‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is usually regarded as one of Philip Larkin’s brighter poems: a beautiful evocation of romantic love, with newlyweds riding the train to London against a backdrop of town and country scenes. The visual detail is gorgeous, like a succession of paintings by Constable, Lowry and Beryl Cook. In the context of Larkin’s oeuvre, it feels like a relief from the ghastliness of death and the mordant posturings of the self-conscious bachelor.
All of which is undoubtedly true, and I have no intention of spoiling the sunny picture. But as Larkin writes,
The interest of what’s happening in the shade.
and there are darker shades in the poem, in addition to the literal shadows of the ‘long cool platforms’. Two lines in particular keep catching at me each time I read the poem, like tiny scratches in the record.
The first is in the sixth stanza, just after the panning shot from the train window of families on the platform waving goodbye:
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
A bit odd, isn’t it? Why bring a funeral into a poem about marriage? It feels like bad luck. And how can a funeral be happy?
It risks sounding perverse, as if the famously morbid poet can’t help pouring cold water on the party by reminding us of the final destination of the train we’re all on. Or it could be a flash of cynicism from the man who resisted marriage all his life: marriage is like a ‘happy funeral’, i.e. absurd, impossible and in poor taste.
But that’s not entirely how I read it: ‘shared’ and ‘secret’ resonate with ‘happy’ rather than ‘funeral’, modulating the tone towards joy and celebration. So to me the phrase suggests the transformative power of marriage, the death of old identities and rebirth into new ones. It makes me think of Stanley Spencer’s strange and wonderful Resurrection paintings, in which the dead emerge from their graves in the village churchyard, yawning and stretching as if woken from sleep, and rising into an afterlife that looks identical to their daily lives.
The second line that snags my attention is at the start of the following stanza:
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
Obviously ‘I nearly died’ has nothing to do with a literal death; quite the opposite, it’s shorthand for ‘I nearly died laughing’, or maybe ‘I nearly died of embarrassment’, as one of the passengers recollects a particularly funny or excruciating moment from their wedding. And if Larkin hadn’t just shown us a glimpse of the wedding as a ‘happy funeral’, I wouldn’t be writing about this line now.
But if you have funerals on your mind, even happy ones, there’s something suggestively poignant about those three words, the only ones in italics in the poem, and further emphasized by their position in the shortest line in the stanza:
I nearly died,
I don’t think it’s going too far to say the double meaning suggests, on some level, that the speaker, who has just discarded an old identity and assumed a new one, has experienced a brush with death. Particularly when Larkin almost immediately underlines the ephemerality of the ‘travelling coincidence’ of life:
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
The double negative of ‘none’ and ‘never’, and the very mention of what these ‘lives would all contain’, remind us that this picture of joyful life is framed by death.
All these hints and double meanings throw delicate shadows, but haunting ones nonetheless, adding an extra dimension to the magnificent final stanza:
And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
You don’t have to be a Freudian to pick up the sexual release in the ‘sense of falling’ and the ‘arrow shower … becoming rain’. Nor do you have to be morbidly pessimistic to simultaneously read this orgasmic image, the end of the journey and climax of the poem (pun intended) as a vision of the final release of death. As James Schuyler reminds us (in a poem written in 1958, the same year as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’) “The Elizabethans called it dying”.
In the midst of one of life’s great rituals of celebration, Larkin can’t help evoking death, but this time it almost feels like a happy death, as natural and joyful (not just as inevitable) as coupling and birth.
Over to you
If you liked this piece you can sign up to have more of Mark McGuinness’ thoughts on classic and contemporary poetry delivered for free.