Once, I heard the music broadcaster Peter Easton talk on his BBC Radio Scotland programme The Beat Patrol about the then new rap act Public Enemy. “If you think you don’t like rap, listen to Public Enemy. If you don’t like them, just leave it, because Public Enemy are as good as rap gets.”
I stole the formula once in talking about Philip Larkin. “If you don’t like ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ ”, I said smart-aleckly, “that might mean that you don’t like Philip Larkin, because ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is as good as Larkin gets.”
Although I didn’t read Larkin in school, my first acquaintance of him was in an anthology which was designed as a school text book, Poetry 1900 to 1965, edited by George MacBeth ( London : Longman/Faber 1967). MacBeth described “The Whitsun Weddings” as “one of the major poems written since 1945” and he convinced me. Its tight structure is similar to many other of Larkin’s most famous poems like “Church Going” or “Reasons for Attendance” or “Aubade”, but it also has a great narrative with a pulsing energy, resonant of the train movement it describes. I still love how Larkin combines the story of the wedding parties with the detailed description of the changing landscape and his personal reflection, in language which is both formal and carefully controlled but still feels idiomatic and conversational. I first read it before my first rail journeys south from Scotland towards and into London, and at least part of those experiences were shaped by “The Whitsun Weddings”.
Of course it is a pre-1978 poem. That was when the current May public holidays, on the first Monday and last Monday of the month, came into force, replacing the Whitsun bank holiday. Whitsun was a term more commonly used in England for the Christian festival which I knew as Pentecost. So the poignancy of the poem’s title for me derives, in addition to its alliteration, from this expression of both a specific English landscape and a now distant past.
“The Whitsun Weddings” makes an interesting diptych with this other famous poem. While Larkin’s train journeys from north to south during the day and during a holiday, Auden’s train travels from south to north, overnight, doing its job.