My introduction to Philip Larkin and his collection of verse,' The Whitsun Weddings' I owe to my friend David Evennett, one-time Member of Parliament for Erith and Crayford. Back when I was researcher for a Member of Parliament, I had an avocation as a poet. David discovered this, and recommended Larkin as a poetic voice worthy of attention. (His researcher acted surprised, blurting out loud much to our amusement, 'And here I always took you for a Philistine!') I have been grateful ever since, as I frequently return to this slim volume of verse for inspiration and reflection.
'Whitsun Weddings' includes 32 poems. A small book first published in 1964, it has proven so popular (something rare in poetry circles) that it has been reprinted four times during the 1970s, four times during the 1980s, and continues to be reprinted periodically up to the present day.
John Betjeman, one-time poet laureate of England, once commented of Larkin that 'this tenderly observant poet writes clearly, rhythmically, and thoughtfully about what all of us can understand.' This is the key to Larkin's verse -- accessibility. There are no obvious poetical devices that overpower the meaning or the language; there are no forced schemes, however brilliantly executed, that impose themselves on the reader. The gentle rhythms carry the reader like a slow-moving train on a well-cushioned track.
The poem 'Mr. Bleaney' is the one David first drew attention to when I brought in the small book a few days after his recommendation.
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And 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 words resonate with me at different times in my life, as they did with David. There is a desire to make someone of oneself, to have something to show for one's life. In the development of Mr. Bleaney's life, and his successor in the rented room, one can take stock and reappraise one's own life. What is the value, and how is it calculated?
Larkin's poetry frequently turns to the matter of religion and spirituality, without getting overly fussy or remote. In the poem Water, Larkin gives a very brief description of a spirit-freeing and pluralistic yet communal experience.
Larkin addresses the issues of age and youth, of love and loneliness, of despair and hope, all within the space of these 32 wonderful poems. The poem 'Wild Oats' incorporates all of these themes in one compact, bittersweet tale of life. Who could fail to wonder at the matter-of-fact and poignant description of the man who couldn't commit to one woman, having met only briefly her more beautiful friend, and seven years later is still unable to forget? The poem `A Study of Reading Habits' likewise, dealing with dreams conjured up through reading during youth gone the way of reality in middle age, ending with a too-familiar sour-grapes feeling, `Books are a load of crap'.
Of course, I mustn't neglect the title piece, 'The Whitsun Weddings'. Perfectly capturing mood and manner of weddings, the routine and the cycle of life, Larkin in fact uses the image of travelling by rail as a subtle motif for the journey through life, the Whitsun Weddings being a stop through which many (a dozen couples in this poem) proceed on their way to lives that will be lived out in `London spread out like the sun / Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat.'
Larkin's final word in this collection is a very worthy word -- one that will preach, in the words of a cleric friend of mine -- and one that brings to very sweet encapsulation his image of the Arundel Tomb, carefully and tenderly drawn for us in words, evoking images of when it was first created to how it is perceived today in its state of weathered testimony of the couple buried together:
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
This particular volume pairs the 'Whitsun Weddings' with his earlier work, 'The Less Deceived', first published in 1955. This work was the one that established Larkin as an 'up-and-coming voice' in English poetry. He was part of 'The Movement' (which also included writers such as Kingsley Amis and Thom Gunn), which avoided sentimentality that was more typical of Romantic poetry. Emotion and wordcraft are still strongly present, but imagery is more grounded and real, less flowery and impressionistic.
There are connections here, and not just stylistically. Larkin's poem 'Toads' (reflections on working life) in the earlier work is connected to 'Toads Revisited' in the later 'Whitsun Weddings'. Touches such as these keep the ideas going across time.