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Authors: Philip Larkin

The Whitsun Weddings

BOOK: The Whitsun Weddings
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The Whitsun Weddings



Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows

And traffic all night north; swerving through fields

Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,

And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields

Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude

Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,

And the widening river’s slow presence,

The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud,

Gathers to the surprise of a large town:

Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster

Beside grain-scattered streets, barge-crowded water,

And residents from raw estates, brought down

The dead straight miles by stealing flat-faced trolleys,

Push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires –

Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies,

Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers –

A cut-price crowd, urban yet simple, dwelling

Where only salesmen and relations come

Within a terminate and fishy-smelling

Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum,

Tattoo-shops, consulates, grim head-scarfed wives;

And out beyond its mortgaged half-built edges

Fast-shadowed wheat-fields, running high as hedges,

Isolate villages, where removed lives

Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands

Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,

Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,

Luminously-peopled air ascends;

And past the poppies bluish neutral distance

Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach

Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:

Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.

‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed

The whole time he was at the Bodies, till

They moved him.’ Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,

Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,

Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took

My bit of garden properly in hand.’

Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags –

‘I’ll take it.’ So it happens that I lie

Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags

On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown

The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.

I know his habits – what time he came down,

His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways –

Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk

Who put him up for summer holidays,

And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind

Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed

Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,

And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,

And at his age having no more to show

Than one hired box should make him pretty sure

He warranted no better, I don’t know.

For nations vague as weed,

For nomads among stones,

Small-statured cross-faced tribes

And cobble-close families

In mill-towns on dark mornings

Life is slow dying.

So are their separate ways

Of building, benediction,

Measuring love and money

Ways of slow dying.

The day spent hunting pig

Or holding a garden-party, 

Hours giving evidence

Or birth, advance

On death equally slowly.

And saying so to some

Means nothing; others it leaves

Nothing to be said.

She kept her songs, they took so little space,

    The covers pleased her:

One bleached from lying in a sunny place,

One marked in circles by a vase of water,

One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,

    And coloured, by her daughter –

So they had waited, till in widowhood

She found them, looking for something else, and stood

Relearning how each frank submissive chord

    Had ushered in

Word after sprawling hyphenated word,

And the unfailing sense of being young

Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein

    That hidden freshness, sung,

That certainty of time laid up in store

As when she played them first. But, even more,

The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,

    Broke out, to show

Its bright incipience sailing above,

Still promising to solve, and satisfy,

And set unchangeably in order. So

    To pile them back, to cry,

Was hard, without lamely admitting how

It had not done so then, and could not now.

Hurrying to catch my Comet

    One dark November day,

Which soon would snatch me from it

    To the sunshine of Bombay,

I pondered pages Berkeley

    Not three weeks since had heard,

Perceiving Chatto darkly

    Through the mirror of the Third.

Crowds, colourless and careworn,

    Had made my taxi late,

Yet not till I was airborne

    Did I recall the date –

That day when Queen and Minister

    And Band of Guards and all

Still act their solemn-sinister

    Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall.

It used to make me throw up,

    These mawkish nursery games:

O when will England grow up?

    – But I outsoar the Thames,

And dwindle off down Auster

    To greet Professor Lal

(He once met Morgan Forster),

My contact and my pal.

Giant whispering and coughing from

Vast Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on spaces

Precede a sudden scuttle on the drum,

‘The Queen’, and huge resettling. Then begins

A snivel on the violins:

I think of your face among all those faces,

Beautiful and devout before

Cascades of monumental slithering,

One of your gloves unnoticed on the floor

Beside those new, slightly-outmoded shoes.

Here it goes quickly dark. I lose

All but the outline of the still and withering

Leaves on half-emptied trees. Behind

The glowing wavebands, rabid storms of chording

By being distant overpower my mind

All the more shamelessly, their cut-off shout

Leaving me desperate to pick out

Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding. 

Slowly the women file to where he stands

Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair,

Dark suit, white collar. Stewards tirelessly

Persuade them onwards to his voice and hands,

Within whose warm spring rain of loving care

Each dwells some twenty seconds.

, the deep American voice demands,

And, scarcely pausing, goes into a prayer

Directing God about this eye, that knee.

Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled

Like losing thoughts, they go in silence; some

Sheepishly stray, not back into their lives

Just yet; but some stay stiff, twitching and loud

With deep hoarse tears, as if a kind of dumb

And idiot child within them still survives

To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice

At last calls them alone, that hands have come

To lift and lighten; and such joy arrives

Their thick tongues blort, their eyes squeeze grief, a crowd

Of huge unheard answers jam and rejoice –

What’s wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:

By now, all’s wrong. In everyone there sleeps

A sense of life lived according to love.

To some it means the difference they could make

By loving others, but across most it sweeps

As all they might have done had they been loved.

That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache,

As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps,

Spreads slowly through them – that, and the voice above

, and all time has disproved.

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes

Like New Orleans reflected on the water,

And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter

Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,

Everyone making love and going shares –

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles

Others may license, grouping round their chairs

Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,

While scholars
nod around unnoticed

Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,

Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City

Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,

Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,

Shaped to the comfort of the last to go

As if to win them back. Instead, bereft

Of anyone to please, it withers so,

Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,

Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.

The music in the piano stool. That vase.

BOOK: The Whitsun Weddings
5.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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