First publishing by Faber and Faber in 1964, this collection of Larkin’s poetry went on to become arguably his piece de resistance. Comprised of many national favourites such as ‘Mr Bleaney‘, ‘Days‘, ‘MCMXIV‘ and of course the title poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings‘, it seems evident that The Whitsun Weddings is the one for which Larkin is best known. And, as far as I can tell, rightly so.
I found the collection to be masterful, engaging and truly refreshing. despite being first publishing 50 years ago now, the delectable colloquial style makes the poetry accessible to any reader and lends itself to much of the collections light, humorous style; from the first poem, ‘Here‘, where the poet describes the
“Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, ice lollies,
Electric mixers, toasters, washers driers”
Of the “cut-price crowd”, i.e. the working class, to his pondering of life in ‘Send No Money‘
(“What does it prove? Sod all!”)
Larkin’s poetry is full of wry observation told in a comedic and accessibly colloquial tone. This style is defined by the narrator/narrators of the poems, many of which appear to embody Larkin’s own persona and points of view. This is not always true, however. It is difficult, for instance, to see a man of letters and life-long librarian like Larkin conclude that ‘Books are a load of crap’ as ‘he’ does in ‘A Study of Reading Habits‘. Larkin, despite narrating many of the poems through his own perspective, demonstrates the ability to chance the voice of his poems to great ironic effect.
Larkin outside his beloved library in Hull
Although the register of the poems is light and amusing, his themes defiantly are not. During the course of the collection, Larkin fires through an amalgam of subjects and themes, from Jazz music in New Orleans, to the purpose of poetry and literature, parenthood to Marks and Spenser. But the true weight and value of the poetry, for me, lies in Larkin’s analysis of the central themes. The passage of time, it’s effect and consequences certainly comprises on of the crucial themes of this collection. Often Larkin gives us his cyclical view of life, for example in ‘Mr Bleaney’ where the narrator takes possession of Mr Bleaney’s old flat and cannot say whether Mr Bleaney, or indeed himself, deserves/d more than this dingy flat:
“That how we live measures our own nature,
Ad at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.”
These Mr Bleaney-esque, monotonous, repetitive lifestyles are commonplace in The Whitsun Weddings and Larkin questions whether this existence has any value, or indeed whether any existence contains value. It often seems not. For Larkin, we all seem to be on the same path tip-toeing to our inexorable fate. This is summed up in one of the collections key poems, ‘Toads Revisited‘, where Larkin describes a panoply of different characters or toads hipping and hopping along their daily lives, but then stating that they are all, including the narrator, on the same road:
“When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.”
This poem also exemplifies another important aspect of Larkin’s poetry to keep an eye out for:- his masterful marriage of form and content. In this poem, for instance, Larkin outlines the humdrum lifestyle of the common man. The poem is given a simple, predictable rhyme scheme of AABB, CCDD… etc, mirroring the simple repetitiveness of the people it describes. It is a technique he uses to great effect throughout his poetry.
Another major theme is that of social class. Larkin, deriving from a lower-class background in Coventry before scaling to the heights of Oxford University, seems hugely aware of social class struggles in his poetry. His poetry seems to take up the gauntlet from Wordsworth’s proposal in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798) to use ‘language really used by men’ and discuss ‘the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life’, present both in the colloquial style and the content of Larkin’s poetry.
On the whole, I found The Whitsun Weddings to be a delightfully amusing collection of poetry but simultaneously a very serious, thought-provoking series of poems. It is clear that Larkin was ahead of his time in his scepticism/critique of modern society, and this, alongside his undeniable poet genius, is one reason to ignore his grumpy-old-man persona and get stuck into the poetry.
Thanks for reading!