National Poetry Day 2021

This time last year I set a goal for myself of reading one poem a day. And what better day than National Poetry Day, (and my birthday – just saying!) to share one of my favourites of the year, so far …

The Whitsun Weddings describes a journey from Hull to London on a sunny Saturday on the Whitsun weekend.  These were the days when many newlyweds would, after their wedding, get the train down to London so they could then begin their honeymoons.  Whilst the first two stanzas describe the scenery glimpsed from his train window, it’s from the third stanza that Larkin focuses his observational critique on the colourful merriment of the various wedding parties gathering at each station.

Larkin’s love for the countryside comes across loud and clear, as does his disdain for the increasing influence of mechanisation and urbanisation on the previously unspoilt rural vistas. Likewise, I was struck by the stark contrast between the celebratory joy of the wedding parties, conveyed with more than just a hint of cynicism by Larkin’s prose.

There’s something about this poem that really appealed to me, hence why I chose it for my National Poetry Day blog feature.  It reflects Larkin’s typically solemn tone, but it conjures up some lovely, vivid imagery … I felt I could have been on that train in 1964 with him.


The Whitsun Weddings


by Philip Larkin

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense   
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence   
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept   
    For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.   
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and   
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;   
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped   
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass   
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth   
Until the next town, new and nondescript,   
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys   
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls   
I took for porters larking with the mails,   
And went on reading. Once we started, though,   
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls   
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,   
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant   
More promptly out next time, more curiously,   
And saw it all again in different terms:   
The fathers with broad belts under their suits   
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;   
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,   
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,   
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.   
    Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed   
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days   
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define   
Just what it saw departing: children frowned   
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared   
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.   
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast   
Long shadows over major roads, and for
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.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,   
And someone running up to bowl—and none   
Thought of the others they would never meet   
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.   
I thought of London spread out in the sun,   
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. 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   
Travelling 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.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my choice of poem.
Which themes stood out most powerfully for you?


4 thoughts on “National Poetry Day 2021

  1. This is one of my favourite poems. I love Larkin. I’m writing a piece called ‘Sonder’ about how sometimes we don’t see the depth and richness of someone else’s inner life and this is a wonderful example of that. All those incredibly varied lives behind the many curtained windows. 😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

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