Sunday, October 18, 2020

'How Their Lives Would All Contain This Hour'

“Secular though it is, the poem concerns a sacrament.” 

Traditionally speaking there are seven -- baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, order and matrimony -- though Protestants may recognize only baptism and the Lord's Supper. Loosely, other rites are sometimes called sacraments. Philip Larkin – never married, childless, by no means a believer – completed “The Whitsun Weddings” on this date, October 18, in 1958, three and a half years after the train ride that marked its genesis. The passage at the top is from James Booth’s treatment of the poem in Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love (2014). Booth rightly calls the poem “the greatest masterpiece of [Larkin’s] new style.”


Those who read Larkin as a dour nihilist, an inveterate party-pooper, misread him. “The Whitsun Weddings” is novel-like in the sense of being a sympathetic, imaginative projection into people unlike himself, without resort to sentimentality.  As he sees the wedding parties at each train station, he thinks: 

“. . .none  

Thought of the others they would never meet  

Or how their lives would all contain this hour.”


Larkin notes the humble details of mid-century, middle-class English life without snobbery or condescension. His pace is thoughtful and almost leisurely. But the concluding lines transcend the merely documentary:


“We slowed again,

And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled

A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower  

Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” 

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