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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?'
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