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This poem lends its title to the collection, and includes a number of themes and ideas present in a number of others. It focuses on a train journey, along the Hull towards London line, informed from the beginning of the second stanza: “A slow and stopping curve southward we kept”. Both the unusual word ordering and the frequent use of sibilance, “slow” “stopping” “southward”, gave a sense of the train and its journey, the “s” “sh” perhaps reminding us of the sound.
Despite its importance to the collection, it becomes apparent in the first stanza that the persona (not necessarily Larkin, remember) is unaware of the religious implications of Whitsun. The poem begins in a hurry, “That Whitsun, I was late getting away,” though the pace soon slows on the train’s departure, “All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense / of being in a hurry gone,” the repetition and patterning augmenting this feel. “At first,” the persona says, “I didn’t notice what a noise the weddings made,” not remembering that Pentecost is a traditional day for marriages. In the 1950s, many couples would have married on Whitsun, a holiday day, and would have taken the train for a honeymoon in London. Once the persona notices, he begins to observe the them, “And saw it all again in different terms.”
As in a number of poems, there is a suggestion in the voice of “looking down” upon the class of people. The families are presented through a series of ugly images, “seamy foreheads” “broad belts” “loud and fat” “uncle shouting smut”, while the girls are somehow set off “unrealy from the rest”, “parodies of fashion”, “perms”, “jewellery-substitutes”, and the fashionable colour listing: “lemons, mauves and olive-ochres”. It suggests that there is something artificial about the marriages.
The impression develops into the next few stanzas. However, there is a sense of ambiguity about the imagery. “Each face seemed to define / Just what it saw departing”, for example, can be taken negatively, as the “dull” thing the children “frown at” – in “departing” there is a sense of something being lost. However, it can also be the beginning of something, the start of a new life together.
Similarly, “fathers never knew / Success so huge and wholly farcical” raises the question of whose success the weddings are – the couples, in their new lives; the parents in finally being rid of them? Despite the “success”, the marriages are also “wholly farcical” – nonsensical – and are like “a happy funeral” – a complete oxymoron. There can be irony in “free at last”, as the couples are no longer free at all: now perpetually bonded. “Loaded with the sum of all they saw” suggests the financial drain of a marriage, and the worthlessness of the gifts around them “all they saw” – they can’t be used.
Perhaps the contradictive, ambiguous nature of the description is because that is what marriage is: a string of contradictions, and a great unknown: for some, it is the beginning of something, but for others, it is a mistake, and an ending, no more than “a religious wounding”. Similarly, there is irony in “Free at last” – for the couples now together are forever the opposite of “free”, though they have escaped those on the platforms.
The persona, as the poem progresses is gradually drawn into the lives of the couples, part of the reason, perhaps, that Larkin confessed to enjoying being “on the edge of things”. From the persona’s original isolation, “At first, I didn’t notice what a noise / The weddings made” at the beginning, where the singular pronoun stresses the difference between the two entities, by the sixth stanza, the persona has been drawn into the proceedings: “We shuffled towards London,” the collective pronoun telling much.
Yet, even so, as we “shuffled towards London”, the persona still feels ambiguity. The direct voice, for example, a typical Larkinesque characteristic, seems ambivalent, and perhaps more negative than positive: “I nearly died” as if the marriages are somehow a “death” of something – what is “departing”.
Still, the descriptions as the train moves are now being shared with the observer, in his description: “They watches…” Larkin presents in accurate detail the passing scenery on the route: “An Odeon” (cinema), “a cooling tower” and “someone running up to bowl” referring to a cricketer. Though the couples do not realise it, the persona, still partially an outsider marvels in the moment of “travelling coincidence” that will soon come to an end, “how their lives would all contain this hour.”
As the journey reaches its end, do the “standing Pullmans” (luxurious coaches) and “walls of blackened moss” create a sense of constriction? Perhaps, but the reference to the marriages now seem more positive. The “travelling coincidence” is ready to be “loosed with all the power / That being changed can bring”. Though this journey is over, it does not symbolise death, but rather a platform change, to a new journey: “with all the power” of the “change”.
The final lines are memorable, and yet, ambiguous.
The arrow-shower reminds us of Cupid’s arrow, bringing with it all the ideas of love. Perhaps the “power” contained is now ready to be released like from a bow. Of course, perhaps it also reminds us of death, and the “rain” could be tears. Still, in “somewhere”, vague and distant, there is a sense that, at least for the moment, this “power” will be positive… Perhaps “somewhere”, a marriage is dissolving into “rain”, but here, imbued with hope for the future, all these charged emotions are released with joy.