Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Whitsun Weddings: an invented history

The media recently featured a commemorative train journey from Hull to London to mark the 50th anniversary of publication of Philip Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings. Part of the Guardian article reads as follows:

"The half-century anniversary of the poem will be celebrated on 6 June – a week late for the Whitsun bank holiday, but otherwise just as Larkin described: "All down the line / Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round; The last confetti and advice were thrown." At several stops along the way actors in period dress will board the train, and fill the time until the next station by telling stories of marriages glad and sad.

The poem was believed to be based on an actual journey Larkin took in 1955, but scholars have since argued about the date: the Whitsun weekend that year was hit by a truly British bank holiday event, a rail strike."

In fact, the above story of the poem's genesis has been "photoshopped" by the poet and swallowed by generations of readers and critics. This can be shown via a comparison between extracts from The Whitsun Weddings and Larkin's second novel, A Girl in Winter.

The Whitsun Weddings reads...

"I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat."

When A Girl in Winter describes Katharine's first train journey in England (from Dover to London), she observes that...

 " brick houses were brilliantly shadowed in the sun."

Katharine's journey then continues, moving away from London, this time by car:

"Occasionally she saw white figures standing at a game of cricket. These were the important things."

The Whitsun Weddings, meanwhile, brings us

 "someone running up to bowl".

In both examples (prose and poetry), Larkin lists objects in order to give the impression of places flashing past the window. A Girl in Winter describes

"...a row of houses, a church on rising ground, the slant of a field..."

And The Whitsun Weddings tells us...

"...a hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
and rose..."

In other words, Larkin is spinning us a line when he evokes a single clearcut experience as the origin for The Whitsun Weddings. The common ground between poem and novel goes way beyond a mere bibliographical coincidence. There's a clear indication that Larkin is using the accumulation of experiences and journeys to create fictions: he's inventing histories from Hull to London, from Dover to London and beyond.

Many people seem to love the illusion that verse is somehow truer than a novel. In fact, top-notch poetry feeds off fiction, as Larkin knew full well. Maybe Jorge Luis Borges did have competition when leading his readers a merry dance! After all, both of them were librarians and lovers of Chesterton. Now isn't that a strange coincidence too...?!


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