The Whitsun Weddings

Brief Interpretations (new)

'Here' is the opening poem of the Whitsun Weddings: it locates the reader in Larkin's England. Like a helicopter cameraman, he shows us the scenery, moving toward a large town (Hull in Yorkshire where he lived). Larkin catalogues its consumers - 'grim head-scarfed wives' - and commerce - 'electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers' - in one long, critical sentence of 25 lines. Notice how the short sentence 'Here silence stands / Like heat' pulls us up short, slowing the pace as we move beyond the suburbs to countryside and 'isolate villages'. The final view is of life 'out of reach' of society - a landscape solitary but beautiful.

In 'Mr Bleaney', Larkin begins speaking in the voice of an imaginary landlady, telling her new lodger about the old lodger, Mr Bleaney. Mr Bleaney was a long-term tenant and left only when he died. The new lodger finds that he knows all Mr Bleaney's habits - the time he ate, the food he preferred, where he went for Christmas - although he will never meet him. The room is dismal, without many comforts, and Larkin imagines Mr Bleaney's life was just as lonely. He is now in Mr Bleaney's shoes and maybe his life will also be fruitless. In the last stanza, he wonders whether Mr Bleaney deserved more than 'one hired box' - the 'box' refers to the room, but also the coffin in which Mr Bleaney left the house.

This pictures a woman who has kept the musical scores of songs she used to play, perhaps on the piano, and rediscovers them after many years, when she is a widow. As physical objects they have been marked by the passage of time: one is faded by sunlight, the woman's daughter has coloured another in. The words of the songs, though, are fresh 'like a spring-woken tree' and convey a sharp memory of being young and having life and love ahead. The woman cries because love's promise 'to solve, and satisfy' has not been fulfilled in her life.

In the first stanza, women file up to the American faith healer, who asks God to cure them. In the second stanza, these women move on like 'sheep' or 'idiot children' still shaking from their encounter. Their 'tongues blortand 'eyes squeeze grief' phrases which suggest that their bodies act without rational or emotional control. In the third stanza, Larkin repeats the faith healer's question 'what's wrong?' and gives his own answer. The ache which everyone wants to cure but can't is a need to have given, and especially to have received, more love. Larkin implicitly questions whether desire for God's blessing might not be a sublimated craving for parental love - a possibility highlighted by the repetition of the word 'child' by the silver-haired healer.

'Toad' is Larkin's pet word for 'work'. This poem is a sequel to 'Toads' in his earlier collection, The Less Deceived. Larkin describes taking a daytime walk in the park during the week. He meets those who do not have jobs: frail old men ('palsied old step-takers'), hospital outpatients, and vagrants 'deep in the litter baskets'. He concludes that the routine of work actually feels better than belonging to this social group who have 'nowhere to go but indoors'. In an ironical parting couplet, Larkin personifies work as an 'old toad' which will take his arm, making life's journey toward death ('Cemetery Road') easier.

Larkin imagines inventing a religion with rites involving water. Crossing water will be part of the ritual of attending church. Larkin will raise a glass of water, which reflects light, in the east (where the star announcing Christ's birth rises in the Bible). This fantasy raises the possibility that conventional religions may also just be designed to meet an audience's need for ceremony. 'Water', unlike all the poems discussed above, is unrhymed. But notice its strong, chanting metre: three stanzas with 2, 2 and 3 stresses per line; one stanza with a 3, 2, 2, 3 stress pattern.

The central poem in the collection describes a train journey on a hot holiday afternoon. Newly wed couples board at each station. When Larkin realises this, he starts to look out for the wedding parties. As the train moves off, it captures a moment of transition for the families, which stand on the platform, and the dozen marriages, which get under way on life's journey. Larkin is an unmarried, detached observer - depicting the typical family with ruthless humour - yet he is moved by being briefly part of a shared experience, as the train passengers, like an arrow-shower, travel forward together.

Coming after 'The Whitsun Weddings', this poem also considers the topic of marriage. Larkin contrasts his life with that of Arnold who 'married a woman to stop her getting away / Now she's there all day.' Arnold is no longer free: his wife nags him and his salary goes to his children. The view of Arnold's wife is very negative: you may feel that the poem's attitude to women reflects a fear present throughout this collection. Larkin wonders whether bachelor life or marriage is the more selfish social choice.

Larkin remembers his reading habits as a schoolboy. In the first stanza he is leading, through books, the fantasy life of a tough-guy hero, throwing punches at villains. In the second stanza, as he grows older, he is imagining himself as a vampire, acting out erotic violence. In the third stanza, an older Larkin claims that he doesn't read much any more because he identifies himself with 'the dude who lets the girl down' in love stories. 'Books are a load of crap', he suggests - a humorous and ironical retort from a writer.

'Ignorance' cuts to the heart of the collection?s doubtfulness about the future. Larkin comments on how strange it is 'never to be sure / Of what is true or right or real'. This, and the question about death in the last stanza, point to religious doubt - Larkin was an agnostic - but also social uncertainty. The second stanza, which describes ignorance of 'the way things work' (a vague subject) 'their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed' suggests again Larkin as an observer, noting others' instinctive identity and reproduction, but unable to participate without questioning these. The body ('flesh') is predetermined, but the reason for life remains a mystery.

'Wild Oats' contrasts the life one has lived, with the life not chosen. Larkin, in the same self-deprecating voice of 'A Study in Reading Habits', admits his romantic failure: 'I was too selfish...And easily bored to love'. He had a relationship with a girl 'in specs I could talk to', but always hankered after the girl's prettier friend, whom he 'only met twice'. We see the objects associated with the relationship he had which ended - four hundred letters, a ten-guinea ring - and the two photographs of the girl he never dated. Surprisingly it is these snaps which he still carries around: unrealised fantasy outlasts the real affair.

You may feel that this ends the collection on a more hopeful note about love and the passing of time. Larkin describes a mediaeval tomb, of an earl and a countess who are modelled in stone, lying side by side. The pose is formal: the earl is wearing armour - but Larkin is struck by the fact that his left glove is off and he is holding his wife's hand. The poet imagines the 'stationary voyage' of the tomb through the centuries. The mediaeval couple would have been amazed by changes in the hierarchical world they knew - people don't wear armour, or read the Latin inscription. Modern viewers just notice the apparent gesture of intimacy, which the couple may not have intended. But Larkin derives from this a general truth: 'what will survive of us is love'.

Detailed Interpretations

This poem describes watching the women who queue to be blessed by an American faith healer. The encounter each woman has with the healer is very brief - twenty seconds, in which he asks her to tell him 'what's wrong' and then asks God to cure the troubled part: 'this eye, that knee'. The women are deeply affected by this experience. Larkin wonders what motivates people to need faith healing. He concludes that within everyone is a sense of the life they could have lived if they had loved more, or, particularly, if they had been loved more. Nothing cures this ache, but the healing experience relieves by loosening suppressed emotions.

Time and voice: The poem is written in the present tense - giving it immediacy. Larkin is a detached, third person observer of the experience. We share his analytical view of the emotional event he witnesses. This gives authority to his general conclusions in the final stanza 'in everyone there sleeps / A sense of life lived according to love'.

Structure

The poem is divide into three stanzas of ten lines, with five stresses each, and a regular but complex rhyming pattern: ABCABDABCABD. This pattern mirrors the regular succession of women who file up to meet the faith healer. The three stanzas divide the poem's action: in the first the women file forward; in the second they disperse; in the third Larkin takes over with his exclamation 'What's wrong!' and analysis. Notice how the phrase 'then, exiled' causes an abrupt break at the end of the first stanza. This makes us feel the women's loneliness as they move away from the comfort of the faith healer's grasp. The lines are not end-stopped, but run on into each other - this helps to create a sense of movement and progression.

Language and Imagery: One important image is of rain/tears. Do you see the 'warm spring rain of loving care' in line 5? This is a metaphor: rain releases the fruitfulness of the soil that has been hardened by winter's frost; similarly, the healer's loving care releases the women's pent-up feelings. This links to the 'tears' and 'eyes squeezing grief' in stanza 2, and 'thawing, the rigid landscape weeps' in stanza 3. Another image is of being a child. The faith healer's repeated words 'now, dear child' are emphasised by italics, in stanzas 1 and 3. His silver hair and blessing make the healer himself seem like God, and emphasise his fatherly role. In stanza 2 Larkin imagines that 'a kind of dumb, idiot child' is reawakened in the women by their experience - they cry and lose control of speech like young children. Look at the phrase 'tongues blort' in line 19. A made-up word, near to 'blurt', its sound suggests their lack of rationality, an excited confusion echoed by 'jam', 'crowd' and 'rejoice'. Larkin uses the vocabulary of Christianity (which refers to worshippers as 'children' and 'sheep') to suggest that the women's need for religious blessing arises from a common craving for human, especially parental, love. The poem's title could therefore be a play on words - perhaps it is simply the act of trust in others, rather than religion, which heals us.

This poem describes a train journey on a hot Saturday afternoon. Newly wed couples board at each station. Larkin watches them, and their families left behind on the platform. He thinks about the transition that marriage represents, and the 'frail travelling coincidence' which the passengers share as they journey onward.

Time and voice: The poem is written in the past tense and the first person. It is based on an autobiographical experience, which Larkin had in 1955. Whitsun was originally a church festival where newly baptised people wore white. This makes it an appropriate holiday to associate with weddings, which are also festivals of change, where the bride wears white.

Structure: The poem has eight rhymed stanzas, of ten lines each. The rhyme scheme is ABABCDECDE. The lines in each stanza have five stresses except the second line, which has only two. The shorter line introduces a visual contrast and may suggest to you the alternating but regular rhythm of a train. This rhythm is also created by run-on lines which pause briefly in the middle of sentences: 'all sense / Of being in a hurry gone'; 'we ran / Behind the backs of houses'.

Language and imagery: The language of the first part of the poem appeals to our senses - the feel of the 'hot cushions', the sight of cars' 'blinding windscreens' reflecting the sun, the smell of the fish-dock, of grass and of the train's upholstery. A warm, sleepy atmosphere is created which draws the reader in. Larkin gives us quick snapshots of the passing landscape. As in the poem 'Here', we see industry as well as countryside. The canal's 'industrial froth' and the 'new and nondescript' towns with 'acres of dismantled cars' suggest that Larkin doesn't find modern scenery entirely sympathetic. When he finally notices the wedding parties he is ruthless in his description of their style - the women?s dresses are 'parodies of fashion', they are 'grinning' (a word often associated with stupidity) and 'pomaded' (covered in hair gel). The mothers are 'loud and fat', the uncles 'shout smut' the fathers are sweaty ('seamy foreheads'). You might consider whether Larkin's presentation of the wedding parties also reflects his view of their social class.

Gradually, Larkin and the reader become involved in the moment of transition when the newly married couples leave their families and join the train. This 'moving on' is both actual and symbolic. Women 'share the secret like a happy funeral': a conjunction of words, which at first seems contradictory. How can a funeral be happy, or a wedding resemble a funeral? Larkin uses the odd juxtaposition to suggest the conflicting emotions, which marriage inspires - it is both joyful, and represents a loss. Part of this loss can be a loss of sexual virginity, implied by the 'religious wounding', which awes the girls.

The vocabulary of Larkin's poems is typically familiar (look for everyday words like 'perm', 'nylon', 'Odeon') but in the last two stanzas the imagery becomes more metaphorical. London in the sun seems like a golden field, its postal districts 'packed like squares of wheat', the train with all its passengers is compared to 'an arrow-shower' shooting forward - a positive image of shared experience. Change brings energy and 'power'. Larkin stands halfway between involvement and detachment - observing marriage's rite of passage without directly participating in it.

The speaker indirectly recounts the kind of books he has read during three different phases of his life, and how they relate to his imaginative existence.

Time and Voice: The poem is written in the first person. It has a friendly, conversational feel, and a humorous tone - less formal than 'The Whitsun Weddings'. It can be read simply as an autobiographical description of Larkin's early experience of books. You might, however, choose to see the speaker as a persona (an adopted voice, which is near to Larkin's own, but not identical).

Structure: There are 3 stanzas of six lines each (sestets), with three uneven stresses per line. The rhyme scheme is ABCBAC. Each stanza marks a different period in the speaker's life up to the present.

Language and Imagery: Notice the colloquial language, which Larkin employs ('getting my nose in a book') right from the start of this poem. This casts a comic light on the poem's serious-sounding title. The first 3 lines of the sestet show us the physical reality of the speaker as a child, which is that he is weak-sighted, and 'ruining his eyes' by reading. The second 3 lines tell us about the fantasy life he is living through books. He is a hero, perhaps a gangster or cowboy, who can 'keep cool' while throwing punches at villains who are bigger than him. The slang expressions 'the old right hook' and 'dirty dogs', tell us about the adventure fiction he is reading - with exotic, macho vocabulary.

In stanza 2, the speaker's tastes have moved on to vampire novels. He wants to be an anti-hero. The teenager's fantasies now involve women - whom he 'clubs with sex'. The comic simile, 'I broke them up like meringues' suggests the fundamental harmlessness of his imaginings. The women are just like a sweet dish that you would demolish with a spoon. 'Ripping times' is a play on words: 'ripping' is old-fashioned slang for 'good fun', but here it has the double meaning of 'slashing'. This is typical of Larkin's familiar humour.

Stanza 3 brings us into the present. The speaker now sees himself as the shopkeeper in a romantic novel, who is cowardly and unsuccessful rather than heroic. Fantasy life is no longer effective in shutting out reality - so he discards books. The contraction The contraction '(I) don't read much now' and the direct retort to the reader 'Get stewed: / Books are a load of crap' are deliberately shocking. Coming from a writer, it is ironic and funny to hear books dismissed. It is part of the self-deprecating role that Larkin plays that he appears to deny the value of his own work. He is also forming a bond with the general reader who finds poetry difficult - his choice of non-literary language to express an anti-literary feeling are typical of Larkin's desire to write accessibly.

Connections (new)

This is just a checklist - more detailed comment on these themes can be found in Areas of Study.

connections

Areas of Study (new)

The effects of time and change are a recurring theme in Larkin's poetry. In 'Love Songs in Age' a woman rediscovers old songs that bring back painful memories of youthful hope. In 'Reference Back' it is a jazz record that recalls for Larkin an old relationship. 'MCMXIV' (1914) imagines Britain before the outbreak of World War One began a modern age of destruction and uncertainty. 'An Arundel Tomb' describes the effigies of a mediaeval couple that have survived to the present time, though not remembered for the reasons they had foreseen.

Reading MCMXIV, make a list of the ways in which the 1914 scene Larkin imagines is different from modern times. How do you think Larkin feels about the present day compared with the past?

Look at the poem 'Reference Back'. Pay particular attention to the final stanza. What do you think it is trying to say about memory and regret? Can you make a connection between this poem and 'Love Songs in Age'?

'Afternoons' and 'Toads Revisited' are both set in the afternoon, in a park. Compare and contrast these two poems and their thoughts on aging.

'An Arundel Tomb' considers a representation of two people through a long period of history. What changes and what stays the same? Can you think of any reasons why Larkin chose to end his collection with this poem?

Larkin contrasts our inner lives with the outer lives that we lead in society. The gap between reality and imagination can be the source of both pathos and humour. 'Love Songs in Age' brings out the ways in which reality disappoints romantic visions of love. 'A Study in Reading Habits' brings out both comedy and sadness in the speaker's reliance on adopting roles from books.

How does the speaker in 'A Study in Reading Habits' use literature to escape from reality?

'Sunny Prestatyn' depicts a girl in a poster, which has been defaced. How does the language change from stanza 1 (describing the advertisement) to stanza 2 (describing the graffiti)?

The poems in this collection explore mixed feelings about marriage - interest, but also a deep anxiety. 'The Whitsun Weddings' observes the moment when 'a dozen marriages got under way'. The following poem, 'Self's the Man', is cynical about the pressures of being a husband, and wonders whether staying a bachelor is really such a selfish choice. In 'Dockery and Son', the speaker is shocked by the news that a younger man, once a fellow university student, already has a teenage son - this forces him to consider his own choice to have stayed single.

What fears does 'Self's the Man' express about marriage?

How does 'The Whitsun Weddings' evoke the change that marriage brings?

In 'Water', Larkin plays with the idea of inventing a religion. In 'Faith Healing' he watches the rapture of women touched by a faith healer, and wonders if the common injury that needs to be healed is a lack of love. 'Ignorance' is not directly about religion, but expresses our lack of knowledge concerning life's purpose.

How does Larkin present the faith healing ceremony?

What is new about Larkin's invented religion, and what reminds you of conventional worship?

Do these poems seem to you to convey religious belief or religious doubt?

Other Areas of Study:

The importance/endurance of love

Isolation and loneliness

The changing landscape of England

Fear of dying

Essay-style Questions

1. Referring to both ideas and imagery, discuss how Larkin presents the importance of love to human experience in The Whitsun Weddings

Answer

Introduction

Responds directly to the question

Establishes that the essay will treat the question using these 3 poems

Love is a key word and value in The Whitsun Weddings. Many
of Larkin's poems describe the difficulty of forming relationships.
In 'Wild Oats' for example, the narrator separates from his girlfriend
after agreeing that he is 'too selfish' and 'easily bored'
to love. Yet the desire for love and its endurance over time are central
to the ideas and imagery of three poems in the collection: 'Love Songs
in Age', 'Faith Healing' and 'An Arundel Tomb'.
'Love Songs in Age'

Remember for each poem to address the key topic, love, and the main things
to which we should refer, ideas and imagery

Treats the imagery, with attention to the detail of language

Treats the ideas

In 'Love Songs in Age', Larkin describes a woman
who is brought to tears by the discovery of old songs. These make her realise
that love has not brought the fulfilment she hoped for when young.

The love songs produce a feeling of youth 'like a spring-woken tree'
- an image of renewed growth and change. 'Love' itself
is connected with images of sun ('bright', brilliance',
'glare') and clouds ('sailing above')...

The romantic notion of love in popular songs is that it will 'solve
and satisfy', but in reality this dream often fails.

'Faith Healing'

Treats the imagery, with attention to the detail of language

Treats the ideas

'Faith healing' depicts the procession of women
queuing to be blessed by an American faith healer...

The imagery describing the impact of the healer's 'loving care'
is of 'spring rain' thawing frozen land. The women are also
compared with children...

This image suggests that the women are seeking human, as much as divine,
love. Larkin concludes that 'in everyone there sleeps / A sense of
life lived according to love.' Most people have not loved, or been
loved enough, and that is the injury which needs healing.

'An Arundel Tomb'

Treats the imagery, with attention to the detail of language

Treats the ideas

'An Arundel Tomb' tells of the mediaeval tomb effigies
of an earl and countess. Unusually, the man is holding his wife's hand...

The 'sharp tender shock' the visitor gets when he sees the
tomb expresses the mixed sensations (soft/hard) conveyed by
intimacy. The image of the couple on the tomb 'linked' through
time suggests that intimacy outlasts history...

Larkin imagines that the earl and countess did not want to be defined
by their gesture of faithfulness. That is, however, what people will remember
them for. Larkin draws the general conclusion: 'what will survive
of us is love'.

Conclusion

Goes back to the question

And adds a little to it

As we have seen, Larkin presents, through ideas and imagery,
the centrality of love to human experience, throughout The Whitsun Weddings.
This is one of the reasons that, despite poems about loneliness, it is not
a bleak book but full of human sympathy.

Introduction

The Whitsun Weddings made Philip Larkin famous. Published in 1964, it was his second mature collection of poems.

He told critics that, once he'd said the poems were written with 2B pencils, in or near Hull, from 1955-1963, there was little to add. He liked to avoid an intellectualised view of his work. Larkin writes about everyday experience - rented rooms ('Mr Bleaney'), train journeys ('The Whitsun Weddings'), fear of relationships ('Self's the Man') and getting old ('Afternoons'). Much of the material is autobiographical.

But Larkin's insistence that his poems make no wider cultural comment is itself an intellectual statement. Do you accept it? When Larkin uses regular rhymes and rhythms in a traditional way, and accessible language, he thumbs his nose at the 'modernist' poetic style, which prefers unrhymed 'free verse', and demands analysis.

Similarly, his picture of 1960s England isn't neutral. After World War 2, post-colonial Britain had less world influence. New housing estates sprang up. Social class divisions weakened. Television overtook literature. Some readers see the bleak landscapes in the Whitsun Weddings, where people live in 'raw estates' with a 'jabbering (television) set' as a critique of Britain's cultural decline and powerlessness. Is it true that Larkin 'writes for the common man, but doesn?t enjoy his company'? Do you, like some feminist critics, see violence or distaste in Larkin's depiction of women?

Larkin claimed, 'I like to think of myself as quite funny, and I hope this comes through in my writing. But it's unhappiness that provokes a poem'. The Whitsun Weddings is full of humour and irony - especially when Larkin is describing his failed romances ('Wild Oats'), and the early fantasies he enjoyed when reading books ('A Study in Reading Habits'). Yet you might see as recurring themes: the passing of time, unsatisfied love, isolation, and fear of death. Perhaps this mixture works because Larkin's ungainly, self-deprecating persona is so sympathetic. 'Writing about unhappiness is the source of my popularity', he half-joked, and 'after all, most people are unhappy, don't you think?'

S-Cool Revision Summary

  • Written in 1964.

  • Larkin describes everyday experience using familiar language.

  • He mostly uses patterned rhymes and rhythms in a traditional way, thumbing his nose at the 'modernist' poetic style of free verse and fragmented lines that need decoding.

  • The landscape is post-war England: housing estates, baby doll dresses, television sets. Is Larkin's bleak backdrop a critique of modern Britain?

  • He rejects detailed analysis of his poems. But perhaps his claim that his poems don't have wider implications is bogus?

  • Is it true that Larkin 'writes for the common man, but doesn't enjoy his company?'

  • The Whitsun Weddings treats gloomy subjects, but with humour and irony.

  • Larkin's self-deprecating personality makes many readers find his character sympathetic. Which poems do you think speak in his 'own' voice?

Theme Poems which treat this theme First-person voice Third-person voice
The Passage of Time Love Songs in Age   Copyright S-cool
The Whitsun Weddings Copyright S-cool  
MCMXIV (1914)   Copyright S-cool
A Study in Reading Habits Copyright S-cool  
Reference Back Copyright S-cool  
Afternoons   Copyright S-cool
An Arundel Tomb   Copyright S-cool
Fantasy vs. Real Life Love Songs in Age   Copyright S-cool
Wild Oats Copyright S-cool  
A Study in Reading Habits Copyright S-cool  
Sunny Prestatyn   Copyright S-cool
Social Isolation Here   Copyright S-cool
Mr Bleaney Copyright S-cool  
The Importance of Elsewhere Copyright S-cool  
Marriage and Relationships The Whitsun Weddings Copyright S-cool  
Self's the Man Copyright S-cool  
Talking in Bed   Copyright S-cool
Dockery and Son Copyright S-cool  
Wild Oats Copyright S-cool  
The Importance of Love Love Songs in Age   Copyright S-cool
Faith Healing   Copyright S-cool
An Arundel Tomb   Copyright S-cool
Religion Faith Healing   Copyright S-cool
Water Copyright S-cool  
Ignorance   Copyright S-cool
Fear of Death Toads Revisited Copyright S-cool  
Ambulances   Copyright S-cool
Nothing to be Said   Copyright S-cool

Possible Questions:

With reference to at least two poems, discuss how Larkin presents marriage in The Whitsun Weddings.

'Larkin derives abiding truths from everyday observation'. Choose three poems from The Whitsun Weddings and explore them in the light of this statement.

Look again at the poem 'Faith Healing'. Explore the ideas in the poem, and the way in which they are presented.

Tips for exam preparation:

  • Try to study at least five of the poems closely. Make a checklist for yourself of their voice, structure, striking images and ideas. Look up any words you don't know.

  • Remember that the examiner is interested in detail - explain the impact of individual words and phrases. Avoid long, unexplained quotes.

  • Make your response personal. Try to express your own feeling about the poems you discuss

  • Respond directly to the question: circle key words and echo them in your answer

  • Plan which poems you will use to make your argument. It is much better to discuss 2 or 3 in detail than to skim over a larger number.

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