In “The Whitsun Weddings,” Philip Larkin intertwines form and content wonderfully. On the level of form, the poem “enacts” a train journey from the North of England down to London. The speaker (let’s say Larkin himself, because his speakers often parallel him closely) is probably coming from Hull, in the southern part of Yorkshire, and crosses Lincolnshire on his way south. He travels a “slow and stopping curve” of about 200 miles to the English capital.
It’s Whitsunday, the feast that Catholics, and most American Protestants, call “Pentecost.” Whitsunday is a “moveable feast,” keyed to Easter, and it falls in May or June, hence the early-summer heat that the speaker describes on the mid-20th-century, unairconditioned train.
In a unique stanza form (ABABCDECDE, where the second line is four syllables and all the rest are ten), the speaker mirrors the starting and stopping of the train, and its gathering momentum as it speeds up and eventually slows as it reaches its terminus in London. The rhythm of the poem’s lines never varies, but the rhythm of the sentences speeds and slows as they stretch across the uniform stanzas.
The basic idea of the poem’s content is provided by the peculiar, fragmentary glimpse that the speaker gets of all kinds of lives seen momentarily out the window as he passes them. But this is no ordinary train journey that unites mere random impressions. The speaker realizes, in the third stanza, that the train is collecting newlyweds. It makes sense: it’s a Saturday in early summer; a “June wedding” is traditional; so is a honeymoon journey to London. (Probably nowadays Miami or even Maui have become more popular with English newlyweds, but again, this is the 20th century.)
The “frail travelling coincidence” of the train packed with new marriages would be exciting enough, but in his particular genius, Larkin gives us a speaker (again, probably not far from the real Philip Larkin) who has a kind of comtempt for the people he sees getting married. These are working-class or lower-middle-class marriages, people from conventional families doing utterly conventional things. He doesn’t think “how sweet” and he doesn’t think back fondly on his own wedding (never having had one, even to regret it). Instead he reacts with knee-jerk superciliousness about the badly-dressed assortment of tacky types who are all doing the same thing and at the same time all thinking they’re special.
But there’s the mystery of things: just by acting as if they were special, the newlyweds are making their lives special – they are joining in some sort of partnership, while he continues on his way alone. And he can’t help but develop a sort of respect for these dubiously “respectable” people. They are on a kind of adventure, one that will lead them to unpredictable, common yet terribly momentous experiences,
and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give.