The Whitsun Weddings, by Philip Larkin
an appreciation by Rich Horton
My favorite poet is Wallace Stevens, but my favorite British poet, I think, is Philip Larkin. Larkin (1922-1985) was a long-time friend of Kingsley Amis, one of my favorite novelists. He was a rather sad man, somewhat by choice I’d suggest (though I’d caution of course that that’s just me projecting my feelings on an outside view of his life), and on the evidence perhaps not a very nice man, certainly not above (in private letters) expressing some queasily racist notions, and also some rather sexist notions. He doesn’t seem to have treated the women in his life very well either. His longest relationship was with Monica Jones (sometimes suggested as the model for the awful Margaret Peel in Amis’ Lucky Jim) – it lasted from 1950 to the end of his life, though they never married: but Larkin had significant relationships with several other women in this time period, indeed at one time juggling three affairs at once. Larkin’s primary job was as librarian, most importantly at the University of Hull. He seems to have been highly regarded there, both for his work and as a colleague. Despite mostly living fairly modestly, in the end he accumulated a significant fortune, enough so that his primary beneficiary, Jones, left an estate of over £1,000,000 at her death in 2001.
Larkin’s early poems were primarily imitative of W. H. Auden, with other significant influences such as Thomas Hardy and W. B. Yeats. (Larkin was to some extent responsible for the rehabilitation of Hardy’s poetic reputation relative to his novelistic reputation.) His first book of poems was The North Ship (1945), which was all but ignored and has remained but a minor part of his oeuvre in the minds of most readers. To be sure, he was only 23. In the next decade he found his true voice, partly in association with the “Movement” poets (such as Amis, Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and Robert Conquest). His three major slim collections were published at intervals of roughly a decade: The Less Deceived in 1955, The Whitsun Weddings in 1964, and High Windows in 1974. After that book he was all but done as a poet, even though he was only 54 – “Aubade” and “Love Again” are the only significant poems written later, the rest being often occasional poems, or unfinished. (I am also quite fond of an earlier uncollected poem, a bit of a joke based presumably on the sexual exploits of either Amis or Conquest, “Letter to a Friend about Girls”.) He refused an offer to be named Poet Laureate in 1984, a year before his death.
Larkin’s reputation suffered some blows after his death, mostly to my mind a result of score settling by rivals and by those whose poetic philosophies differed, and as a result of the publication of his letters and other revelations of some quite racist expressions. It certainly seemed to me that some second-raters were happy to suggest “Don’t read him, read me!” – as if anyone with sense would read their anodyne lameness. (OK, so I took some of that controversy a bit hard!) Larkin’s reputation has recovered, however, largely to my mind because people actually read the poems instead of obsessing about the personal life. It is probably fair to say that Larkin’s range was somewhat narrow, but I’m not sure that matters. And his rather po-faced attitudes can sometimes seem almost self-caricature. But within that range, and understanding the point of view he expresses, his poetry is stunning: lyrically expressive, syntactically complex and interesting, emotionally intense if not flamboyantly so.
Of his three major collections, I think the best is the middle one, The Whitsun Weddings. There are 32 poems, including several of my very favorites: “Faith Healing”, “Water”, “The Whitsun Weddings”, “MCMXIV”, “Dockery and Son”, “Reference Back”, “Wild Oats”, and, to close the book, possibly Larkin’s greatest poem, “An Arundel Tomb”. (There are of course other candidates for that title: “At Grass”, “Church Going”, “If, my Darling”, “High Windows”, even “This be the Verse”.)
I think best perhaps is to quote some lines …
From “Faith Healing”, I am always devastated by “That nothing cures.”
From “Water”: “A glass of water/where any-angled light/would congregate endlessly.”
From “MCMXIV” – another candidate for my favorite Larkin poem – and a poem which makes me think of Christopher Priest’s great story “An Infinite Summer” – the last stanza:
“Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.”
From “Dockery and Son”, the famous final four lines:
“Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then only the end of age.”
From “Reference Back”:
“They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.”
And, finally, “An Arundel Tomb”. That of course has a very famous last line: “What will survive of us is love.” So often quoted as a cloying sentimental truism. Which is to ignore the previous line: “Our almost instinct almost true:” – so undermining of the sentiment in the final line.
It’s just such a lovely poem, from start to finish. The first stanza loosely describing the somewhat faded tomb, with the crucial detail: “The little dogs under their feet.” The second stanza, revealing the most critical element of the carven tomb: “His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.” “What will survive of us is love”, eh?
But then the next line, opening the third stanza. “They would not think to lie so long.” Is this a pun? To be sure, the Earl and his Countess are not thinking of “lying in state”, as it were, for centuries. But are they also not thinking of the “lie” the sculptor tells?
The next two stanzas suggest the changes wrought by time – both just by decay, but also by changes in attitude. I just love the fifth stanza (beginning at the end of the fourth):
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came”
And, sure, let’s quote the great final lines:
“Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”
Surely the point here is that the love of the Earl and his Countess – real as it may or may not have been, is not what survives. What survives, over centuries, is our hope, our sentimental hope, that our love will survive – that love is the most important thing, despite the possibility that the love was not real.