This poem is narrated on a train journey from the Midlands to London on a summer’s day. It is written in first person as Larkin recounts an event using his superb observational skills.
At different stations different newly weds board the train dressed in wedding attire. They are waved off by well wishers. He is initially scornful of the wedding guests in their garish costumes; “girls in parodies of fashion”; he lampoons the typical family; “mothers loud and fat and uncles shouting smut”. He seems to itemise these sights to make them seem ridiculous and pitiable.
Larkin’s narrator seems almost irritated the wedding parties have interrupted his quiet train journey through provincial England. “Wide farms went by, short shadowed cattle and canals with floatings of industrial froth; a hothouse flashed uniquely”. The wedding participants are described crudely whereas the passing urban landscape is admired.
Telling phrases hint at his attitude to marriage calling it; “success so huge and wholly farcical”; where ‘wholly’ could be substitued phonetically for “holy” and this is perhaps deliberate. Oxymoronic phrases like “happy funeral” and “religious wounding” support this idea.
For the next stanza the narrator looks outside as if the action is mirroring the movements of his own head. This puts things in real time. Landscape flows through this poem like a river. Larkin saves his lyricism, not for the newly weds but for the land itself. His litany of ringing phrases, “an Odeon went past, a cooling tower and someone coming up to a bowl”, gives the sensation of being on a train and catching the sights from a window.
Larkin offsets this view of landscape with the couples, fresh from their dramatic day. They too conteplate the lives and the places they are soon to inhabit. It is as if Larkin can’t decide whether he loves the landscape or fears it’s crushing blandness, and this must be what the couples are thinking too. This leit motif manipulates our view of the marriages.
At the end of the poem he sums up his thoughts on the newly married couples, the “frail travelling coincidence and what it held stood ready to be loosed with all the power being changed can give.” He gives a sense of impending destiny. He seems to think that this day is the sum total of the glory of marriage, by imposing his own world view on what has been missed out. This is backed by the regrets he invokes against marriage: “the others they never meet”, or “how their lives would all contain this hour.” Larkin spent most of his life having girlfriends so his view is unsurprising.
The poem climaxes with a powerful enigmatic image: “a sense of falling, like an arrow shower; sent out of sight somewhere becoming rain”. There is a twin motif about love and work here, with the image of Cupid’s arrows contrasted against the battleground of arrows being fired against Love itself. The rain belongs to London and the hints at the bland reality of day to day life. This mirrors the view he had of his own parent’s marriage which he viewed as sterile and loveless.
The blood and thunder of love dissapates into banality in his view.
Larkin says about this poem:
“Whitsaturday is traditionally a good day for getting married in the Anglican tradition. So a lot of people got on the train to London for their honeymoons as not many people had cars. There were 6 stations between Hull and London and there was a sense of gathering emotional momentum. Everytime you stopped fresh emotion climbed aboard. Between Peterborough and London the whole thing felt like a bullet, all this fresh open life and I’ve never forgotten it.”
The poem is bound to the here and now while longing for transcendent release. There is a real paradox between the reality presented by the landscape and the ideals represented by the couples and the final image. Larkin longs for the abstracts of romance and perfect love, but he sees around him the oncoming city splurge which counters the romanticism of the train environment he is experiencing.
The climax at the end seems to work against the surface cynicism of Larkin’s tone as he experiences a tug for something more due to the mesmerising occasion he witnesses. Larkin himself never married, so Cupid’s bow did not strike him.
Larkin retains a formal discipline throughout the poem. Iambic pentameter and a tight rhyme scheme echo the rhythm of the slow train. The large stanzas mimic the wide screen cinema scope of the poem’s vision as well as the actual stops on the train’s journey.
Larking uses indirect speech relfecting the conversing couples: “I nearly died”.
The style is one of long lists, or syndetic listing, which flow and lilt, like the train journey with it’s sights and sensations. One thinks of Keats here.
The language overflows with vowel sounds, assonance: “a street of blinding windscreens” which creates a lyrical undertone. Affricative choices with “The rivers level drifting breadth began where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet” show the dth, sk and sh sounds resembling a gurgling river. This creates aural imagery.
A classic poem of paradoxes about Larkin’s view of English life and his boa constrictor views on love. This forces us to look for signs of redemption beneath his overt cynicism.
Hope for the future?
There are clues that Larkin has some hope for the future of the married couples. We see that the landscape on the journey is harsh and downtrodden in places; “acres of dismantled cars” and “walls of blackened moss”. Whilst the newly weds are about to receive a “London spread out in the sun, it’s postal district packed like squares of wheat” which indicates the fertility of the young and the good life London offers the young and the able. Outside of provincial England, where they have all journeyed from, there are signs of wealth and prosperity for those who seek it in the capital.
‘Whitsun’ is an old English term for a day in May. (an archaism)
Wearing your Whitsaturday best was a firm tradition in the UK in the 1950s, as was the phenomenon of getting married on that weekend. This is more commonly known as Pentecost and believed to be a special day to marry.