Within The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin presents the reader with an unsentimental depiction of life in post-World War II Britain. Larkin was a pre-eminent literary figure within the Movement, and The Whitsun Weddings is a collection that is characteristically cynical towards the “Consumer Culture” of Harold Macmillan’s Britain. The collection explores in depth themes such as the transiency of human life, the insignificance of social expectation, and the triviality of consumerism.
In ‘Dockery and Son’, the reader is presented with a middle-aged protagonist who, whilst revisiting his alma mater, attempts to open ‘the door of where I used to live: / Locked.’ The locked door signifies an unattainable past and the disconnection he feels with his former life as a student. Larkin’s use of enjambment serves to emphasize the disconnection that the protagonist feels with his past. The fleeting nature of human life is contrasted by the timelessness of the world in which the protagonist lives. Despite the familiarity of this world to the protagonist, he feels comparatively anonymous, as is demonstrated when ‘A known bell chimes. I catch my train, ignored.’ Individual lives are nothing but ‘ranged / Joining and parting lines’ which ‘reflect a strong / Unhindered moon.’ The railway tracks are symbolic of the fact that human lives may interweave and diverge, yet will ultimately terminate. The moon above us all is eternal, yet we are not. Again, Larkin’s use of enjambment serves to emphasize this. This is a reminder of the insignificance of man in relation to the natural world, and this belief in the transiency of human existence is a key theme within The Whitsun Weddings.
However, this feeling of alienation is not limited to the setting of the natural world. On arriving in Sheffield (an industrial city and centre for manufacturing in the UK), the protagonist is greeted by hellish ‘fumes/ And furnace-glares’, and he ‘ate an awful pie’. The ‘awful pie’ is a representative detail, metonymic of not only the railway station, but of the cheap and disparaging view that Larkin holds towards mass-produced consumer-driven urban life in the early 1960’s. The protagonist feels no more attached to urban life than he does to rural life, and the narrative voice only develops a flowing rhythm when he is fleeing from place to place on the train, perhaps in the hope of finding somewhere in which he can feel a sense of belonging. This is demonstrated through the alliterative phrase ‘Canal and clouds and colleges subside / Slowly from view.’
In the eyes of the protagonist the only certainty in life is death; ‘Life is first boredom, then fear / Whether or not we use it, it goes’. Consequently, the manner in which one chooses to live one’s life is viewed as both unimportant and uncontrollable. For the protagonist, ‘To have no son, no wife, / No house or land still seemed quite natural.’ Dockery was blinded by the misconception that our lives are shaped by our beliefs and desires, when in fact his destiny was far more predicated by the ‘innate assumptions’ that society imposes upon us. Dockery was ‘Only nineteen’ when he became a father. Larkin implies that Dockery’s choice to become a parent was driven ‘Not from what / We think truest, or most want to do’, but out of fear of not being ‘capable’ of fulfilling this social obligation in later life. This methodical attitude towards parenthood is absurd in the eyes of the narrator; if life is so fleeting, what is the point in fulfilling social expectations? In the end, all that is left is ‘For Dockery a son, for me nothing, / Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage’. Parenthood is not viewed as fulfilling, but as constricting. Larkin further satirises the ‘innate assumption’ that ‘adding meant increase’ by using bureaucratic terminology to describe this methodical attitude towards parenthood. The title of the poem, ‘Dockery and Son’ has resonances of a business’ name, and we are told that Dockery must have decided to become a father after having ‘taken stock / Of what he wanted’. Larkin’s bureaucratic terminology draws a link between the rise in British consumerism and the blind pursuit of the ‘innate assumptions’ that society expects of us. Like any form of mass-produced commodity, people do not have children because they want them, but because they think that they ought to have them.
‘Dockery and Son’ adopts a fairly simple poetic structure. It is comprised of six stanzas which are each made up of eight lines of poetry. The poem has a relatively simple rhyme scheme; each stanza contains four pairs of poetic lines that rhyme, although the order in which the rhyme scheme unfolds varies between stanzas. This dependence upon simple poetic rhyming structures is prevalent within The Whitsun Weddings, and is typical of Larkin, who scorned the avant-garde experimentation of modernist writers of his time. He favoured more established poetic forms, which he saw as an integral part of the English literary tradition.  This marks a deviation from the fashionable conventions of Larkin’s time, a theme which is ongoing throughout the collection.
Furthermore, the use of personal pronouns is worth analysing within ‘Dockery and Son’. Up until line 36, the narrative voice only uses singular personal pronouns: ‘I’ to refer to the protagonist, and ‘he’ to refer to Dockery. When it sounds like the protagonist is about to make a pluralised statement in line 19, and perhaps reveal a revelation about the state of the human condition, he drifts off into slumber, and the train-of-thought is abandoned. However, once he realises that the established social expectations of those his age are nothing but trivial ‘innate assumptions’, this universal voice is finally implemented. From line 37 onwards, the narrative voice speaks in a more inclusive fashion, employing the first-person plural personal pronoun ‘we’. This implies that the protagonist’s revelation regarding the triviality and transiency of human life applies not only to him, but to the reader and society as a whole. For a collection of poetry that deals with such universally relevant themes, and for such a bold statement about the purpose of existence (or lack of it), this shift in subject is not only fitting, but entirely necessary.
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