Lesson on 'The Whitsun Weddings' by Philip Larkin
This is a wonderful and challenging poem, packed with observational details which combine the event of a train journey in the Whitsun heat with the journey through married life that has just begun for newly-wed couples boarding the train. It is best suited for study in Yr 10 or above. Larkin's work frequently appears in A level English specifications and the ideas presented here could be adapted for work with Post-16 students.
- To explore how a poet uses language to observe and comments on ordinary lives.
- To understand the cultural and historical contexts in which the poem was written.
- The Poetry Archive recording of Philip Larkin reading 'The Whitsun Weddings'
- Data projector, Interactive whiteboard or OHP
- Large sheets of paper for mapping activity
- Library and internet resources on mid-1950s fashion and train travel (optional)
Teaching sequence of activities
Listen to Larkin's Poetry Archive reading of 'The Whitsun Weddings' at least once. (The text of the poem can also be projected.) Preferably after a second listening, ask students to jot down their initial impressions of the poem as well as their ideas about the journeys described in the poem and the period in which it is set.
Share first impressions from the starter. Then begin to focus on the journeys. Where does one journey start and end? (You might want to explain that the train journey starts in Hull - the 'fish dock' - where Larkin lived, and follows the route of the Great Northern Railway to Kings Cross station in London.) When might the poem be set? Are there any other journeys in the poem?
Larkin began writing 'The Whitsun Weddings' in 1957, and spent over a year drafting it. It might be useful to use part of his own account of the experience which inspired the poem with students at this stage. He wrote:
'You couldn't be on that train without feeling the young lives all starting off, and that just for a moment you were touching them. Doncaster, Retford, Grantham, Newark, Peterborough, and at every station more wedding parties. It was wonderful, a marvellous afternoon.' (From Haffenden (1980) as cited in Tolley 1997.)
Ask your students (preferably working in small groups) to either:
- design a map (or maps) of the different journeys they have found in the poem. They should show the shape of the journey, mark on the sights and also pay attention to how the heat is described at different points in the poem. Short quotations and carefully selected colours and images should be used to reflect the mood. Time permitting, students could carry out some research on 1950s period fashion and trains. Maps should be shared with the whole class. Or:
- capture the contrasting moods inside and outside the railway carriage in a series of tableaux or freeze-frames captioned by short quotations from the poem. Once the tableaux are ready, view them as a class and use thought-tracking to explore how the poem's narrator becomes curious and begins to reflect on the events 'down the long cool platforms'; the thoughts of the people on the platforms; and the thoughts of the newly-wed couples. Or:
- investigate the following topics: how Larkin uses the senses in his poem; references to heat and how they are used; the feelings of the wedding parties; the feelings of the newly-weds; the links between the journeys described. Present findings to the rest of the class.
Once activities are complete you could draw the whole group back together to focus specifically on the links between the journeys and on Larkin's choice of final image, the 'sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain', which swells as the train slows to a halt and the travellers are released from their 'travelling coincidence' on that sunny afternoon.
Two areas to think about and report back on briefly. Each could be commented on by half of the class.
- Jean Hartley has said of Larkin that he observes 'ordinary people doing ordinary things'. To what extent do you agree with this statement in the light of your experience of the poem?
- How much is this a poem of a particular time and place? Given the way in which Larkin uses the train journey as a metaphor for married life, could he have still written the same poem if he were alive today?
- Compare with other poems capturing events, journeys or places, such as 'Everyone Sang' by Siegfried Sassoon, 'Crossing the Loch' by Kathleen Jamie and 'Earthed' by U A Fanthorpe.
- Larkin kept meticulous notebooks containing clippings from newspapers, adverts, sketches, letters and a substantial number of drafts. He wrote 34 draft pages for 'The Whitsun Weddings' (Tolley 1997). If you have access to Tolley's book (details below) you could read drafts of Larkin's poem and explore further his evolving choices of language and form.
- Larkin at Work: a study of Larkin's mode of composition as seen in his workbooks by A T Tolley (1997), published by The University of Hull Press. This contains a chapter on the writing of the poem.
- Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life by Andrew Motion, published by Faber & Faber.