Philip Larkin. Poet of the almost.
I haven’t read any of the articles for Larkin’s centenary. They all looked boring. But I find him un-ignorable, so I have written a close reading of The Whitsun Weddings as a bonus essay this week. This is longer and more detailed than usual. Normal weekly service will resume on Tuesday.
Also, while you’re here, you might want to check out my new salon series How to Read a Novel. We’ll read six short classic novels in six months and learn about the techniques novelists use to structure their books. We start with Persuasion.
Larkin is valorised or hated for his simplicity, his ordinariness. But he is misunderstood. The best example is the final line of An Arundal Tomb “What shall survive of us is love”, which is routinely quoted as an antidote to his famous misanthropy. One small snag: he didn’t mean it literally. Look at the rest of the stanza.
Time has transfigured them into Untruth. The stone fidelity They hardly meant has come to be Their final blazon, and to prove Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.
Our almost-instinct almost true. What a Larkin word: “almost”. I would suggest a keener sense of the almost would improve almost everyone’s reading of Larkin. The Whitsun Weddings is a perfect example of this poetry of the almost, the transfigured.
I have quoted each stanza in turn. You can hear Larkin reading the poem here. I was going to record it myself for this post but you can’t have everything. For a biography, read James Booth. And don’t miss Larkin’s photographs.
Stanza One: Departure
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.
What Whitsun? The sense of the almost begins right away, with a first line that could be the opening of a novel. Getting away looks colloquial, but teems with ambiguity. We say we are getting away when we go on holiday. But we also say we are getting away from our problems; it’s a phrase of escape, getting away from it all sounds harmless, but might not be. Straight away, Larkin is almost straightforward. Think of the opening stanza from Poetry of Departures to see someone else in Larkin getting away
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand, As epitaph: He chucked up everything And just cleared off, And always the voice will sound Certain you approve This audacious, purifying, Elemental move.
Note the uncertainty disguised as the plain style — the voice will sound certain.
Not till about.
Milton’s short lines in Paradise Lost were once called “Milton’s short line of derision”. We might take this to be Larkin’s short line of ambivalence, of the almost. The same technique is used in the stanza from Poetry of Departures above.
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
He sets with a novelist’s precision the time and place of departure. He writes for readers, not poets. The sun will recur in the final stanza.
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out.
Like Kipling, he can make an ordinary description imitate the lumbering start made by his train. The hyphenated phrase has to be mouthed carefully, like the carriages pulling on each other to get going.
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
A three-part line (I wrote about this in more detail) that allows Larkin to start moving the mood along the way the train is moving. All sense — what a lift at the end of a line about windows and cushions. The second line has the same effect of building pace, and thus has to be two-part rather than three part to maintain a sense of acceleration. We ran…
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
The poet of the ordinary is starting to lay down his metaphorical technique. These are places with significance. These are the things you must do when you are getting away. Imagine this is another context. “He was late getting away. He ran behind the backs of houses, crossed a street…” A sense of adventure is submerged.
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
And we are away. Like Tennyson, he makes the ordinary plangent. Blinding, smelt, began — these are words of things almost seen. And then the horizon reaches: we can always see it but never quite know where it is or how long it will last.
Despite all this, the overall effect of stanza one is slightly stultifying. The train is hot, the sense of hurry is gone, the view is prosaic, the language is colloquial. Larkin himself talked about trying to accurately render a train journey and nothing more. But ambiguity lurks, creating suspense. This ambiguity brings the sense of the almost. Where the rhythms fit those of a train speeding up, the language is that of the passengers slowing down. Where the language is most ambiguous, it is also most literal.
Stanza Two: Complacency
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.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
We might recall the atmosphere of an Elizabeth Bowen novel in his beautiful cadence; but Keats could have written this line, Spenser too, perhaps. This is no coincidence. The Whitsun Weddings has the same rhyme scheme as Ode to a Nightingale.
Slept is a loaded word. Ode to a Nightingale is about a reverie that takes Keats away from reality but teaches him to see it more clearly. Larkin too is being taken away from the ordinary. But he lapses into complacency. This stanza is about what is not seen. We are being set up to realise things have been passing us by. In Spenser, one of Keats’ models, when a knight leaves the straight path to sit in the shade, he becomes morally compromised. At rest, we risk temptation. Larkin has slowed down — even the heat sleeps — and lapses into a reverie that means the world starts literally passing him by.
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept
Slow and stopping. This is how life happens. First in a hurry, then slow and stopping.
The rest of the stanza is full of this sort of meaningful description. Short-shadowed cattle parallel the long poplar shadows that will be cast in stanza six, measuring not just time, but Larkin’s single un-lived life, in an image he borrowed from Tennyson. People’s lives do flash uniquely, their fortunes dip and rise; now and then, our reeking, new and nondescript lives are displaced by something fresh. Larkin is a great poet of the suburbs and all his imagery is a commentary on that sort of life. In a film, this sort of image sequence would be considered art; Larkin disguises his meaning so much in ordinary language that it almost escapes notice.
Stanza Three: Paradox
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,
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
You see? He almost misses it. He will later create the ultimate metaphor of the whole journey — a frail and travelling coincidence — to describe life. But that nearly passed him by. The half line of ambivalence works to emphasise the weddings, for the first time in the poem, and show us how he nearly missed something so obvious.
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
Each station show us how much he let go past. But he cannot quite get away from the weddings. Sun destroys is a striking line end and sets up well the moral of these first three stanzas: complacency, absorption, and as we will see in a minute, reading, all distract from real life. No-one on this journey notices each other, a point he will make explicit later on. But right now, the weddings are in the sun and he is in the shade, overlooked. He wrote in a letter in his sixties, when he finally bought a house, that he probably ought to have done it years before, got married and had kids too. We don’t know how seriously he regretted all that, but he captures precisely the sense of being outside the usual run of life events. Like the Spenserian knight sitting in the shade, Larkin is now in danger, but not of moral failure (although there was plenty of that in his own life) — he is in danger of being forgotten.
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading.
What is it you are missing, while you go on reading? The dramatic is unreal. Books lie to us. Larkin wrote this in A Study of Reading Habits
Don't read much now: the dude Who lets the girl down before The hero arrives, the chap Who's yellow and keeps the store Seem far too familiar. Get stewed: Books are a load of crap.
This is a warning to the overly imaginative.
Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
Larkin uses many contradictions, as Shakespeare did when Romeo describes his confused, intense feelings: “Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!” Everything about these weddings is paradoxical: posed irresolutely. People are living up to expectations, not quite sure if they are doing it right. This is the view we expect from a cynic. The parodies of fashion seem a more relevant symbol than the wedding itself.
Stanza Four: Vanity
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
Everything he now says about weddings is paradox: the end of an event, waving goodbye, survived. The details he collects about the wedding guests are comic but also sinister: seamy foreheads, loud and fat, shouting smut. This is not just snobbery, although it is that. It builds the sense of a reverie: we are somewhere almost recognisable, almost what we expect, but more like a dream sequence. This is a poor replacement, for what we expected or hoped for, hence “The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes”, a gorgeous rhythmic line that has a sorry echo beyond the mere fact they could not afford the best materials.
In Keats’ third stanza, he describes “The weariness, the fever, and the fret” of reality compared to the beauty of the nightingale’s existence. Earth is a place, for Keats,
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs, Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Sound familiar? Larkin is emphasising how fake the trimmings and trapping of a wedding ceremony are. Nylon gloves and perms cannot change anything. No-one is fooled, or ought to be. How unusual the three colours he picks: lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres. Larkin sees it as Keats saw it: vanity, vanity, vanity. Not just the vanity of wearing a special dress: the vanity of hope. But this paradox is not to be solved, but accepted.
Stanza Five: The Unreal
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
Marked off the girls unreally
Unreal! The reverie is in full swing. Larkin sees weddings as a contortion or distortion. This is as close as a grumpy, conservative, suburban poet will come to having a hallucination. In fact, he suggests that it is they who are hallucinating.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end.
Larkin picks up the story where most people end it. He almost sees the wedding. He is imagining the cafés and annexes. Whereas Keats’ reverie means he is divorced from reality, saying:
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet Wherewith the seasonable month endows
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
Larkin sees reality clearly, more clearly he suggests than the wedding guests, all of whom see the wedding in their own terms. Unlike Larkin, they have not had the moment of transformation where they saw it all again in different terms. Rather than making an allegory or metaphor that is absurdly unreal, Larkin is focussing in on mundane details.
Stanza Six: Emerging Optimism
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
Success so huge and wholly farcical
Larkin is writing a picture: how better to describe the expressions and emotions of fathers at a wedding? This is a stereotype that lives on. This becomes another image in his patchwork of paradoxes. He refuses to let anyone have an uncomplicated joy. Hence happy funeral, religious wounding. Equally, he will not let this become uncomplicated grumpiness.
Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
There is a careful pronoun shift here. By they Larkin means the people watching. All the impressions the children, parents, and young women had of this wedding were not just fleeting: they are imbued in the people on the train. The reverie is ending. Larkin is among the couples now.
We hurried. Something of the miserable paradoxes the wedding guests saw are part of Larkin, not just the wedding couples. Again, the meter reflects the new focus on the speed and rhythm of the train. There is a succession of ‘uh’ sounds that resolve into the ‘t’ and ‘s’ sounds: shuffling gouts of steam.
Free at last
In Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album, Larkin describes the effect of photographs accurately capturing reality and all of its blemishes. This, he says, leaves us free to grieve.
It leaves us free to cry. We know what was Won't call on us to justify Our grief, however hard we yowl across The gap from eye to page. So I am left To mourn (without a chance of consequence)
Now that the wedding is done and will only live in photographs, the couple if free too. The emotions of the moment are important and wonderful but also a trap. Larkin is precise about recording the world so that we can keep living, keep going. Each station must be arrived at and departed from.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
The poplar comes from Tennyson and reminds us that Larkin is the lonely unmarried one on the train that no-one else has noticed. This is embedded in a sequence of images that look to the future. Larkin sees weddings as absurd but the poem will now end on optimistic terms: building plots, major roads.
Stanza seven: Romance
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:
Already these couples seem like they have been married for years! Settle hats is tame and aged; almost like they are already settling down. I nearly died is so familiar. The transition to cliched couple begins now. Something does die on a wedding day. That’s why people cry. It’s a transition that leaves behind one set of relationships and starts a new set. Of course, the transition is less sudden and less obvious today. This is the final paradox that brings Larkin back to reality, as in Keats: “Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/ To toll me back from thee to my sole self!”
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
This is as romantic as Larkin gets, but it’s more romantic than it seems. Side by side is how his describes the earl and countess at the start of an Arundel Tomb. These are images of hope, or at least of chance: Odeons are imaginative places, cooling towers are part of energy generation, someone running up to bowl is a marvellous image of taking a chance, having a go. And rather than getting away, like Larkin, these travellers got under way, much more optimistic.
—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:
We all live so closely with people we know nothing about: that is partly what those postal districts packed refer to — people who share a postcode but nothing else. The rural descriptions are becoming urban but also happy: spread out in the sun, squares of wheat. Larkin is stripping away the farce and emotions of the weddings and showing us the shared facts of life. We all make beginnings, we all go on life’s journey, we all have moments of transition. All of our lives contain this hour irrespective of whether we marry or not. And all lives contain a mixture of the serious and surreal, the joyous and the miserable.
Stanza eight: Somewhere Becoming
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.
It should be clear by now that this is not a contrast of good and bad, happy and sad. The train raced over bright knots and at the same time the blackened moss (another image from Tennyson) goes past. Life is both. All of these things are packed in like squares of wheat and the harvest you get has a big element of luck.
The phrase frail travelling coincidence shows us the main topic of this poem. Marriage is the subject that allows Larkin to write about how our lives work, how they succeed and fail, advance and stall. This is panoramic. Journeys are frequent metaphors for life in literature.
There follows a succession of images that spell out the optimism that has been building: the power/ That being changed can give. The final paradox comes in the sense of falling that turns an arrow shower somewhere becoming rain: an image of destruction into rain a symbol of renewal, fertility, and growth.
Larkin lamented he could not write more symbolist poetry, as he had done in Absences, the poem of his that is most closely related to The Whitsun Weddings.
Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise A wave drops like a wall: another follows Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play Where there are no ships and no shallows. Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries: They shift to giant ribbing, sift away. Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!
Absences is about the positive value of emptiness. The technique of paradox and parallel is used: Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows/ Tower suddenly. This is another reverie. Larkin watches nature and becomes so absorbed in it he transcends himself — a spiritual experience. Something similar happens as he watches the wedding couples on the train. Rain is a very flexible symbol for this sort of writing, suggesting peace and power, something vast but temporary, a great force but of little risk. James Booth points out that Larkin repeats very few significant words in his poetry. Once he has found the right use for a word, he does not repeat it later on in his work. It is notable that rain is an exception to that, starting Absences and ending The Whitsun Weddings. It recurs in other places, too.
Rather than remembering Larkin as the poet who wrote What will survive of us is love, (that sentimental, greetings-card reductionism) we should credit him as the poet of the almost and the mysterious: the poet of somewhere becoming rain.
Don’t forget to check out my new salon series How to Read a Novel. We’ll read six short classic novels in six months and learn about the techniques novelists use to structure their books. We start with Persuasion.
Thanks for reading. If you’re enjoying The Common Reader, let your interesting friends know what you think. Or leave a comment.
If you don’t subscribe to The Common Reader, but you enjoy reading whatever’s interesting, whenever it was written, sign up now.