“It would be not too much to claim that it is one of the best poems written so far in this century,” says Galvin Ewart of Philip Larkin’s “Whitsun Weddings.”
The poem reminds us of W.H.Auden’s “The Night Mail” passing through many locations. Whitsun is the seventh day after marriage. In the 1950s, British tax law made the Whitsun weekend a financially advantageous time to be married. Larkin, therefore, commercializes marriage as an institution here, by adopting the specific title. Philip Larkin describes his stopping-train journey through East Yorkshire from Paragon Station, Kingston upon Hull to Kings Cross, London on a hot and humid Whitsun Saturday afternoon in the late 1950s. Larkin through his simple, yet elegant style divulges the details of a commonplace journey into a beautiful poem. The poem describes a train journey, and the poet occasionally stops at certain lines as though he is pausing at railway stations. Larkin’s intricate detailing of the scenes he sees, hold our attention right at the beginning: the backsides of houses with windows, fish-dock not seen, but felt through the senses, the confluence of two rivers that form the estuary of River Humber. The afternoon was a stiflingly humid one as the train shot past fields with grazing cattle, canal contaminated with industrial wastes, a glass house growing plants, the smell of the grass contrasted with the stale smell of the upholstery, dumped dismantled cars. etc. The poet contrasts natural scenic beauty with the ugliness of the pseudo-modern civilized world.
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
Here the poet juxtaposes the earth, water and sky, and signal their meeting point-The author at the point, was himself above elemental thinking. Larkin, a librarian, immerses himself in reading as well.
The poet focuses on the various bridal couples waving good bye to their friends and dodging fresh showers of confetti as they board the train. He does this with his “piquant mixture of lyricism and discontent.” The observant bachelor-poet comprehends their feelings which they are too pre-occupied to do. His curiosity is struck as he watches the various people before him. With his typical misogynistic stance, he describes the women around him as parodies of fashion and as moving jewelry shops. He claims that the ‘wedding days’ was coming to an end. The initial excitement would die out and lose colour gradually.
In the beginning, he uses”I”,; later he uses “we’ signifying the movement of the individual to the universal. The poet juxtaposes his social isolation in the train, as well as in real life, with marriage-a social institution. He uses the term “happy funeral” to refer the institution of marriage signaling the end of freedom. He also terms it a “religious wounding.” A marriage is supposed to be a happy event and an occasion of jubilation. But to Larkin, it carries within it the seeds of discontent and despondency that are likely to sprout in the course of time. Larkin’s cynical and misogamist views regarding marriage are explicit here. Although he had a couple of affairs, Larkin dreaded marriage and family, and never married. “Two can live as stupidly as one,” he said. Being a bachelor poet, he notices the fathers first: fathers with broad belts under their suits and seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat, an uncle shouting obscene language. From the descriptions, it is evident: Larkin’s concept of Marriage and Family gathers overtones of being ‘loud’ and bombastic and not subtle.
Anthony Thwaite states that rain emblematizes tragedy and failure in Larkin’s poetry. However, here it could alternatively be regarded as a happy one, since the falling rain make crops grow, just how marriages being celebrated now will lead to the bearing of children tomorrow. Again, rain is the traditional symbol of fertility. The phrase “like an arrow shower” may signify ‘Cupid’s arrow’. Rain comes out in the end. There is somewhere indeed an indication of hope in spite of all the skepticism. The journey ends and the train finally halts at the London Station It sped past stationary buses, Pullman porters and black-mosses walls. When it stops, the poet captures the scattering of passengers in different directions like arrow showers. The people ultimately reach their various destinations. And the journey at once transforms into the journey of life.
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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