The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin

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Notes on The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin. This set of Tower Notes is 28 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file.

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Introduction: Nothing To Be Said.

Philip Larkin is a major poet. He would probably not have agreed with this assessment, and many people would question this judgement even now, for a variety of reasons. For a start, he can be criticised for his all-too-obvious reaction against modernism, and his preference for traditional verse forms. This isn’t very fair, particularly when it is recalled that the greatest modernist poet of all, William Butler Yeats, never wrote a free verse poem. Furthermore, the whole history of literature is one of renewal and reaction to what came before. Modernism was a reaction after all, and it is not fair to criticise what followed modernism historically for consciously trying to be different.

The deep conservatism that lies behind Larkin’s work – his close identification with Hardy, in particular – is actually far more radical than might appear at first glance. Larkin is, in many (if not all) ways, a poet with ‘nothing to say.’ If that sounds critical, then reflect for a moment. The age he was born into had stopped believing that there was anything to say. And Larkin faced that potential ‘truth’ as honestly as any man or woman could have done.

That awareness can often seem to make his poetry bleak, but the real value of Larkin is that his brutal stare at truth (the ‘trite untransferable/Truss-advertisement’ as he call it) breaks down any doctrinaire materialism he may have felt and creates ambiguity after ambiguity. The sort of depth this creates can be seen in even a fairly straightforward poem like Mr Bleaney . The speaker is not very impressed by what he learns of Bleaney, but is obviously measuring his own life by exactly the same standards. The only difference is that he knows and, presumably, Bleaney doesn’t or didn’t. The awareness of nothing is a burden shared by many of Larkin’s characters, but frequently the assumed snobbishness about the ‘cut-price crowd’ marks an awareness that these people are actually living and the poet’s ‘representatives’ are not: all they have, in fact, is ‘slow dying.’

Many of Larkin’s poems face this nothingness head on. Despite this, however, nature and love both seem to have an ineluctable transcendence about them, for all Larkin’s materialism. And just occasionally, that sense of transcendence breaks the code of his language in ways that are deeply affecting and surprising, simply because they seem to cut against the grain of the rest of his writing. Good examples are ‘Here is unfenced existence:/Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach,’ ‘What will survive of us is love,’ ‘On me your voice falls as they say love should,/Like an enormous yes,’ ‘How separate and unearthly love is,’ ‘Earth’s immeasurable surprise,’

A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

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Philip Larkin