#7 “The Whitsun Weddings” (Philip Larkin)

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.

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19 responses to “#7 “The Whitsun Weddings” (Philip Larkin)

  1. At first glance, this poem seemed a little strange and uninteresting to me. It seemed like a lot of descriptions, and words. After the class discussion, I learned that the speaker was giving descriptions of the people he saw on the train, and it made a lot more sense. I think the idea of the tackiness of a wedding is hilarious. I am an avid watcher of shows like Bridezillas, and Ace of Cakes, about ridiculously random and extravagant wedding cakes. These shows are a very good illustration of just how tacky and ridiculous weddings can get.

    I really enjoyed the thought of seeing something happen that you aren’t necessarily a part of, and imagining what happens next. I have to admit, when eating lunch at the food court in the mall, I tend to people watch. My mind can’t help but wonder what type of people the people passing by are, so I guess in that way this is a similar experience.

  2. This poem had a lot of descriptive words that allowed the reader to experience all the sensations in their mind. It just about describes everything down to the small detail. It allows the reader to trevel to the exact time and location. I was a bit confused with all the discription at first. With all that info, I couldn’t see the entire picture at first. It made me think of people just getting off at at train stop all at once to the smell of fish by the water . The person is walking all over and passing by a wedding. I guess just passing through.

  3. Throughout the poem Larkin has shown his negative perception of marriage. I loved that he was so very descriptive of all his surroundings and different people on the train, it helped paint a clearer picture in my mind.
    Weddings can quickly become over the top and a bit ridiculous. Often times when people think they are adding class to a wedding they really unintentionally create a tacky event. To some of the guests a wedding can be quite a dreadful event. So, I can see why Larkin had a bit of a distaste for weddings. However, I do believe he was quite a pessimist to begin with and his disgust for weddings is a little much. I do see that he does have a tiny bit of a change of heart by the end of the poem which is why I think the last two lines are key to the entire poem because it demonstrates that although the speaker is pessimistic about marriage he also accepts that there is a possibility of prosperity and happiness.

  4. To be honest, I really didn’t get this poem after reading it. I didn’t think it was about weddings why is why I thought the name of the poem to be confusing. But now re-reading it, I think I get the picture. It’s about a reader who’s talking about his exerience on a train ride. His experience was of weddings; people getting married or has been married on the train. I think it’s a coincidence how the married couples chose to come on the speaker’s train. I feel as though the speaker doesn’t like weddings for some strange reason; he may feel as though weddings are useless and they don’t last. I don’t know if the speaker is or was married but judging from his description, I’d say that he wasn’t and isn’t married. This would describe his thoughts over marriage; he feels that way because he hasn’t been in one. I think that if he was married, he wouldn’t show such irritation towards the instiution. I can relate to the speaker in the sense that I tend to look around at different people that pass by when I’m sitting somewhere; or I love to look at the surroundings and environment when I’m on a roadtrip.

  5. When I first read the poem, I didn’t really “get” it. But after reading it again a few times after class, I get the impression that the speaker of the poem is people watching. As he travels on the train from town to town and station to station, he sees all these couples getting married, surrounded by family and friends. Judging by some of his descriptions of the events, he seems to have a somewhat cynical view of weddings. He wonders why those people do some of the tacky and over-the-top things that they do. I guess he just doesn’t see the point of it at all.

  6. decarlocoleman

    In the poem, The Whitsun Weddings the author describes his journey by train from Hull to London. It took a minute for me to adjust to this style of poem then I realized how the poem becomes affective to the reader by the use of so much description and detail. The author described the feel of the hot cushions, the smell of the fish dock, and mentions the passing lanscape. There is nothing like being able to read something and being able to picture the setting in order to understand more about what is taking place.

  7. andreamcginley

    This poem hit close to home on my thoughts about marriage. Though it is a completely negative feeling, after working at the Country Club and in the month of June we held 43 wedding receptions, I hate the idea of a huge gaudy party. Why start off your new life in debt? Working at the Country Club closely with all of the weddings, it pains me to see some of the things people actually want at their wedding. Nobody is going to remember if they really had steak or lobster, or what kind of parting gifts the guests were given. The thing I hate the most is the sparklers at the departure. It just is not classy at all. Especially when the brides dress catches on fire.
    The speaker like almost every person is ‘people watching’ and pointing out all of the negative aspects. When even under the overdone layer of wedding, there is still the thought that two people were just joined in something holy. I don’t believe the speaker understands that. Yes these people are wearing “The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes” but it may be the best that they could have come up with and that is really all one can ask for because on their wedding day couples are presenting themselves as their best and the other must be willing to accept that even if it means looking tacky. The speaker is just a bitter lonely person who is seeing all these happy couples and families while he is alone. So to make himself feel better he must put down those around him.
    What I like most about the poem is the central idea, that here is a number of people who at this point in their life are crammed together with others and that we as people are surrounded by others with different agendas on our minds at the same time. That though there may be twenty people in my class we are all there to learn, but some may be literature majors, engineering majors, or whatever they may be. We at this point in our lives are surrounded by others because it was the right time.

  8. As I read this poem I pictured Larkin sitting on a train having a conversation among him. This is what we all tend to do from time to time. I know I have done it several times in the airport, on the airplanes, in the malls, driving in my car and when I have taken evening walks. The conversation starts out with just scenery as he travels from one destination to another. In the mean time as the train makes it stops his conversation is interrupted with a wedding party. His view on weddings is not a positive one or he is thinking what makes your wedding different from the others that board the same train. It appears he is has seen his share of weddings from past train rides. He is familiar with the fashions, the people, location, and the advice that is given. His train ride is spent with opinions, conclusions and past experiences. The weddings have given him a different view on his train ride, life and people.

  9. I, too, like others in the class did not get this poem at first. I did have to re-read it a couple of times. I also agree that it is a person who is “people watching.” I think we are all people watchers. I watch people just like one of our classmates, I too, watch people at the mall. It doesn’t just happen at the mall but everywhere I go. I watch and wonder what the people do and where they are going and what kind of lives they lead. In this poem, Philip Larkin used many descriptives and it made it easy for me to envision what he was seeing. I could actually feel the stuffiness and heat in the cabins, even if the windows were down. I could feel “all sense Of being in a hurry gone.” Rush, rush, rush! I can hear the commotion and see the people he described! I think he did a great job describing and explaining what was going on. The coming and going the beginning, ending and beginning again…both lives and train. He might not have experienced it and he might not have regretted it, but I think he might have wondered what it would be like and maybe a part of him did just wonder of what it would be like for him. I mean, we can all say we don’t want to do something, yet in the back of our minds we might just wonder “what if.”

  10. I have to agree with the fact that the speaker is observing them. As many of us do, especially when alone and with no escape from them. I always find myself observing people without meaning to, I think it’s something we do involuntary. We don’t go out with the intentions of observing people, unless you’re going to write about something of that sort. I don’t judge these people though, I like to observe them and get an idea of how they live, and if I am to approach them, what way to do so best. The speaker seems to have a somewhat negative view on the people that board the train. It’s as if he is judging them but never gives a specific reason or personal example to justify his negative feelings for the wedding parties intruding on his lonely ride. Maybe he just hasn’t found the reason to believe in what they are doing. You’d be surprised at how fast your views on a person or ideas can change when you disregard everything but the truths presented to you when you’re caught up in something, in the speaker’s case it would be falling in love and wanting to give his bride a beautiful wedding.

  11. I agree with most people that this poem did not make sense when I first read it. I did not really understand the poem at first until we discussed it in class. I like how the author described the words in detail of the wedding. The way the author describes the wedding makes it seem like a tacky wedding. I do think that people can over do their weddings to the point that they are tacky. I think he is going from place to place by train and is seeing these different weddings. The author gave really good descriptive words and it made me paint a picture in my mind of how he was traveling by train, the people around him, and how the different weddings looked.

  12. “The Whitsun Weddings” introduces a type of language that appeals to the readers’ senses. The way that the “hot cushions” feel, the sight of the cars that are “blinding windscreens” as they reflect the sun rays, the smell of the “fish-dock” and of the grass and river. The speaker does not only describe the atmosphere but also the people he sees. Taking into consideration the descriptions of the landscape, complete atmosphere around him, and the way that the people behave and dress does not necessarily make me think that he is ‘people watching’. He seems to be watching everything else too. To me, it seems like the speaker is not having as much fun as everyone else and he is finding something to do by mocking the others’ ways. The speaker takes into his thoughts the transition that marriage represents and feels that it should be different than what he is seeing of it. If he were getting married his wife would probably not wear ‘nylon gloves’ and ‘jewellery-substitutes’. It would be important to him if his wife had on silk gloves and real jewelry. One part of the poem that stood out to me in particular was the part that mentioned the women sharing secrets like at a “…happy funeral…” How can a funeral be happy? Is the poet just trying to say that in everything good that happens, there is a bad or vice versa? That part just completely threw me off track with the poem. Overall, the poem gave me a warm feeling as I read it, and I enjoyed the descriptiveness of it.

  13. This was an interesting poem to read and in a weird kind of way it kept my attention. I somehow got caught up in the poem and could imagine myself on the train and running into all of these weddings. The description of the sites that were seen during the ride made for fun reading and “meeting” the different characters in the poem was a delight as well. I mean the girls in parodies of fashion, the fathers with broad belts under their suits, and the frowning children.
    This seemed to be one of the happiest train rides imaginable and the fact that all of these weddings were taking place made it as interesting as it was happy. I was indeed impressed by the precise description that the writer used in describing the scenery. Not one of my favorites, but indeed a good read.

  14. I actually enjoyed this poem even though the speaker is a little bit jaded by what I feel is his own lonliness. I think that when they are pulled up to the train depot you can really see the people there with all their finery on waiting for the train to come. Nervous hopeful brides looking around in anticipation while thier old aunts give them advise. I think that philip Larkin was probubally jealous inside of these people when he wrote this poem. Jealous of the whole procedure that happens here. He is just another traveler but he longs to be more.

  15. This poem was a little confusing at first but as I read over again a couple of times I started understanding some things. It’s interesting how the poem runs with thought after thought, very descriptive thoughts. Maybe he’s just having random thoughts like I do when I just look around me, I wonder why people do something or how, especially seeing so many of them in one ride. Our views of certain thing are because of our experiences but sometimes we may just think randomly, like staring into space and thinking of completely random things. it maybe like thoughts in a journal.

  16. This poem seem to have a deeper meaning then first perceived. It gives very clear pictures and you can almost see yourself riding the train and looking at the life of all those people. It was very interesting to me how the speaker managed to tie all of those different lives together and was able to describe all of the lifes of those people that he saw when the train passed by. Its amazing to think that what you are leaving this very moment (in my case attending college and writting on a blog) many people around the world are doing th exact same thing so we are all in a sense united by that action. Total strangers all around the world tied together by an action.

  17. I love this poem because it brings me back to London and riding on the trains there. Unlike the few trains here in America, in London you really do get the sensation that you are temporarily imposing on the lives of those that are just outside the windows. Most times, you can even see straight into their backyards. Larkin uses this image to mirror the peeking into the lives of those in the train and even the form of entire poem itself mirrors the train ride by its sudden breaks and increasingly longer lines within each stanza. His writing style really makes the reader feel as though he or she is right there with the speaker, gossiping about the fellow riders’ cheap wedding attire. I think that is what gives this poem such a personal connection to the reader, it is as though you are talking with him or perhaps reading his thoughts. At first, he tries to ignore the wedding party, but eventually finds himself somewhat intrigued by their appearance and reasoning. He is almost like the Scrooge of weddings. Though we do not know if his frowning upon the wedding party is because of his own personal jealousy or if he really does just find them to be tacky and conventional, he seems to have a sort of fascination with them being on the same train as he. I saw that many people, including myself, like to people-watch as well. The speaker of the poem is no exception and thinks of all things that will come of the wedding and the many weddings taking place at the moment. He also thinks ahead to London, were he will depart, and wonders about all of the honeymooners he may run into there, in a way that seems as though, to him, London will be ruined by them all.

  18. This poem has a different tone than the other poems we have read by this poet. Although There is still a snobbish and stinging sensation in the poem there is also a hopefullnes and some envy on behalf of the speaker. The form of the poem is interesting and captivating. It focuses on the thought of the speaker in regards to the people rather than a landscape. The people making up a scene have just a large an impact on the feelings and thoughts of a viewer as the actual scene composed by inanimate objects. The fact that there is a hopeful tone towards the end def. gave credibility to the speaker.

  19. Pingback: Somewhere becoming rain | John Wright

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