»  Philip Larkin's "The Whitsun Weddings"


The Whitsun Weddings

by Philip Larkin, 1922-1985


•  Background

For well-educated young English people in the 1960s and 1970s the two best-loved, most-quoted contemporary English poets were John Betjeman (1906-1984) and Philip Larkin (1922-1985).

I have readings from Betjeman here and here. Until now, though, I have only posted one reading of a Larkin poem. That's a shame, not least because, while the poem I was reading there is Larkin's best-known, the fact of its being his best-known is … regrettable. Time to redress the balance.

Betjeman and Larkin make an odd couple. They were both of a conservative temperament; but while Betjeman's conservatism was patriotic, religious (Anglican, of course), and sentimental, Larkin's was sharper, skeptical to the point of nihilism, atheistic, and sometimes rude.

Published work aside, Larkin is famous for at least one un-published — and today, unpublishable — poem, the 1966 work How to win the Next Election, which was, says one reviewer, "presumably written in the Conservative [i.e. Conservative Party] cause."

Prison for strikers,
Bring back the cat,
Kick out the [n-word]s,
How about that?

Trade with the Empire,
Ban the Obscene,
Lock up the Commies,
God Save the Queen.

(The "cat" there refers to the cat-o'-nine-tails, i.e. corporal punishment for law-breakers.)

Lines like that would, if they became known to the Thought Police, get you a stiff jail sentence in early-21st-century England. Even in 1966 they would have been frowned at in polite company while yet — I am sure: I was there — returning an echo from the breasts of millions of Larkin's fellow-countrymen. But hey, the sentiments are conservative. (Although the Conservative Party lost the 1966 election. Feel free to speculate on whether, had they followed Philip Larkin's advice, they might have won.)

If that hasn't put you off Larkin's verse for life, here is a much gentler, more humane, and (in my opinion) very lovely poem, published two years earlier in 1964. The reader here is the late Richard Griffiths, a British actor best known to 2023's audiences for his movie roles as Harry Potter's Uncle Vernon.


•  Notes

"Whitsun" — The main late Spring / early Summer public holiday in mid-20th-century England.

Whit Sunday is the seventh after Easter Sunday — Pentecost to non-Anglican Christians. Depending on the date of Easter, Whit Sunday can fall on any date between May 10th and June 13th. It very occasionally falls on my birthday: 1979, 1990, 2001, but then not again until 2063 …

Whit Monday was a Bank Holiday in England until 1970. The weekend embracing Whit Sunday, and by extension the following weekdays, were infused with a holiday spirit; not so much for religious reasons as because this was the first public holiday with the hope of pleasant weather. Anyone able to take off Whitsuntide — i.e. the week following Whit Sunday — for a vacation, or for marriage and a honeymoon, did so. The poet seems here to be headed for a week's vacation in London.

"the fish-dock" — From 1955 until shortly before his death in December 1985 Larkin was University Librarian in Hull, an old seaport in northeast England.

Hull is on the north shore of the River Humber estuary, which is a mile and a half wide there. There is now a road bridge, opened in 1981; but prior to that there was neither bridge nor tunnel. Hull had a railway station that would take you west or north; but to get from Hull to southern England by rail in 1964 you took a ferry across the river to Barton on the south shore and boarded a train there.

Heading then south, the first major town you went through was Grimsby, a center of commercial fishing thirty-odd miles from Hull.

"Lincolnshire" — The River Humber at Hull forms the southern border of Yorkshire. Having taken that ferry to Barton on the south shore of the estuary, you have crossed from Yorkshire into Lincolshire. (Grimsby is in Lincolshire.)

"Odeon" — A popular name for movie theaters in 20th-century England.

"running up to bowl" — In the game of cricket, the bowler (i.e. pitcher) takes a short run before releasing the ball towards the batsman (i.e. hitter).


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

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.

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.

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,

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 jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
      Yes, from cafés
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.
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
Travelling 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.