Philip Larkin’s centenary: ‘ Down Cemetery Road ‘, a review of The Whitsun Weddings by D. J. Enright.

Jot 101 Philip Larkin The Whitsun Weddings coverBy the time The Whitsun Weddings had appeared in 1964 Larkin had become a major voice in contemporary poetry. As such he deserved a decent reviewer and he got one in D. J. Enright, a poet and critic two years older, who had reviewed XX Poems. The irony ( if that is the right word) is that the review of The Whitsun Weddings appeared in the New Statesman. Fast forward to the furore that accompanied the biography by Andrew Motion and the published letters edited by Anthony Thwaite, when left-wing readers of the  ‘Staggers’ were among those  who denounced the racist and xenophobic attitude of Larkin that he must have held at the time when The Whitsun Weddings came out. Of course Larkin, being Larkin, had kept his politics and racism out of this second collection.

Enright remarks that the poet who ‘ wrote like an angel ‘was not averse to swearing in print, but felt that  his  ‘cock and balls’ (from ‘Sunny Prestatyn’)  and ‘get stewed ‘ ( from ‘ A Study of Reading Habits’ ) just didn’t ‘read well.’ We feel differently now, of course, but back then established poets didn’t swear on paper. Enright isn’t put off by the bad language, but does feel that Larkin has a ‘valetudinarian attitude towards life ‘, although he couldn’t be called a debunker. He occasionally patronises his characters ( like Arnold in ‘ Self’s the Man’), but he doesn’t sneer at them.

‘If anyone takes a beating in this book, it’s the author himself. If Mr Larkin’s cheek doesn’t sport a ready tear, nonetheless compassion for others is never too far away; and there are even rare intimations of a sort of muted glory. He writes of failure, or insufficiency rather, or rather of velleities and second thoughts, of dubious buses not too bitterly missed, of doubts about doubts, and there is a gentleness., even a dry sweetness, to his tone of voice.’


The debunking, of course, was to come in the next collection, High Windows, with such poems as  ‘Posterity’ and ‘Vers de Societe’.  By now Larkin had become a deep dyed anti-intellectual, possible through his relationship with Monica Jones, whose extraordinary refusal to publish anything in her career as an academic, bolstered Larkin’s already strong negative feeling towards academic research ( ‘asking that ass about his fool research’ ).


None of this is anticipated in The Whitsun Weddings, however. Enright’s main complaint is that Larkin’s melancholia was apt to be ‘bleak and blank’ in such a poem as ‘Toads Revisited’, where ‘ leisure ‘ and ‘ work’ are not sufficiently defined. If Larkin, Enright intimates, could not find much pleasure in lying on the grass in the sunshine, how did he gain comfort from his work at the Library? He doesn’t actually say. Similarly, in ‘Self’s the Man ‘, Enright wonders why Larkin argues that being a bachelor is to be preferred to being married and seeing your wife every day. Larkin doesn’t mention the physical pleasures that come with marriage. To Enright, Larkin sees ‘serpents everywhere’ he disposes sadly but nimbly of the alternatives and never makes a choice’.

Enright also finds Larkin’s glum conclusion to ‘ Dockery and Son’, where the choice of whether or not to have a son seem ‘ equally unpreferable ‘ as an example of the poet’s ‘explicit and unappealing’ melancholia.  He calls Larkin’s title poem a ‘nice Short View of England from British Railways ‘, but isn’t sure about its ‘somewhat grand climax ‘of an ‘arrow shower / sent out of sight somewhere becoming rain.’ In this your Jotter concurs. The three prizes of the collection, Enright feels, are ‘An Arundel Tomb’, with its famous last line, ‘Ambulances’ and not surprisingly, ‘ Mr Bleaney ‘ ( not a gloomy piece, but a shiveringly grim one’).

Interestingly, Enright reveals at the end of his review that one of Larkins’ admirers is ‘ at least one Chinese educated Chinese poetess’ of his acquaintance  whose ‘classical education is less than distinguished for fostering a catholicity of interest or a taste for the frail or frivolous or far-flung.’ In conclusion, Larkin reminds Enright of Edward Thomas, ‘whose melancholy seems to me, however, a mite less complacent, a mite richer’, or at times, ‘ a mid-century’ Emily Dickinson, or Stevie Smith ‘turned peevish’ [.RM. Healey]




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