The Whitsun Weddings
The countryside ‘gives way’ to a large town, Larkin does not call it a city. Hull seems to emerge from the river from a limited pastoral with ‘harsh-sounding’ halts and ‘piled gold clouds’. Courtenay’s diction and intonation seem to call into question the domes and statues and spires and cranes and even the inhabitants and their simple needs and desires. The video images of the football/ rugby crowd and the view into the shopping mall from the elevator make the people involved appear both down to earth and beyond the ordinary.
The lists of articles that the ‘cut-price’ crowd might want seem to be more like our own needs in straightened times, simple but necessary; as well as ‘out of reach’, ‘Unfenced existence’ brings to mind Ian Almond’s characterisation of Larkin as a mystic without a mystery — the sense of the mundane is enough to keep him wondering about the everyday without anything further intruding. Silence then prevails after the peopled city is left behind and the elements like ‘heat’, ‘thickening leaves’ and ‘neglected waters’ are allowed to be themselves. Joseph Bailey
Afternoons’ in some ways is a time capsule since in the poem Larkin observes such things as mothers “setting free” their children at swing and sandpit, a scene that is now perhaps dying out since in today’s world young mothers tend to go into the workplace rather than spend time with their children. [The] poem reminds me about a cinema in my town’s centre that closed down about a year ago and hasn’t been touched, though when you look inside it’s like looking into the past, seeing all the films from a year ago and all the fashion photos. Jonathan Winn This poem was written when Philip Larkin lived in his top flat in Pearson Park in Hull.
He loved living in a high room, where he could observe the comings and goings of other people. As he walked through the park he used to pass a children’s playground, and what he saw there inspired this bleak poem. I often thought of it when I myself was a young mother in the late 50’s and 60’s, and knew exactly what he meant by “the hollows of afternoons”. But how did Philip know? This poem is an example of his acute observation and imaginative ability to get inside the skin of his subjects. It is a poem that will never date as long as there are young mothers and children and play-grounds.
Winifred Dawson  An Arundel Tomb One of the lasting bequests left perhaps unwittingly by Philip Larkin can be described as a ‘paper chase. ‘ Not the usual kind: but scattered all over the country are places where Larkin trod, objects which moved him and people whose lives he enriched. The Larkin reader can go to these places and experience for himself what inspired the poet. Some seven years ago I was intrigued by ‘An Arundel Tomb. ‘ I had, alongside the poem, the Longman Critical Essays in which John Saunders takes a look at beauty and truth in three poems from The Whitsun Weddings.
There was a footnote referring the reader to an Otter Memorial Paper entitled ‘An Arundel Tomb’, by Dr. Paul Foster of West Sussex Institute of Higher Education. Thus began an interesting (for me) correspondence with Dr. Foster. I asked whether the final line of the poem, ‘What will survive of us is love’, was quite so straightforward as it seemed. I questioned the other meaning of the word ‘love’, i. e. (in games) no score: nothing; nil. Could it be, I asked, that Larkin might have meant: ‘What will survive of us is nothing’? Dr. Foster wrote back to me: “John (Saunders) takes me to task – doesn’t he! for adopting an over-optimistic view of Larkin’s poem; I think he is probably right and your own comment on ‘love’ would please John S. immensely. ” He enclosed a copy of the Otter paper, co-written by him, Trevor Brighton and Patrick Garland, with photographs of the tomb (in Chichester Cathedral) that had inspired Larkin. I hit Chichester Cathedral during the two weeks when the Archbishop’s representatives were ‘clocking up’ the number of people visiting the cathedrals all over the country. An eyebrow was raised when I confessed that I had come in search of Philip Larkin, and not God; but I was directed to the tomb.
Beside it was a large handwritten copy of the poem, attached to one of Chichester’s mighty pillars. For twenty minutes I studied the tomb, the poem and Dr. Foster’s handbook. There are marked differences between the tomb and the poem, as Larkin later admitted. The pamphlet quotes an acquaintance of Larkin’s who, while visiting Chichester Cathedral, overheard a guide inform a group of tourists that the monument to the FitzAlan family inspired a poem from the modern poet, Philip Spender! I recommend a visit to Chichester Cathedral clutching, if you can, Dr.
Foster’s pamphlet. Wendy Cole Broadcast This poem was first published in The Listener in January 1962. On my copy Philip wrote: ‘To Maeve who wd. sooner listen to music than listen to me’ and drew this sketch of himself enveloped in gloom beside his wireless, and of me, rapt in the more formal atmosphere of the concert hall. One Sunday afternoon the previous November, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a concert in the City Hall, Hull which was simultaneously broadcast on the radio. Knowing I was at the live performance, Philip listened to it at home.
The following day he handed me a typescript of the poem, initially called ‘Broadcast Concert’, but later shortened to ‘Broadcast’. Elated and deeply moved, I was amused by the description of my shoes which had been the object of a shared, private joke that autumn. Elegant, with stiletto heels and pointed toes, popularly known as winkle pickers, they had been in vogue several months. Philip loved them. Never one to be ahead of fashion, rather just lagging behind it, I said in mock exasperation one day: ‘I don’t know why you make such a fuss of these shoes.
They’ve been in fashion for the last six months otherwise I wouldn’t be wearing them. ‘ He laughed and said: ‘Well, I still adore them even if they are slightly-outmoded’ which is how they came to be described in the poem. I have attended countless concerts at the City Hall since 5 November 1961 and on each occasion I recite ‘Broadcast’ in my mind’s eye with mingled pride and delight. Maeve Brennan Dockery & Son Larkin minced no words in his discussions of children. He condemns them as ‘awful’ and expresses his gratitude that ‘I’ve never lived in hideous contact with them…
The nearer you are to being born, the worse you are’ (FR 48). In his interview with the Observer he calls them ‘selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes’ (RW 48). He makes sure we know the feeling is not a new one: ‘I hated everybody when I was a child, or I thought I did. When I grew up, I realized that what I hated was children’ (FR 47). This is obviously a man who didn’t have much desire for parenthood. And yet, in this poem, he speaks to me as the mother of two young sons and a person who doesn’t find children awful (at least, not most of the time).
This poem uncomfortably confronts my assumptions about reproducing: have I increased or diluted myself? And it helps me, happily, to find myself more closely aligned with Dockery than with the speaker. I like the speaker here because he’s willing to say what he thinks, as he thinks it, and he might be right. I like hearing that having children doesn’t have to be what everyone does; and, of course, it is selfish in its own way. And I appreciate that he credits Dockery (and therefore, by association, me) with having thought so thoroughly about whether we ‘should be added to. I can see why the speaker’s made his choice, but I’m glad I’ve made mine.
‘Whether or not we use it, it goes… ‘ Certainly Dockery (and therefore, by association, I) will finish up in the same place as the speaker in the end, but maybe he has used his life; and maybe I’ve used mine. I’d guess that most people don’t think of ‘Dockery and Son’ as a feel-good sort of poem, but its process of thinking through this big question, and the places that thinking takes the speaker, takes me to some useful places too. Gillian Steinberg Love Songs In Age
I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘Love Songs in Age’, which was written in the year I was born. Just three sentences, with the first continuing right up to the last line of the second stanza. One of the things I noticed about the poem when I was setting it to music was the high incidence of words containing the ‘s’ sound, which conveys a certain sadness, sympathy or resignation, in as much as it resembles a sigh. Remarkably, in the second stanza of the poem almost 20% – 1 in 5 – words begin with the ‘s’ sound; with nearly as high a percentage in the first stanza.
And when you add the number of words containing the ‘s’ sound within them… As usual with a Larkin poem, because of the register, rhythm, rhyme sequence and cadences, this is hardly noticeable when reading or hearing the poem. As a hoarder myself of scraps of paper containing poems, fragments, lyrics, images – I can understand (as I’m sure we all can) the significance the subject attaches to the sheet music – both the covers and the music they contain. All our possessions remind us of something or someone; ‘One marked in circles by a vase of water’, ‘And coloured, by her daughter’.
It’s as if the things themselves are capable of storing memories to confront us with when we least expect it. In typical Larkin style he shows us the joy of life, love and happiness by making us recognise that we missed out – it passed us by; the illusion of ‘That certainty of time laid up in store’. We each have our own ‘much-mentioned brilliance’ of something, which is ‘Still promising to solve, and satisfy,/ And set unchangeably in order’, whether it’s love, money, power… For me, the most important phrase in the poem is ‘looking for something else’.
It brings to mind the final lines of ‘The Mower’, the poem Betty Mackereth chose as her nomination for Poem of The Month in May 2002: … we should be careful Of each other, we should be kind While there is still time. James L. Orwin Mr Bleaney I am currently studying Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Wedding as part of my A-Level English Literature course, I have become rather attached to “Mr. Bleaney”, the mystery and ambience which surrounds this character fascinates me, how such a grey and apathetic life can have such an affect on a household, and possess an almost immortal quality as his presence is still felt by the next tenant.
Lydia Williams Naturally The Foundation Will Bear Your Expenses I have chosen this poem because it amuses me. I have been a ‘university wife’ for over 40 years and also read English at Hull University. I like Larkin’s tongue-in-cheek portrait of a certain type of academic; the way he highlights the pomposity and self-importance that can be a feature of the academic world (and all others too of course). The title alone with its use of formality and capital letters alerts us to the pretentiousness of what will follow.
This character is full of his own self-worth as he leaves the greyness of England behind and ‘hurries’ to catch his Comet. What a busy man! Comet aircraft at that time that this poem was written (1961) were so new and upmarket – they were the Concords of their time. Travelling by Comet highlights the status of this person – it also suggests that the cost of such a trip will be considerable. Our man in the poem is a frequent conference attender by the sounds of things. He has recently given the same paper in America at Berkeley, the University of California, only three weeks previously.
He has every intention of wringing the last drops out of his efforts to write the paper in the first place as he also contemplates it being broadcast on Radio 3 where he will be conscious of his own reflected glory in the ‘mirror of the Third’ and subsequently published (he hopes) by Chatto & Windus. The stark contrast between the smug academic and the ‘colourless and careworn’ crowds which irritate the man by holding up his taxi is highlighted by the alliteration. So wrapped up in his own affairs is our academic that he has not noticed, ‘until I was airborne’ that the date is a significant one.
The crowds were attending the Remembrance Day Service when the Queen and Country remembers and respects those who have lost their lives in war. There is no indication of a year in which the action of the poem takes place; however, in the 1960s England was still recovering from the effects of the Second World War which had ended less than twenty years previously. The attitude of this man to the Remembrance Day Service in Whitehall is thus shocking in its lack of empathy and respect.
The word ‘outsoar’ in the next stanza too emphases his feelings of superiority as he leaves behind the real world of the aftermath of war, people struggling to come to terms with loss, bereavement and hard times as he ‘dwindles’ off on the south wind (Auster) to meet his ‘contact’ and ‘pal’, Professor Lal, who awaits him in the ‘sunshine of Bombay’ at the next conference. Larkin here is having a quiet laugh at some of his academic colleagues; he knows perfectly well that there will be some elements of this stereotypical man that will be recognised and cause amusement among his fellows.
I can endorse this portrait, join in the laughter and enjoy Larkin’s wicked sense of humour. However, I know personally that there are many, many hard-working, kind, liberal, dedicated and humble academics – some of them are my friends – I also am married to one! I’m sure that Larkin knew this too! Carole Collinson Sunny Prestatyn Walking through the suburbs of the city and finding oneself strangely drawn to the graffiti on walls, play-parks and posters, one couldn’t help but be reminded of ‘Sunny Prestatyn’.
A poem that at once shows the comic yet callous defacement of advertisement posters whilst carefully crafting the unknown beauty which lies within everything (but is somehow destroyed and squandered by everyday existence), it is a remarkably accomplished piece, even from a poet as capable as Larkin. As with much of Larkin’s poetry the metre and rhyme scheme is tightly controlled, in such a way that allows the poem to flow from images of the ‘expand[ing]’ and ‘spread[ing]’ scene which swells from the laughing girl’s thighs and breasts, into the sudden ‘scor[ing]’ and ‘scrawls’ of the sabotaging, anonymous youngsters.
Despite its versatility the poem never sounds disjointed, and manages to retain a completeness almost as defined as the poster borders themselves. As the first verse devotes itself to describing beauty, freedom and that quintessentially British love of seascapes, what follows is a shocking barrage of destructive and driving images that not only reveals the apathy and aggressive boredom of the defacers, but points to a pronouncedly wider message: beauty is transitory, and destroyed by sheer monotony.
It is incredible that Larkin saw so vividly, in his times, that destructive element which seems to dominate much of our concerns today; as how often are we found thinking some things are ‘too good for this life’? In creating a stylised, stereotypical yet somehow inexplicably ‘real’ girl within the poster, and having her ‘slapped up’ and left as ‘only a hand and some blue’, something much valued; beauty and uncomplicated pleasure in essence, is systematically destroyed by the delinquent actions that Larkin constructs climatically within ‘Sunny Prestatyn’.
This leaves a feeling of exhaustion and quasi-fear, whilst serving as a reminder ‘in Larkin’s idiosyncratic style of taking the most plain, earthly features of existence and charging them with forceful meaning’ of the fragility of our lives amid the almost unreal, increasingly fast, and changing (‘Now Fight Cancer is there’) times we exist within. Ben Wilkinson Take One Home For The Kiddies I have chosen this seemingly simple Larkin poem because it beautifully exemplifies the way I feel about animals and just how cruel humans can be to them.
It makes me feel “Yes, I know what you mean, life is like that”. I also like it because it shows a side of Larkin that is all too often ignored – the caring, compassionate, loving and gentle side; the man Maeve Brennan knew, who was sad that he had accidentally killed a hedgehog. And yet the poem is cutting, incisive and sharply focused. Every word counts. The word “huddled” for instance is perfectly chosen to create an image of misery, distress and despair, whilst the “empty bowls” add to the sense of neglect suffered by these animals. When I was a girl there was a pet shop in West Street in Hull.
It was next door to a very popular wet-fish shop; and whilst my mother queued to buy fish, I used to look at the animals in the pet shop window. They were as Larkin describes in the poem. They were all young, and displayed according to their species; sometimes puppies, or baby rabbits or hamsters, and occasionally kittens. Whatever kind of animal was on show at the time, the window seemed to be full of them; they didn’t have enough individual space and children like me crowded round pushing each other to get a better view, knocking on the glass to attract the animals’ attention.
To us they were “living toys” and to this day I am very glad that my mother refused to buy me one. The final line of the poem sums up the fate of many of these baby animals bought on impulse by parents for their children who were passionate to own one, but for whom the novelty would soon wear off; or who would maybe, literally, love a tiny animal to death. The slogan which came out many years after this poem was written – a puppy is not just for Christmas – reminded me of Larkin’s perceptive, critical and highly skilful treatment of the same subject matter.
The poem remains one of my favourites. Carole Collinson Talking In Bed I chose ‘Talking in Bed’ because it is at once so simple and so profoundly philosophical, obviously situated in the context of two humans, fighting against their own alienation and against a hostile environment, but extending to some eternal human dilemmas. The projection of how difficult it can be to tell the truth and keep your friends too is one of the finest achievements of the poem. Bahaa-Eddin Mazid Toads Revisited ‘Toads Revisited’ is a favourite of mine from the seminal The Whitsun Weddings collection.
On reading it again, and again, I find myself eagerly anticipating the next line, like a satisfying chorus. I was drawn to the poetry of Philip Larkin, because of its similarities to the lyrics and themes encompassed within the best of English ‘popular music’ song writing that has left a lasting impact on me, penned by the likes of Nick Drake, Stephen Morrissey, Roddy Frame, and latterly Thom Yorke. Themes of mortality, boredom, tedium, fear and tragedy feature strongly, and are explored to great effect within this offering. Some wonderful lines leap out at me, and continue to delight on each airing. Waxed – fleshed out patients / Still vague from accidents” and “Turning over their failures / By some bed of lobelias”. Marvellous! I find myself particularly affected by the themes of time passing, and time wasted. Time weighing heavily, and apparently, occasionally burdensome, yet also perceived as a finite and valuable, though often squandered commodity. I am drawn to the way that the unattractive alternative to the working day is demonstrated by the observations of a range of disparate and feckless characters inhabiting the park (“Not a bad place to be”).
The park bound activities, and hinted at desperate lifestyles of these individuals contrasting markedly with the reassurance and raison d’etre provided by the routine of the daily grind. Albeit delivered in an unsettling way, the Toad ‘companion’ is seen to be a benevolent though overwhelming entity guiding us to “the inevitable”. Andy Bagley The Whitsun Weddings This is one of the three or four really spacious, almost symphonic Larkin poems, alongside ‘Church Going’, ‘The Building’, and ‘Aubade’.