Book Review: The Whitsun Weddings // Philip Larkin

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The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin book cover in pale grey

If there’s any poet that has left such a decisive impact on my opinion of what constitutes good poetry and on my own writing, it’s Philip Larkin. One of the more recognised poets in recent British history, Larkin’s acerbic wit, cutting social observations, and his tendency to universalise his less than optimistic worldview made his work irresistibly popular, especially to a post-war readership. He was the star man of his writers’ group The Movement (which included poets such as Elizabeth Jennings and Kingsley Amis). His work represented the British reaction against the foreign modernist influence on British poetry, and by the seventies he was touted as the second British poet laureate behind the official one John Betjeman. 

Of the four slim volumes that Larkin published, his opus, his quintessential collection of poetry, is The Whitsun Weddings. Whitsun Weddings has Larkin at the peak of his powers: if his previous (and great) collection The Less Deceived saw his reliance on Thomas Hardy’s precision of language, rhyme, and sincerity pay off in poems such as ‘No Road’, ‘Toads’, and ‘Perceptions’, Whitsun Weddings has all of that and more. Larkin demonstrates a real mastery of the English language and a real gift for deflating “high emotion” as poet and critic Edward Lucie Smith puts it. Whitsun Weddings turns sixty this year, and remains one of the most captivating poetry collections I’ve read so far. 

Arguably Larkin’s greatest quality in his poetry is his effortless deployment of rhyme. Take the stunning opener ‘Here’, a poem inspired by Larkin’s journey to work, where he muses about the town of Hull with its industrial buildings and modest people in stanzas that alternate between an ABABCDDC and ABBACDCD rhyme scheme. ‘For Sidney Bechet’ has him portraying his love for Bechet’s jazz in a Shakespearean sonnet form cleverly hidden in tercet stanzas (including impressive rhymes such as “quadrilles”/“storyvilles”). Whitsun Weddings showcases Larkin perfecting his reinvention of the conversation poem pioneered by Romantics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

Larkin’s poetry is probably most famous for its pessimism though. This is shown in tone as well as the subject matter of his poems. Larkin himself admitted that “deprivation is for [him] what daffodils were for Wordsworth”. Take the tragic ‘Mr Bleaney’ where he muses over a former guest of the hotel room that the speaker now occupies. He says that “how we live measures our own nature” and that he isn’t sure if Mr Bleaney would have been satisfied to accept that being able to hire a hotel room was all he had to show for his efforts in life up to that point. ‘Talking in Bed’ has Larkin dissecting awkwardness in pillow talk, where he admits that such an occurrence is “an emblem of two people being honest”, but it’s still “difficult to find/words at once true and kind,/ or not untrue and not unkind”. This poem especially reveals Larkin’s discomfort with intimacy, which manifested itself in his personal life where at one point he was seeing three women at once (Monica Jones, Maeve Brennan, and Betty Mackareth) despite their desire for monogamy. 

Although Larkin does present his cynicism towards love and family in beautiful ways ( such as in ‘Home is so sad’), there are some duds in the collection stemming from it too. ‘Self’s The Man’ is such a lazy poem about Larkin’s desire to remain a bachelor: it reads like it was written to order. ‘Take One Home for the Kiddies’ could easily be cut from the collection, I struggle to see why it was left in there (especially given Larkin was very selective with what he published). Such poems reflect his cynicism towards family born from his childhood. He famously declared his childhood as a “forgotten boredom” in his poem ‘Coming’ in The Less Deceived, and wasn’t raised in the most loving, encouraging household. 

With that being said, Whitsun Weddings does contain modern epics – no hyperbole. The title poem is a beautiful monologue where Larkin dissects the scene of a wedding whilst on a train to London. Structured to perfection, it has killer phrases such as the “sun destroys/The interest of what’s happening in the shade”, or “this frail/Travelling coincidence”, or “there swelled/A sense of falling”. ‘Dockery and Son’ is Larkin’s best attempt at expressing his suspicion of family, an intricate poem that touches on legacy and life using the death of a university classmate as the platform. 

And then there’s the closer: ‘An Arundel Tomb’. One of the best love poems written in recent memory: what’s particularly impressive is how despite the ordinary language, the beauty it presents is palpable. There’s a romantic sincerity that’s reminiscent of Early Modern English poets such as John Donne (think ‘The Sun Rising’), yet the trademark Larkin cynicism (charmingly) comes through: “Their final blazon, and to prove/Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love”. It ends the collection on a wonderful, hopeful note. 

Sixty years on, Whitsun Weddings is still brilliant. It cemented Larkin’s fame when it was released, and I reckon it cements Larkin’s legacy. Despite its pessimism, and despite Larkin’s rather questionable opinions and behaviour when he was alive, that colours his legacy as a writer, the collection presents a poet who reached his potential. Although it doesn’t shy away from showing the ugliness in life or skimp out on the anti-natalism, it does remind us that when it is all said and done, what will remain of our lives is love. 

Words by Keith Mulopo

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