The Whitsun Weddings

Today is Whit Saturday, traditionally a day for weddings it being the start of a summer holiday weekend. Since 1971 our late spring holiday has been fixed as the last Monday in May but it used to be on Whit Monday. Whitsun is what we in the British Isles call Pentecost -the seventh Sunday after Easter, and Whitsun week, particularly in the North of England was a week of fairs and fun. Although Whit Saturday may not be deliberately chosen as a wedding day anymore there are bound to be many couples tying the knot today. Shame about the weather.

This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Philip Larkin's most well-known collection of poems The Whitsun Weddings. This event has been marked by a recreation of the title poem. The poem describes a train journey the poet made from Hull* to London one Whit Saturday. The train was a stopping train calling at stations between Hull and Peterborough, at each station wedding parties board destined for their honeymoons.

The Whitsun Weddings

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
   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

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
   Yes, from caf├ęs
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 great 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 contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
In 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.

Philip Larkin

The Whitsun Weddings is number 53







* Larkin was the librarian at Hull University where George is bound in September, and he was born in Coventry as was my mum. As you can see geographically speaking Larkin and I have a lot in common although my parents did not f*** me up. As far as I know.


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Comments

  1. I love that poem. When I read it I can smell the sunwarmed upholstery in the train. Larkin and Betjeman were my O level poets. I've never really moved on from them....

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    1. I don't think I did Larkin at o level but i certainly did Betjeman and I have always loved him.

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    2. They make my heart ache. Still. Nearly 40 years later.
      Do you think it's purely their craft- or the timely impact on a gauche 16 yr old?

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  2. Such melancholy in those last two lines.

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  3. I heard about this on the radio, and did enjoy the clip of Bill Nighy reading some of the poem. His voice was perfect.

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    1. Bill Nighy is perfect full stop.

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  4. Love this so much. The night I met my husband I was supposed to stay home and write a paper on Philip Larkin's poetry. It was actually a toss-up but I ended up going out anyway.

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  5. We were at a Whitsun wedding yesterday and the weather was perfect from 2 pm to 2 am.

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  6. Anonymous6:46 pm BST

    Lovely. Have some great old photos of the Whit walks in Salford when my husband was a little boy.

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  7. Anonymous7:46 pm BST

    #1 is why it is fun to read blogs from around the world. #2: Yes, at least my mother. I missed out on all the good qualities my father had. This week, it is particularly meaningful for me. You're ok.
    Thanks.

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  8. Thank you for clarifying things. I was reading a copy of "The Simple Things" magazine recently, and it said Whitsunday was the last Sunday of May. I know some things in Britain are different, but I didn't think you people had moved Pentecost. Great poem. I'd never come across it before. The imagery is wonderful.

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  9. It's a poem I like very much, although I am not of the nation. It suits your blog well with its sense of marking time with grace.

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  10. Anonymous4:18 pm BST

    Lucky you,we had to learn the Lady of Shalott for O-Level,.It didn't put me of poetry, I love Larkin and Betjemen ;An Arundel Tomb by the former and Death in Leamington Spa by the latter being my favourites.Glad you are back in Blogging mood:)

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    1. 'Chintzy chintzy cheeriness'.....yes Death In Leamington is one of my favourites too. Church of England Thoughts is my absolute favourite Betjeman though.

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  11. An Arundel Tomb is possibly my favourite Larkin poem, but harder to pick a favourite Betjeman, maybe Dilton Marsh Halt because it has personal resonance for me.

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  12. wonderful, thank you for that

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  13. A fine remembrance of Larkin, but how can it be 50 years?! I have read his poems so many times over that some phrases are permanent parts of my brain now--and how nice that some of your readers will discover him through your post. Much pleasure awaits them.

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