Courtney Johnston's Reviews > The Whitsun Weddings

The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin
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's review
Mar 25, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: borrowed, poetry
Read from March 21 to 26, 2011

This week I read Philip Larkin's fifth collection of poems, 'The Whitsun Weddings' (1964).

Usually when I say 'read' I mean read once, from cover to cover (apart from the books I abandon). And when I say 'read' a book of poems, usually I mean read each poem once (well- let's be honest, in an anthology, I might skim some the long ones from the 1800s) - maybe twice, maybe lingered over a few lines a few times.

Since 'reading' The Whitsun Weddings on Monday night, I've re-read it every day this week. Each poem I must have read at least four times, some of them more. Some of them I've even looked up online while I've been at work, so I can read them again.

This is the first time I've really felt I've come to grips with a book of poetry. I have read these poems for meaning, and I have read them for structure. I have read them for the themes that connect one poem to three others. I have read them aloud, to feel how they make my lips move. I may not have read them like an academic would, but I have read these poems in a more thorough, more meaningful way than I have ever read poetry before.

I now find myself trying to analyse why. One factor is Larkin himself - while I've only read a few articles about him, and studiously avoided wikipediaing him this week, I do know the outlines of his life and in particular his relationships with women. This can't help but colour the way you read his work, and this adds to my habit of reading all poets autobiographically (for some reason, I find it easier to remember that books are 'made up', and tend to assume that if a poet writes about cows in a field or the moon in the sky or falling out of love, that these are lived rather than purely imaginative experiences). But the themes of the poems - of the narrator's combined curiosity and distaste for married life, of the urban landscape and its encroachment into the countryside, of the futility (and occasional beauty) of our silly short little lives, of the gaps between how we think things should be and how they actually are - feel like Larkin's thoughts and opinions.

A second factor is the style of the poems. I found myself reading and rereading, trying to tease out and understand the rhythms and rhymes. The very first stanza in the collection grabbed my mind in this way - from 'Here':

Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
And traffic all night north; swerving through fields
Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,
And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud

Feel that? 'Too thin and thistled', 'harsh-named halt', 'skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants'? Elsewhere I got a little shiver of pleasure when he rhymed 'decisions' and 'imprecisions' because 'imprecisions' is not a poemy word.

I found the kitchen-sink nature of the poems appealing: no high-falutingness for Mr Larkin. But then an observation of an apple core falling short of the bin can become a brief meditation on how failure seeps through our lives, and trace back (perhaps?) to original sin. And he can write about grubby kids losing interest in a pet and only regaining it when they get to stage a funeral but he can also write this, which I find achingly beautiful: - 'Water'

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

The two poems that will stay with me though, I think, are Larkin's very famous 'Arundel Tomb'

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd —
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

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.

and this, 'Talking in Bed'

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

It's probably a bit facile to link these two poems, on the basis that the central imagery, of two people lying in bed together, symbolising their linkedness, is the same. But it feels to me that both poems exemplify what I think of as Larkin's harsh honesty, that sense of looking at the lives we try to lead in the darkest possible light. And yet, wrapped round that, the sheer beauty of the way he puts words together.
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