A New Critique of the Whitsun Weddings
Here is a recording of the Larkin reading the poem in 1964…
The poem takes the form of eight verses, of ten lines each. The lines have ten syllables, except for the second line of each verse, which has four. The rhyme pattern is A,B,A,B,C,D,E,C,D,E. in form and structure it matches some of Keatss Odes, which Keats stated were written in this manner to seek a ‘better’ form of the sonnet.
The poem was first published on 28th February 1964.
Larkin began writing the poem in 1957, and there is speculation that it is based upon an actual journey he undertook in 1955, though this has been called into question as there was apparently a rail strike at Whitsun of that year. But for now, we will quote Larkin, “‘You couldn’t be on that train without feeling the young lives all starting off, and that just for a moment you were touching them. Doncaster, Retford, Grantham, Newark, Peterborough, and at every station more wedding parties. It was wonderful, a marvellous afternoon.'”
The text of the poem can be found here, along with a standard commentary on the poem: which contains every cliche about Larkin and his work that you could possibly wish.
It is this perception of Larkin, and particularly the standard reading of the poem that this essay seeks to address, and correct: or at least to offer an alternative possible interpretation.
A decent place to start, when considering Larkin, is the 2011 article in the Atlantic written by Christopher Hitchens. The article is entitled Philip Larkin, The Impossible Man, and subtitled, how the most exasperating of poets met his match.
To some extent Hitchens’ misses the chance to allay his exasperation by missing every opportunity that he himself sets up. As, in the opening paragraph, when he relates the tale of Larkin taking Orwell to dinner, after giving a speech on ‘Literature and Totalitarianism’, at a rather less good hotel than the hotel to which he had taken Dylan Thomas the week before, in his role as treasurer of the Oxford University English Club; an event on which Larkin dryly comments, “I suppose it was my first essay in practical criticism.” This being the same Orwell, who criticized Auden and Spender as ‘sissy poets’.
Rather than ask questions, such as the potential impact upon Larkin of a trajectory which ran from being rejected for the army, going to Oxford – effectively to be a sissy poet – gaining a first class honours degree, and then becoming a librarian in very provincial library – “there swelled….A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower…Sent out of sight.” – perhaps? Instead Hitchens’ engages in a comparison between Orwell and Larkin, which has more to do with his long running literary battles over the meaning and inheritance of Orwell, and Hitchens’ view of himself and the left, than it does about the subject.
The main usefulness of the article, for me at least, is Hitchens coining of the phrase, ‘the Terry Eagleton crew’, to describe the seemingly increasing numbers of people ready to dismiss Larkin’s work, because of their dismissal of Larkin as a man.
Which brings me to a video on youtube that was the real spark that ignited this essay. It is of a meeting at the now defunct Philoctetes Centre, in New York, in 2008. And featured the Larkin biographer, and ex-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, in discussion with Michael Braziller about two of Larkin’s poems, Whitsun Weddings and High Windows: followed by a question and answer session with the audience. The stated purpose of the Philoctetes Centre is, or rather was, the study of imagination.
Among many rather extraordinary statements made by Mr Motion, were that he had never noticed before the line “Like an outdated combine harvester” in High Windows, and that “like an arrow-shower…Sent out of sight” was perhaps a reference to the Laurence Olivier’s version of Henry V, that he was, or wasn’t, sure Larkin had seen. That Motion described himself a ‘friend’ of Larkin, suggests nothing more than Motion is a careerist who appears to have used his friendship to feather his own nest, and then like any careerist “I, decent with the seasons, move”, when the wind turned and the Terry Eagleton crew moved into queer the pitch, he is happy to paint himself in a new light.
But rather than do unto Motion what the Eagleton crew do unto Larkin, and by extension do unto Mr Braziller, who appeared terrified of the Amazons in the audience, we should move onto the Q&A of this session that provided ample evidence of why the Philoctetes Centre ceased studying imagination. It was less a question and answer, than an invitation for a man, any man, to commit the dreaded sin of pointing out that perhaps Larkin isn’t a misogynist, and when that failed, the imagination of the sirens ran riot, quoting the spectrum of feminist talking points without ever showing the slightest knowledge of the poem. This group therapy session reached its zenith with the claim “shuffling gouts of steam”, was somehow proof of violence, probably against women, as opposed to a description of a steam engine puffing smoke.
Hitchens too indulges this line of non-inquiry in his piece. Though in fairness to him after making the obligatory statements of misogyny, he does have the decency to be informed about his subject, and to offer an alternate suggestion of what may have been going on, by quoting from letters written to Monica Jones, whom Hitchens describes thus, ” Monica Jones, an evidently insufferable yet gifted woman who was a constant friend and intermittent partner (one can barely rise to saying mistress, let alone lover).” In the letters Larkin says, ““I’m sorry our lovemaking fizzled out,” he writes after a disappointing provincial vacation in 1958. “I am not a highly-sexed person.” This comes after a letter in which he invites her to consider their affair in the light of “a kind of homosexual relation, disguised: it wdn’t surprise me at all if someone else said so.””
Unfortunately, we will never know if Larkin was hoping for a lesbian or gay relationship with Monica.
But it does rather suggest that the sting of the ‘sissy poets’ was strongly felt by Larkin, with the star of Auden being particularly attractive.
In an interview given to the Paris Review Larkin claims not to be influenced by poets he admires. Yet in the same interview he reveals both his wide literary tastes and knowledge. And, reading Larkin one often picks up echoes of Auden’s work, “Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat”, could perhaps be references to both, When I Walked Out One Morning, and The Night Mail, the latter particularly so when combined with, “I took for porters larking with the mails,….And went on reading” upon first becoming aware of the wedding groups.
Given Auden’s towering influence on poetry at the time Larkin – having retrained to master the dewy-decimal system, an honours degree from Oxford not being enough – was starting his career, it shouldn’t be surprising that he would be influenced by Auden.
If you would indulge my filthy mind for a moment, I was amused to watch a lecture on Auden, again on youtube, given by Langdon Hammer of Yale University, about an Auden poem, sometimes called The Letter, written in 1927. I would suggest there is more going on behind that sheep pen wall than Auden describing the countryside, particularly when you reach the poem’s conclusion, “I, decent with the seasons, move… Different or with a different love,…. Nor question much the nod,…. The stone smile of this country god… That never was more reticent,….Always afraid to say more than it meant.” Especially as saying more than it meant could get you imprisoned, or even hanged.
It is this reluctance to say more than it meant that leads people to queue up to brand Larkin with their favourite ‘ism’ or ‘ist’. Particularly when Larkin so often breaks George Carlin’s rules of the seven things that cannot be said on television.
It is within this contradiction that so much of the criticism lies.
Larkin in this respect does not help himself. He is variously quoted as stating that his poems are what they are and that they have no hidden or wider meaning. This could be interpreted a number of ways, one of which is simple defensiveness at being asked leading questions by journalists, whom he knows are going to write the piece they were commissioned to write, with or without his input: his quotes serving only to provide more or less rope.
Yet clearly he is being disingenuous, and as mentioned above, not helping himself.
For instance in the poem Church Going, the issue if less about whether he is or isn’t religious – he said he wasn’t – than it is about an exploration of what remains. He may just as well have visited football stadiums after the match and would perhaps have written a similar poem. The question he asks in this, and so much of his work, is ‘if this changes what replaces it?’, and ‘what will happen to these people?’
In Annus Mirabilis he describes courtship as, “A sort of bargaining, ….A wrangle for a ring” which contrasts with the opening of High Windows, “And guess he’s fucking her and she’s….Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,” Courtship has been replaced by ‘Free Love’, the ring, in one sense remains, and is now being fucked, just as it was before, but the ring of rubber provided by the state is of less value to the woman in a pawn shop should things turn sour.
That Larkin acknowledges the past, without praising the present, is perhaps his original sin.
Which brings me back to the Terry Eagleton crew, of which I used to be a paid member. When I first encountered the poem Whitsun Weddings, I too had the standard reaction at the preconceived snootiness, the elitism, the snobbery.
The tension contained within my prejudice was less about the what the poem is and says, than what it should be and should profess to say. That Larkin chooses not to play this game, but instead plays a rather more subtle game of leaving the reader to interpret, leaves him at a loss, if for no other reason than the past is such an other world.
Take an observation like “girls…In parodies of fashion,”. If you know that it was possible at the time, and something commonly done, to buy the pattern for a dress you had seen in a magazine, and that the pattern came with a label of the designer that could be sewn in. Then the parody is not a sneering class statement, as the standard interpretation of the poem would have you believe, but a statement about the quality of the cloth. An observation picked up again in the next verse with “The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,”.
Or perhaps Larkin is picking up on the themes explored in his poem, The Large Cool Store. Certainly he chooses to echo the colour palette, “Lemon, sapphire, moss-green, rose”, of that poem, with the “lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres” of this. And in doing so, he repeats his assertion that there is something ethereal in their expectations: “Marked off the girls unreally from the rest”, a sentiment expanded upon in The Large Cool Store, “How separate and unearthly love is,….Or women are, or what they do,….Or in our young unreal wishes…. Seem to be”.
Whatever the case, when one sees these people as more than pawns in a game of literary exclusion they become more real and Larkin’s observation of them more sharp.
Not that it stops the critics of the poem piling on the stones of the cairn myth they seek to build. My particular favourite in this respect is “mothers loud and fat”, which is a favourite trigger for those wishing to push the narrative of the Terry Eagleton crew. Reading various criticisms of the poem the idea that a woman or a mother, can be either loud or fat, or worse both, is something so shocking too many that they must signal their alarm in the broadest terms possible. This led me to wondering what they would think of Ma Larkin in the HE Bates novels, or Mrs Feziwig in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, or the countless other loud, fat matrons peppered throughout novels, plays and poems down the ages, who far from being seen as some sinister cypher of class prejudice, are usually seen as a stereotype of kind-heartedness and joviality.
I also found myself wondering if this expression of ‘class solidarity’ was not rather an expression of pretense. Especially in an age when precisely these type of women are regularly held up to ridicule on various lifestyle television programs, in health campaigns and newspaper stories about the benefits of dieting.
Again we might look at the historical context and delve into reports, such as the Greenwood Committee who examined hunger in the 1930’s, to see if there might be a reason for why the mother’s described in this poem, and in this period, might be fat: or if Larkin is simply using a readily available trope of fiction.
But given that Whitsun Weddings was first published in 1964, it is perhaps useful to look at a different government report, The Beaching Report, on the future of the railways – first published in 1963, under the title Reshaping British Railways: “sun destroys….The interest of what’s happening in the shade” is surely an apt description for these wedding parties, given that they, like the 30 Foot Trailer of Ewan McColl’s song- first broadcast in April 1964, as part of the radio ballad The Traveling People – were soon to be a thing of the past.
Certainly the report inspired Larkin’s contemporary John Betjeman, to rail against the closures and reorganisations: which were, it was argued, needed in the name of progress: the car being the transport of the future. It is surely no accident that Larkin includes the lines, “Until the next town, new and nondescript,…Approached with acres of dismantled cars.” This could be a reference to motor cars. according to report in Hansard in 1960 the number of people killed or injured on the roads was running at in excess of 300,000 per year. Or it could be in reference to rolling stock, as during the period, beginning in 1960, there was a change from steam to diesel locomotives and an accompanying upgrading of carriages.
In the poem they appear to be on a steam train, “shuffling gouts of steam” and the ambiguous line, “An uncle shouting smut”. And, “All windows down” and “I leant…More promptly out next time” suggests that Larkin, or the narrator, is in one of the older compartment carriages: newer carriages being fitted with sliding windows to save cost.
The significance of this becomes clearer if one assumes the train in the poem to be a metaphor for marriage. A metaphor that perhaps can be expanded by the assertion of the transport minister of the time Ernest Marples, that railways were, “a relic of the Victorian past”.
Another big issue of the day, was reform of the divorce laws. I offer this link which outlines both the history of divorce, and the issues of the debate as they stood in 1964, when the poem was published.
Of significance is that a divorce could only be granted by the High Court in London. And that in order to gain a divorce one of the partners had to be the ‘guilty party’, which led to the popular notion of ‘the dirty weekend in Brighton.’ In order to get to Brighton from Hull, where the journey begins – “smelt the fish-dock; thence…. The river’s level drifting breadth began,….Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet….All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept…For miles inland,….A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.” – one would have to travel to London and for there take an onward train.
One might also consider the supposed genesis of the poem, with the apocryphal, or not, journey in 1955 until it’s publication in 1964. This coincides with the failure of the Law Commission to make recommendations on the issue of reform in the mid 1950’s, to the joint commissions by the Church of England and the Law Society that began in 1966. The aim of this commission states that their objectives “were to buttress, rather than undermine, the stability of marriage.” That marriage required strengthening is a sign of its weakness, or as Larkin puts it, “fathers had never known….Success so huge and wholly farcical”.
The following lines hint at this too, ” The women shared… The secret like a happy funeral;” and “While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared… At a religious wounding.” For marriage, gave a woman respectability, and being married meant she could no longer be ‘spoiled for marriage’.
Larkin’s laconic and dry wit has often been commented upon, but the aspect of his satyr of, and about, his key themes of discretion and respectability are often overlooked. Even in his splenetic excesses, that so offend the ‘liberated’ and ‘progressive’, it is these themes he returns to – and much of the ammunition for the Terry Eagleton crew is provided by his indiscretion and lack-of respectability when caught singing racist songs, and having the audacity to find them funny – and worse, being dead, not to be in a position to make the required apology.
But let us for a moment consider the opening line, “That Whitsun, I was late getting away” and ask the question why?
We know from, later in the poem, that the narrator’s destination is London. But why are the going there?
To take the standard reading of the poem, this is Larkin and he is going to the capital for a conference on library matters, or for some poetry do, or maybe he is off to stock up on Bamboo and Frolic; pornographic magazines of sado-masochistic nature of which he was fond.
But supposing it is a fictional Larkin riding a metaphorical train, who in some alternative dimension, off to seek a divorce from Monica Jones in order to marry Maeve Brennan. Or to meet Maeve Brennan in Brighton to secure the required evidence to obtain a divorce from Monica Jones. Divorce and marriage being used here in the context of commitment.
Or perhaps it is simply a living breathing Larkin meeting a large as life Maeve Brennan.
The documentary Love and Death in Hull paints a picture of the relationship between Larkin and Brennan, that is both chivalrous and affectionate. And, the reported timescale of that relationship, they met in 1955, began their affair in 1960, and if one believes Larkin himself, between Love Me Do and the Chatterley trial, in 1962 he discovered what sexual intercourse was.
And there is something curious about the use of I and we in the poem.
“I was late getting away” “I didn’t notice what a noise”, “I took for porters”, “I leant…. More promptly out next time,” “I thought of London” – and we – “We ran…Behind the backs of houses”, “A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept”, “Each station that we stopped at”, ” Once we started, though,…. We passed them, grinning and pomaded.”, “And, as we moved,”, ” We hurried towards London”, “And as we raced across…. Bright knots of rail”.
This contrasts with the use of ‘they’ when describing the wedding parties.
Yet, there is something furtive about the opening of the poem, ” all sense….Of being in a hurry gone.”, which is suggestive of meeting a colleague, who is also a lover. With both keen to be discreet and avoid further fueling office gossip at the university library where they both work, perhaps?.
This may seem far fetched, until one considers the last verse of the poem.
Now, this may be a description of the journey into Kings Cross/St Pancreas, or it might be a sensuous description of something rather different: “And as we raced across…. Bright knots of rail…. walls of blackened moss…. Came close…. 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.”
Clearly I have trimmed the verse to make the point, but even the missing lines, “Past standing Pullmans” – a carriage famous for ornate curtains and luxury – “and it was nearly done, this frail…Travelling coincidence” etc, hardly detracts from an interpretation that sexual congress is taking place – perhaps even that nivana of romantic novelists and sex therapists, the mutual orgasm.
This interpretation, also offers a different perspective on “Struck, I leant… More promptly out next time,”. Rather than the narrator being a voyeur, the action becomes one of defending his compartment from intruders knowing that if they can maintain privacy, they have the fifty minutes between Peterborough and London to consummate their passions: “and for… some fifty minutes, that in time would seem…Just long enough to settle hats and say… I nearly died,”
In doing so, each time the narrator leans out, they see the wedding parties more clearly each time, and we get more of a picture of them.
And again there are snippets in the detail, within these vignettes, of a changing society. “the wedding-days… Were coming to an end” being one such example: the couples are hitched and fed and off on honeymoon by three o clock, and the wedding is over. One explanation could be that the people in these wedding parties are too poor to afford an evening do; or they could be living in closer proximity, and therefore not needing to string out the day to accommodate relatives and friends who have to travel; or it could be that to them, with regard to the issue of respectability, the important thing is that wedding has happened and now they no longer have to bite their lip, or tell white lies: “Free at last,…And loaded with the sum of all they saw,” – Whatever the explanation, it is a subtle and well observed point.
That it should be followed with the line, “And, as we moved, each face seemed to define….Just what it saw departing” only emphasizes the clear changes underway in society, that would seek to defend marriage through the discipline of defined boundaries, like “fathers with broad belts under their suits” but in doing so only come to make the institution as rank as the “reek of buttoned carriage-cloth”, and as thinly protected as “short-shadowed cattle”.
Curiously, when one watches newsreel and public information films of the period they share the same jaunty optimism as the Terry Eagleton crew for beat poetry, secondary schools of ubiquitous construction, and all the associated ingredients that went into the Labour Manifesto of 1964 which proclaimed itself, “Impatient to apply the “new thinking” that will end the chaos and sterility”.
Not that this ‘new thinking’ was particularly new. Indeed Larkin was as much of a proponent of modernism as anyone. The form, structure and pattern of the poem, laid out at the beginning of this essay, was done so to point out it is there, since the tone and shaping of the phrasing almost deliberately hides it.
The answer perhaps lays in Larkin’s not hopping aboard a different train, that of socialism. While Larkin cocks-a-snook at the grammarians by skilled tailoring of his verse, “I didn’t notice what a noise….The weddings made….Each station that we stopped at”, he lacks the stridency and performance of Adrian Henri, stretching a banner of ‘LONG LIVE SOCIALISM’ across the sky, in the poem The Entry to Christ into Liverpool, and having done so Henri attracts none of the opprobrium and accusations of lacking ‘class awareness’ when he describes the working classes thus: “hideous masked Breughal faces of old ladies in the crowd… yellow masks of girls in curlers and headscarves…. smelling of factories.”
Thus when Larkin laments to John Betjamin, in the Monitor program, Down Cemetery Road, that he has been described as writing ‘a sort of welfare state sub-poetry’, he is well aware of why he being described thus. And no doubt, were he to adopt the ‘new thinking’ of seeking to change the world, rather than reflect it, or observe those things that are disappearing, he would not attract the sneering criticism: or indeed the ongoing criticism with it’s related ‘ists’ and ‘isms’.
The Blue Book – critical thinking made fun.