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In a pocket diary note, Philip Larkin stated: “At 1.45 am let me remember that the only married state I know (i.e. that of my parents) is bloody hell. Never must it be forgotten.” Larkin expresses a loss of beliefs and ideals in marriage prominently in The Whitsun Weddings (TWW) and The Less Deceived (TLD) by examining the ideas that marriage signifies imprisonment and leads to a loss of identity, as well as that all marriages are banal and similar. However, there are notions of the idea that perhaps not all is lost, and this is summed up best in Larkin’s famous words from “An Arundel Tomb”, “What will survive of us is love.” Whether these words actually mean what they say is debatable – either the romantic idea that love triumphs death or the realistic view that the couple in the poem had not actually intended to be eternally faithful to each other. Nevertheless, it is clear that Larkin holds a certain disbelief regarding the existence of a happy marriage through his observations of ordinary people, his use of regular structure and the straightforwardness of his writing.
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Philip Larkin seems to have shared Russell’s views, as he rejected the idea of marriage and committed himself to bachelorhood, as he says, “I see life more as an affair of solitude diversified by company than as an affair of company diversified by solitude” (Hirsch, p.114). According to Edward Hirsch, Larkin “never recovered from his parents’ cramped, loveless marriage, a ‘bloody hell’ he vowed never to repeat” (p.118). His parents’ marriage also led him to believe that “Two can live as stupidly as one.” Larkin enjoyed several sexual relationships without ever getting married, showing that he clearly did not agree with public institutions in the 1950s and 60s, but was more representative of the ideas of independence and freedom of choice of the common man.
TWW was published in 1964, and “brought [Larkin] a remarkable measure of popular esteem” (Swarbrick, p.5). In this anthology, Larkin explores the various forms that love can take and what it meant to him. Andrew Swarbrick explains that “love and death remain at the centre of TWW” (p.92). This consolidates the overall theme existing in most of his poems – loss and death. However, Larkin’s biographer, Andrew Motion, chose to look at it from a different point of view: “Reading his poems in chronological sequence, it is clear that his obsession with death is inextricable from his fascination with love and marriage.” (Hirsch, p.120) This suggests that Larkin’s constant fixation with death in TWW and TLD, published in 1955, is actually shadowed by an interest in the inner workings of marriage. Hirsch clarifies, “What Motion calls ‘fascination’ is more accurately described as fascinated revulsion.” (p.120)
Even though Larkin made no secret of his aversion towards marriage (he thought of it as a “revolting institution”), he actually presents a diverse range of feelings towards marriage in his poems. “Love Songs in Age” explores how an older woman feels about love, or the loss of love, when she recovers her faded sheet music that had vanished in the daily frenzy of marriage and family. Only once she enters “widowhood” is she given a chance to pause and reminisce about her youthful feelings about love, “that hidden freshness”. Motion identifies the widow in the poem as Larkin’s mother (Swarbrick, p.108). In Stanza 2, Larkin seems to adopt a tone of optimism, expressing the vivacity of youthful energy with the use of the simile, “spread out like a spring-woken tree”, implying that the widow had moved from the winter to the spring of her life, if only for that moment when she plays her love songs. This optimism seems to carry on to the next stanza, where Larkin describes love as “that much-mentioned brilliance”. This description of love seems to contradict Larkin’s pessimistic views on love, and complies with society’s conventional views that love is brilliant.
However, the use of the word “glare” downplays the “bright incipience” of love, as it suggests that the “brilliance” of love is too much to bear, and therefore impossible. The poem thus ends on a negative note, where the lady in the poem realises that love has not managed to deliver its promises “to solve, and satisfy,” as she is left alone after her husband’s death, and has to admit “lamely” that love had “not done so then, and could not now”, referring to love’s failure to last or to deliver. This poem therefore contradicts the feelings of some individuals, such as G.M. Carstairs, who in 1962, argued that “young people are rapidly making marriage itself more mutually considerate and satisfying” through premarital sex. (Lewis, p.259) “Love Songs in Age” dissipates the idea that marriage is “mutually considerate”, by looking at a marriage that ended too early and left one party alone and in tears, dispelling the fairytale conception of ‘happily ever after’.
Even though TLD was published 9 years earlier than TWW, Larkin shows an early awareness of the reality of marriage, and the negative aspects it entails, suggesting that marriage causes a loss of identity in “Maiden Name”. This poem is about a woman’s role in getting married and is written in second person, such as in “since you were so thankfully confused”. This makes the reader feel drawn into the text, as if the persona is speaking directly to him/her, highlighted by the use of imperatives – “Try whispering it slowly.” The poem was written about Winifred Arnott, with whom Larkin had a brief relationship. This relationship ended when she left for London and became engaged in 1954, which lends to the persona’s tone of betrayal in this poem, such as in “since you’re past and gone”, implying that Arnott’s marriage caused her old self to disappear. The persona insists that the “five light sounds” of her maiden name no longer means “your face,/Your voice, and all your variants of grace”. It is unusual that a name should mean a face and a voice, rather than the person herself, and Larkin might do this in order to point out the different aspects of a person that a name can recall. In its regular rhyme scheme (a,b,b,a,c,c,a) and structure, this poem seems like a conventional love poem, according to society’s ideas. This is highlighted in the intimate tone of “Try whispering it slowly”.
Just like the hidden song sheets in “Love Songs in Age”, the woman’s name in “Maiden Name” has been abandoned in old things, eliciting a rhetorical question from the persona: “Then is it scentless, weightless, strengthless wholly/Untruthful?” The tone of voice here seems uncertain and the repetition of “-less” implies that the woman has been diminished after marrying. The persona is adamant that the woman has lost a part of herself after marrying, as he gushes, “How beautiful you were, and near, and young, /So vivid”, suggesting that she does not have as much of these qualities anymore. This poem therefore argues that marriage leads to the “depreciating” of a woman’s identity and beauty with the extra “luggage” that comes with marriage, referring to the husband. In doing so, Larkin discourages women from getting married and expresses his loss of beliefs in marriage. Nowadays, an increasing number of women are overcoming the problem of losing one’s identity when getting married by simply keeping their maiden name and pairing it with their husband’s name.
The Larkin that is present in TLD seems more sentimental as compared to in TWW, where he is more discerning to the realities of relationships. “Talking in Bed” is about the gap between expectation and reality. The tone of the poem is set in the first line, where “Talking in bed ought to be easiest,” the word “ought” suggesting uncertainty and untruth. It suggests that there is no honesty in all relationships even at its most intimate. This is emphasized by the pun on the word “Lying”, in that the couple is lying next to each other as well as lying to each other. Larkin uses an extended metaphor to compare the relationship in the poem to the disturbing weather outside: “the wind’s incomplete unrest”. Larkin therefore exposes the turmoil of marriage and forces the reader to reconsider whether marriage actually results in security and comfort, or if it causes “incomplete unrest”. Jane Lewis’ essay explains that public institutions in the 1960s attempted to refute the idea that marriages are insecure by setting up marriage counsellors and stressed the “importance of a personally grounded morality” for a happy marriage.
Larkin has a specific style throughout all his poems. Most of them follow a rigid structure, where each stanza has a fixed number of lines. For example, “Talking in Bed” consists of four tercets, which give the appearance of security and regularity. The structure of the poem thereby belies its content of uncertainty. This is also evident in the regular structure of “The Whitsun Weddings”, where there are 8 stanzas of 10 lines each, which also gives the impression that all marriages are standard.
The title poem of TWW is perhaps one of Larkin’s most famous. “The Whitsun Weddings” describes a train ride Larkin took from Hull to London, and in a “frail/travelling coincidence” ends up on the same train all the newlyweds also take on Whitsun Day. The Whitsun Day “celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts, Chapter 2,” (Leach) and falls 50 days after Easter Sunday. It is financially advantageous for couples to be married for taxation reasons on this day, and as Larkin decided to write about Whitsun Day, he implies that marriage is cheap. Larkin uses vivid imagery (sound, sight, smell and touch) and a colloquial tone (“We ran/Behind the backs of houses”) to portray the English countryside through the windows of the train carriage. The images appear like snapshots, giving the reader a sense of immediacy:
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
This serves as an introduction that builds up to the fourth stanza, where the persona finally notices the fanfare and excitement surrounding the train, where “the wedding-days/Were coming to an end.” Larkin describes the newlyweds as “fresh”, implying that they will not last long. He also mentions “the secret like a happy funeral”, an oxymoron suggesting that marriage is joyful, but also signifies the end of freedom for the couple. Another bold figure of speech Larkin uses is the “religious wounding”, which could refer to the sexual anticipation of losing the brides’ virginity that their friends feel or the fact that the religious act of marriage is painful. Lewis clarifies: “Marriage as a public institution had traditionally been supported by a rigid code of Christian sexual morality.” An interesting note about this poem is that Larkin does not mention where the train stops, and this suggests that marriage has no direction, and is therefore uncertain.
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In Stanza 7, Larkin shows how all marriages are the same in that “their lives would all contain this hour”, dissipating any notions that each wedding is unique. On the other hand, Larkin is inevitably caught up with the couples as “We hurried towards London”. He seems to be immersed in the excitement of the Whitsun Weddings, seeing himself as part of them. The image of something as dangerous as an “arrow-shower” changing into cleansing “rain” gives a sense of rebirth and rejuvenation. However, only “somewhere” does it become rain, which could mean that the arrow-shower is still lethal in other places. It could also signify the inevitable breakdown of marriage, as the arrows descend and rain could mean mould and cause floods. Martin Amis elaborates that, to Larkin, “Hull was as dull as rain. Rain was what Larkin felt marriages turned into, rain was what love and desire eventually become.” (http://ghrendhel.tripod.com/textos/amispolitical.htm) This highlights Larkin’s belief that all marriages are banal and dull.
Where Larkin looks at multiple simultaneous weddings in “The Whitsun Weddings”, he focuses on a specific wedding in “The Wedding-Wind”, published in TLD and completed in 1946. This poem explores the feelings of a farmer’s bride a day after her wedding. She is evidently delighted, seen as “my wedding-night was the night of the high wind”, the strong wind suggesting passion. However, the wind could also symbolise unrest, just like in “Talking in Bed”. However, the image in the final line, “Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters”, depicts the woman’s appreciation for being married. It echoes the feelings of most women after they marry, believing that they are on the path to completing their purpose in life. Marriage guidance advocates in the 1960s concurred that “women’s needs were above all for traditional marital relationships.” (Lewis, p.235)
Although “The Wedding-Wind” expresses the woman’s ecstatic mood, Andrew Swarbrick believes that there is “beyond her a lurking sense of threat”. This is evident when the bride is abandoned for a while on her wedding-night, leaving her “stupid in candlelight”. It is interesting as well to note that the husband is mostly absent from the poem, leaving the bride to “stare”. This implies that women are neglected in marriage. The three questions that end the poem suggest uncertainty, and expose “her vulnerability” (Swarbrick, p.45). Larkin thereby conveys the ambiguous feelings of the woman, leaving the reader unsure as to whether marriage brings happiness or loneliness.
The final poem in TWW is “An Arundel Tomb”, which discusses the fate of marriage and love after death. It describes the tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel at Chichester Cathedral that Larkin had visited. The gentleness with which Larkin describes, “One sees, with a sharp tender shock, /His hand withdrawn, holding her hand”, shows the pleasant surprise he felt to see everlasting love set in stone. However, this is dismissed with the next line, “They would not think to lie so long”, which suggests that the couple had not expected to be next to each other for so long, and the pun on the word “lie” – in that they lie next to each other, and also lie to the world that they are in love – just like in “Talking in Bed”, implies that “such faithfulness in effigy” is actually just a fabrication. The final stanza confirms this, as “Time has transfigured them into/Untruth”. As mentioned before, this poem (and thus the entire anthology) ends with “What will survive of us is love.” Yet this has been taken out of context, so the previous one and a half lines have to be looked at:
and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
The repetition of “almost” gives a sense of being so close to the truth, but not actually reaching it; and therefore the last line is thrown into a different perspective. Our “almost-instinct” seems to be our need to believe in everlasting love after death; but since it is only “almost true” and not entirely true, the last line is one that the persona wants to be true, but is not necessarily so. Therefore, Larkin still expresses a loss of beliefs in love and marriage. He commented on “An Arundel Tomb”, “a rather romantic poem I don’t like it much”, which confirms his dislike for the romantic ideas about marriage the poem imparts. As he chose to end the anthology with this poem, it makes it all the more significant that “Love isn’t stronger than death just because statues hold hands for 600 years”, which is what Larkin wrote on the manuscript draft (Swarbrick, p.114).
Even through Larkin’s evident distaste for marriage, his literary executor, Anthony Thwaite, claims that, “The fact that he has never married and has no children doesn’t entail ignorance of, or contempt for, the institution or its usual result.” Larkin rearticulates: “I’ve remained single by choice, and shouldn’t have liked anything else”. Public institutions from 1920-1968 tried to “appealâ€¦to the biologically determined needs of women for traditional marital relationships” (Lewis, p.262) by publicising marriage guidance. Through the fact that they needed to do this, it can be inferred that there were rising divorce rates or fewer marriages in the 1960s, showing that Larkin was part of, and his poetry appealed to, a growing group of people who were unmarried. For the rest of society, Larkin’s poetry was a basis for reconsidering the purpose and effect of marriage.
Larkin’s most effective technique, arguably, of portraying his messaging is his use of the casual, colloquial tone paired with enjambement that imitates daily speech, which is easily understandable and allows him to connect with people from different walks of life. Thus, it is easy for the reader to comprehend Larkin’s views about marriage and his poems make the reader reconsider what marriage actually constitutes. Is it imprisonment, a “happy funeral”, an “almost-instinct” or is it a loss of identity? Regardless of the answer, Philip Larkin effectively conveys his message through the use of regular rhythm, rigid structure, enjambement, imagery and observations of ordinary people. Since Larkin never married, most of his poems are a generalisation of marriages that he observed and felt what marriage was like. Thus, we cannot whole-heartedly agree with all his views. As Larkin chose the path of bachelorhood, he probably used poetry as a replacement for marriage.
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