spectacle deeply moved me, and on the next occasion, I leaned out of the train to observe it more intently. What I saw were fathers wearing broad belts beneath their suits, mothers who were robust and exuberant, an uncle indulging in risqué banter, and women adorned with perms and artificial jewellery. The young ladies, distinguished by their attire in lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres, stood out distinctly from the rest of the crowd. These wedding festivities were winding down as we moved through cafes, banquet halls, and coach-party annexes adorned with bunting. Newlywed couples boarded our train while others watched from the platform. The last of the confetti was thrown, along with some final words of advice, as we pulled away. Every face seemed to convey the sentiment of the moment. Children appeared disinterested, fathers bore expressions of bemusement at this grand yet somewhat absurd event, and mothers shared their private joy akin to a contented funeral. Meanwhile, the young women, clutching their handbags tightly, appeared to be touched by a kind of profound and almost religious experience.
Once we had moved away, freed from the immediate scene and filled with the lingering memories of these weddings, our train rapidly carried us towards London, trailing plumes of steam behind it. The landscape shifted from fields to plots of land under construction, with towering poplar trees casting extended shadows over major roads. For approximately fifty minutes, a span of time that would later seem just sufficient to adjust one’s hat and acknowledge that one had come close to a life-threatening encounter, several weddings were underway. Passengers observed the changing landscape from their seats, and none of them seemed to dwell on the thought of the people they might never encounter again or the profound impact this shared hour would have on their lives. My thoughts turned to London, extending under the sun, its postal districts laid out like squares of wheat. Our destination lay ahead, and as we hurried past railway junctions and walls coated with darkened moss, it was evident that this coincidental journey was nearing its conclusion. Enclosed within it was something that seemed ready to be set free, empowered by the transformative force of change. Our train slowed once more, and as the brakes took hold, a sensation of descent came over me, much like a shower of arrows vanishing from sight, somewhere in the distance, transformed into rain.
Themes and Meanings
The title itself highlights how the central theme of marriage intersects with the theme of change, in general (or transformation, or impermanence and temporal nature of human existence) and societal changes, in particular. The poem offers a complex and often cynical perspective on the institution of marriage, which is a recurring theme in Larkin’s works. Possibly, Larkin’s views were influenced by the era in which the poem was written and published.
The period of 1960s (known for the beginnings of the second wave of feminism), marked by significant societal changes and discussions on civil rights and sexual liberation, played a crucial role in reshaping the perception of marriage. This context likely contributed to Larkin’s views. Additionally, Larkin’s personal experiences with marriage, revealed in his poems and private writings, provide further insight into his deeply rooted cynicism. He famously described his parents’ marriage as “bloody hell,” which encapsulates his perspective.
The Whitsun Weddings engages readers in exploring the depth and significance of marriage traditions. What initially appears as predictable and even comical wedding ceremonies transforms into a profound appreciation for the enduring traditions. The poem’s speaker also undergoes a similar transformation, shedding his initial satirical condescension (means “disdain,” “contempt” or “scorn”) as he delves into the complexities of marriage.
In the poem, traditions related to marriage encompass wedding customs, family roles, and the symbolic impact of marriage, particularly on women. Throughout the poem, females appear most affected by the weddings. They especially experience the “religious wounding” (both sexually and psychologically) because, as at a “happy funeral,” the bride dies (losing her name and, in the Renaissance sense of the word, her virginity). The women especially impress the speaker with their knowledge of “the secret” and seem to sum up within their experience much important knowledge of human life and value. Through their “deaths,” they are reborn as wives with new names, bearing the potential to contribute to the continuity of the human race by bringing forth the next generation of children.
These specific marriage traditions are intricately woven into a larger web of meaning within the poem. The poem’s setting, described as “sky and Lincolnshire and water,” represents the broader context in which marriage plays a central role. The title, intentionally vague about the year, imparts a timeless quality to the poem, much like the cyclical renewal of the natural world. This mirrors the ever-changing and renewing nature of the institution of marriage and its significance within the human experience. For the detached and cynical observer, recognizing and appreciating these marriage traditions brings about a positive change and a deeper understanding of the institution’s enduring relevance.
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