Author(s): Philip LarkinDownload
Philip Larkin (1922-1985) remains England’s best-loved poet – a writer matchlessly capable of evoking his native land and of touching all readers from the most sophisticated intellectual to the proverbial common reader. The late John Betjeman observed that ‘this tenderly observant poet writes clearly, rhythmically, and thoughtfully about what all of us can understand’. Behind this modest description lies a poet who made greatness look, in Milton’s prescription, ‘simple, sensuous and passionate’.This collection, first published in 1967, contains many of his best-loved poems, including The Whitsun Weddings, An Arundel Tomb, Days, Mr Bleaney and MCMXIV.
Some Reviews: 109 in Goodreads.com
It is hard to believe that this collection of 32 poems is the work of a man in his early forties rather than his late sixties, dominated as it is by reflections on aging, loss, impending death, waste… all of which might make reading through The Whitsun Weddings a depressing experience. That it is not – that it is anything but, in fact – is a testament to the quality of the individual poems; to Larkin’s superb command of deft phrasing in verse that balances flexibility with careful attention to form; and above all, to the collective vision that the poems present, a vision both by and of a man who cannot quite reconcile himself to the world but whose embrace of the darkness never entirely obscures or denies the possibility that, somewhere, there is light.
This vision is figured in numerous ways even in this one slim volume: sometimes by empathy (“Mr Bleaney”, “Love Songs in Age”); sometimes by bitter iconoclasm (“Books are a load of crap” proclaims the last line of “A Study of Reading Habits”); poignant reflection on universal (“Home is so Sad”) or specific (“MCMXIV”) occasions of pain; knowingly amused self-pity (“Toads Revisited”, “As Bad as a Mile”). It also takes the form of a deep appreciation of the beauties of the world (“Water”, “First Sight”), and a hope that human bonds might be able to survive (“An Arundel Tomb”) crossed with the fear that they might not (“Talking in Bed”). The most famous line of this collection is, of course, “What will survive of us is love” and it is the final line; a beautiful and powerful last word that even the hedging and qualifying that Larkin subjects it to in the previous line (“Our almost-instinct almost true”) cannot completely undermine.
I had a few reservations about High Windows but The Whitsun Weddings easily earns Larkin his place amongst my favourite English poets.
Larkin is for you, if you’ve felt the irreversible pull of time, the inevitability of choices, the sense of wanting love from afar, yet aware of how impregnable each person is — our rigid, set ways dooming us to never love each other the way we yearn to. “an agreement/ That I was too selfish, withdrawn,/ And easily bored to love.”
Larkin is for those times when an old song plays, “and the unfailing sense of being young/ spread out like a spring-woken tree, … still promising to solve, and satisfy, /and set unchangeably in order”; loss heavy in the air; “they show us what we have as it once was,/…just as though/ by acting differently we could have kept it so.”
Larkin is for when you learn of a schoolmate’s son, “only a numbness registered the shock/ of finding out how much had gone of life,/ how widely from the others”, yet recognising still that their choice of having offspring does not blunt the knowledge that “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 the only end of age.”
And yet, always a yet, a yearning that is stubborn, a sensitivity towards the pregnant beauty of every day moments. The titular Whitsun weddings — being a passenger on the train that newly wedded couples board, waving goodbye to their guests, “how their lives would all contain this hour”, observing the “bright knots of rail” as the train races by at the cusp of this happiness.
Larkin’s poems are simply and tersely worded, every word a deliberate stroke in a scene, every line goes straight for the gut.
The Whitsun Weddings contains some of Philip Larkin’s most well-known poems (Mr Bleaney, Dockery and Son, An Arundel Tomb, and, of course, the title poem) and some of the greatest line in twentieth century English poetry (“what will remain of us is love”, “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 the only end of age.”, “Never such innocence”, “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain). Many of these poems have been in my life for decades, but as always, when you read the original collection from cover to cover, you discover poems that you’d somehow missed in the Collected Poems, or had read once and then not read again. Poems like First Sight, a perfect nature sonnet, or Broadcast, with its evocation of a distant lover in the audience of a concert broadcast live on the radio, and others, fall into this delightful category. To my mind, Larkin was the greatest voice in English poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century, and a close reading of The Whitsun Weddings does nothing to undermine that view.
I really enjoyed reading this.
There’s an elegiac quality to many of the poems, even if they aren’t elegies. There’s a lot of contemplation of mortality from a man in middle age, unmarried and without children. But there’s also the great ‘For Sidney Bechet’, which is one of the great poems about how music gets to us:
On me your voice falls as they say love should
Like an enormous yes…
There’s also one of Larkin’s most well-known poems, MCMXIV about the men of Britain on the outbreak of World War One:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since
Also. some lines from ‘Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses’ really hit home, perhaps because it is November and partly because of the current political situation:
Yet not till I was airborne
Did I recall the date –
That day when Queen and Minister
And Band of Guards and all
Still act their solemn-sinister
Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall.
It used to make me throw up,
These mawkish nursery games:
O, When will England grow up?
A modern poet writing that would probably get dragged through the tabloids and parliament for their lack of patriotism.
It’s a wonderful collection of poems though, that is worth a read.
I’m a natural pessimist, so I found a kindred spirit in Larkin; I share many of his sensibilities. His outlook on life is bleak (probably a bit too bleak for lockdown reading) but that’s just how the world is, a lot of the time. He cuts through the bullshit, but he’s only cynical about social affectations, not about life’s deep & true feelings. The latter he regards with suspicion & regret & sometimes fear but always honestly, openly.
“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 the only end of age.”
So no, not the cheeriest of poets, not the sort to make you take a deep breath and marvel with joy at the beauty of life; but one that prompts a quieter evaluation (and, for me anyway, appreciation) of the time that’s given to us.
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