Robert Beveridge's Reviews > The Whitsun Weddings

The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin
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Jan 23, 2008

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bookshelves: finished, owned-and-gave-away
Read in June, 2003

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber, 1964)

Philip Larkin's fifth collection of poetry, The Whitsun Weddings, was the one that firmly established him as one of Britain's major poets. He remains today one of the best-known and most popular British neoformalists. A devotee of Yeats, Hardy, and Dylan Thomas, Larkin never wears his influences too far away from his sleeve, but don't begrudge him that; marvel, instead, that in the turbulent anything-goes sixties lived a poet, misanthrope, and mild-mannered librarian (all in the same body, no less!) who swam against a stream of free verse and wrote, arguably, better formal verse than anyone since Swinburne.

Larkin is a master of enjambment; if you encountered a random Larkin poem isolated from a collection, you might well not realize it's a formal poem until you're well into it, a hallmark of the best formal work. It reads easily and well, and Larkin never allows the meter and rhyme to get in the way of image; in short, Larkin combines the best traits of both lyric and narrative poetry, and packages them up neatly for the reader in small verse of purest pleasure.

Okay, I've just spent two paragraphs describing the best of Larkin's work. Thankfully, this collection is more "best" than "worst." But one of the tragedies of the formal poet, and one no formal poet (save, perhaps, Dante Alighieri) has ever been able to avoid, is that when you're not on top of your game, slipping a notch or two down the ladder of quality leads to the steepest of descents. The sublime can become the ridiculous far faster in formal verse than in free verse, leading to a judgment of "when he screws up, man, does he REALLY screw up." Such is the case with Larkin. The dulcet tones and free-flowing nature of his best work curdle in the mouth when he's off form, leaving trite rhymes, dull rhythms, and some of the most godawful thumping lines one is likely to see outside Helen Steiner Rice.

Still, as I said, there is far less bad than good in The Whitsun Weddings, and it does deserve its place in the annals of British literature. For those who wonder where all the formal verse has gone, Philip Larkin is one of the four or five modern poets to whom anyone can point to say "verse may be out of favor, but believe me, it is still alive and well." ***
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