"The Whitsun Weddings" is a poem by Philip Larkin, first published in 1964. The poem describes a train journey taken by the narrator on Whitsun weekend (a British holiday that falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter) from Hull to London, during which he observes several wedding parties at the stations along the way. Through the observation of the weddings and the changing landscape, the poem reflects on the themes of time, mortality, and the transient nature of human experience.
The Whitsun Weddings: Poem Text
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
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.
Critical Analysis"The Whitsun Weddings" is a poem by Philip Larkin (see: Alienation & Isolation in Larkin's Poetry)that has been widely praised for its masterful use of language and imagery. It is a deeply evocative meditation on the themes of love, marriage, and the passage of time, set against the backdrop of a train journey through the English countryside.
The poem is composed of eight stanzas, each of which describes a different aspect of the journey and the weddings that the narrator observes along the way. The first stanza sets the scene for the journey, describing the narrator's sense of alienation (see: Alienation, Marx) from the world around him as he watches the landscape slide past his window. The second stanza introduces the weddings, which are described as noisy and raucous affairs that bring a temporary sense of joy and celebration to the otherwise mundane train stations.
As the journey continues, the narrator becomes increasingly absorbed in the weddings, observing the various guests and participants as they go about their business. The third stanza, for example, describes the fathers of the brides as "seamy" and the mothers as "loud and fat," while the fifth stanza introduces the bridesmaids, who are described as wearing "parodies of fashion." These descriptions suggest a certain degree of disdain on the part of the narrator for the participants in the weddings, who he sees as being trapped in a cycle of convention and social expectation.
At the same time, however, the poem is suffused with a sense of nostalgia and longing. The sixth stanza, for example, describes the passengers on the train as "sitting side by side," gazing out at the passing landscape and sharing a sense of companionship and connection that is otherwise absent from their lives. Similarly, the final stanza describes a sense of "falling," as if the passengers are hurtling towards an unknown future that is both terrifying and exhilarating.
One of the key themes of the poem is the idea of transience. The weddings that the narrator observes are temporary and fleeting, and they serve as a reminder of the impermanence of all human experience. This is emphasized by the changing landscape that the train passes through, as well as by the various images of decay and decay that are scattered throughout the poem. The sense of transience is further reinforced by the poem's structure, which is composed of short, fragmented stanzas that create a sense of movement and flux.
Another key theme of the poem is the idea of memory and the role that it plays in shaping our understanding of the past. The narrator's observations of the weddings are filtered through his own memories and experiences, and the poem suggests that these memories are constantly shifting and evolving over time. This is perhaps best captured in the final stanza, which describes a sense of "falling" that suggests the passage of time and the inevitability of change.
In conclusion, "The Whitsun Weddings" is a masterful poem that offers a powerful meditation on the themes of love, marriage, and the passage of time. Through its vivid imagery and evocative language, the poem captures the fleeting nature of human experience and the role that memory plays in shaping our understanding of the past. It is a work of great beauty and depth, and it continues to be celebrated as one of the finest poems in the English language.
Stanza-wise SummaryStanza 1
The speaker recounts being late on a sunny Saturday during Whitsun, a Christian holiday, and leaving on a train that is three-quarters empty. The train departs at 1:20 pm, and the speaker notes that all the windows are down and all the cushions are hot. The speaker also notes that the sense of being in a hurry is gone, and the train runs behind the backs of houses before crossing a street of blinding windscreens and smelling the fish-dock. The river’s level drifting breadth begins, and the landscape of Lincolnshire meets the sky and water.
The speaker describes the slow and stopping curve of the train's journey as it moves southwards through the tall heat that slept for miles inland. The train passes wide farms with short-shadowed cattle and canals with floatings of industrial froth. The speaker observes a hothouse that flashes uniquely and notes that hedges dipped and rose, and now and then, there was a smell of grass that displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth. The next town approaches with acres of dismantled cars, and it is new and nondescript.
The speaker didn't initially notice the noise of the weddings that were happening at each station they stopped at. The speaker took the whoops and skirls down the long cool platforms for porters larking with the mails, and the speaker went on reading. However, once the train started moving, the speaker saw the newlyweds, grinning and pomaded, with girls in parodies of fashion, heels, and veils, all posed irresolutely and watching as the train went past them. They seemed to be waving goodbye to something that survived it.
The speaker leans out more promptly next time and sees the wedding scene again in different terms. The fathers wear broad belts under their suits and have seamy foreheads, while the mothers are loud and fat, and an uncle is shouting smut. The speaker also observes the perms, the nylon gloves, and jewellery-substitutes, and the lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that mark off the girls unreally from the rest.
The speaker notes that the wedding-days were coming to an end, with couples climbing aboard fresh, and the rest stood round. The last confetti and advice were thrown, and as the train 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, while the women shared the secret like a happy funeral. The girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared at a religious wounding.
The speaker notes that they are free at last and loaded with the sum of all they saw, hurrying towards London while shuffling gouts of steam. The fields were building-plots, and poplars cast long shadows over major roads. 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. The speaker observes the landscape passing by, including an Odeon and a cooling tower, and someone running up to bowl.
The speaker notes that none of the people on the train thought of the others they would never meet or how their lives would all contain this hour. They watched the landscape, sitting side by side, while the speaker thought of London spread out in the sun, with its postal districts packed like squares of wheat. The train was aimed towards London.
In the eighth stanza of "The Whitsun Weddings," the speaker describes the train journey as it races across the rail tracks, passing by standing Pullmans and walls of blackened moss. The journey is nearly done, and the speaker senses a feeling of falling, like an arrow-shower becoming rain. The stanza hints at the impending end of the journey and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.