Presence of Failure and Disappointment in The Whitsun Weddings

‘A record of failure and disappointment’ is a reductive assessment of a poignant collection of poetry that explores the nature of existence and the conflicts, contrasts and contradictions of life. Larkin presents experience in a mixture of delicate tones (“your hands, tiny in all that air”), stark criticisms (“grim head-scarfed wives”) and moving ambiguity (“Here is unfenced existence / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”) The complexity and variety of emotions presented in the collection leaves any attempt of a conclusive definition incomplete. Although the collection contains themes of failure and disappointment, both for the poet and universally, this alone cannot describe the collection. Larkin presents the uncertainty and fickle nature of humanity and criticises a culture that has lost essence with unnatural “nylon gloves, and jewellery substitutes”. Warren Hope (1997) described Larkin as having “a human obsession with lost possibilities and potential.” Poems such as ‘Love Songs in Age’, ‘Home is So Sad’ and ‘Faith Healing’ justify the view that The Whitsun Weddings considers failures and disappointment, particularly failure to satisfy and fulfill expectations and the disappointment that follows. Different considerations (such as love songs being unable “to solve, and satisfy” and reflections on the home as a “shot at how things ought to be” but coming “Long fallen wide”) reflect a poignant view that aspirations and expectations are often disappointed and expectations of what “ought to be” end in failure. However, ‘Faith Healing’ is a significant example to represent the limits of assessing the collection as ‘a record of failure and disappointment.’ The poem considers the incapability of life to satisfy and lost opportunities (“all they might have done had they been loved.”) A seemingly insignificant detail provides greater importance to the reflections in the poem than disappointment alone – “That nothing cures.” Through this phrase Larkin considers an aspect of inevitability in suffering in ‘Faith Healing’ as in ‘Love Songs in Age’, making other poems more meaningful. The short, almost absurd situation of ‘As Bad as a Mile’ considers “failure spreading back up the arm. / Earlier and earlier” combining poignantly with the “had not then” of ‘Love Songs in Age’ to reflect disappointment as unavoidable. ‘New critics’ and ‘Intentional Fallacy’ interpretations may see the idea of an “immense slackening ache” from a loveless life not as universal but a theme in the context of the poem, considering the subjects of the poem as loveless or insecure and therefore enduring what “nothing cures.” The biographical context (with the remainder of the collection) suggests a greater universality; Larkin may be using the context of faith-healing as an example of the human condition of holding “less and less of luck” and more of inevitable disappointment and failure; the sense of inevitability presents life as intransigent just as other poems such as ‘MCMXIV’ begin with hope and end in broken expectations. Despite the tones of an endless lack of fulfilment, Larkin presents fragile hope in the collection; the invariable ambiguity in these instances leaves the extent of optimism to interpretation. In ‘Faith Healing’ Larkin considers the reactions “as if a kind of dumb / And idiot child within them survives”. Feminist critics may consider this phrase as scornful of women with the accustomed sardonic approach of Larkin criticising “the women” as the primary attendees in ‘Faith Healing’; however, a tone is also suggested of innocence and childhood insecurity and combines with the recurrent ambiguity to suggest innocent hope. The ambiguity in the title poem is possibly most significant; “A sense of falling, like an arrow shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” An imposition of a negative interpretation may consider the most important phrase “sent out of sight” which could suggest that such hope is unattainable and the focus and precision of power of love in the arrows melts in to rain, almost as a pathetic fallacy. Alternatively, the image may be one of fertility, virility and great strength in the “rain”; the connotations of change can seem extremely hopeful, which suggests Larkin maintains faith that love has the potential of transformation. The removed perspective of Larkin is fundamental to the collection and is described as “tenderly observant” by Sir John Betjeman. Marxist and Feminist critics may consider the posthumous reputation of Larkin as racist, sexist and extremely right-wing in interpreting observations such as “the cut-price crowd, urban yet simple” and “girls / In parodies of fashion” as befitting to these qualities. However, the recurrence of such mild and muted criticisms seems to refer to the wider social context of the collection in which his possible difficulty in accepting values contradicting those of his austere upbringing (particularly the influence of his father) appear.Larkin wrote the collection in a period of significant change in Britain – the 1950s and 1960s, as the nation was physically and socially rebuilt after the devastation of two World Wars. The recurring undertones of the physical changes in Britain such as the negative connotations of the “window shows a strip of building land” could support the qualities imposed on Larkin by his classification as a member of ‘the Movement’. ‘The Movement’ was a classification for a number of writers at the time such as Larkin, Kingsley Amis and John Wain, and is defined as “a reaction against the excesses of modernism” (Baldwick, 1991, p. 142). However, ‘the Movement’ cannot define Larkin entirely. The combination of his distant perspective and mild disapproval seems to show more of his personal isolation from his idealised views in poems such as ‘MCMXIV’ and emphasises his discomfort with aspects of society.Poems such as ‘MCMXIV’ and ‘Nothing to be Said’ reflect the separation of Larkin as they consider “life is slow dying” for “cobble-close families” and “such innocence”. The perspective in many of his poems including three observing from a train and others with a “cinematic quality” (Hope, 1997, p. 32) reflect his isolation and separation from society. This separation gives the collection a tentative quality in which Larkin may often seem desolate, although his conflict between objective observation and the isolated perspective as a distanced observer create much of the ambiguity and mixture of emotions. ‘Mr. Bleaney’ reflects an obsession throughout Larkin’s life: death. Death is not a significant theme within the collection although much is revealed about his related concerns. “[T]hat how we live measures our own nature” returns to the desperate influence of isolation and a possible fear that his self-imposed separation and reputation as the ‘hermit of Hull’ would be all that is remembered of his existence. The piercing assessment of “having no more to show / Than one hired box should make him pretty sure / He warranted no better” introduces an important question of purpose in the collection. Larkin seems insecure, unsure of achieving anything in life, he may be concerned about being no more than the “residents from raw estates” and, neither having “such innocence” as the past nor sharing “desires” for “cheap suits, red kitchen-ware.” This lack of self-esteem and sense of belonging is a powerful characteristic of the collection.The poems contain more than disappointment; they also consider “all the power / That being changed can give” and a possible remorse within Larkin both of not grasping love in his own life and observing the general shortcoming of hopes. The reference to “all they might have done had they been loved” reflects much of his personal struggle between selfless love and his self-imposed isolation, an example of which is his decision to spend his life in Hull, isolated from the literary and academic societies of his Oxford education and exceptional talent. Larkin understands the power of love and affection in his powerful symbolism such as “Its bright insipience sailing above” yet he seems divided between his cynicism of that “much-mentioned brilliance, love,” and the undeniable desire for affection, “Leaving me desperate to pick out / Your hands”. Through poems such as ‘Mr. Bleaney’ and his separated, seemingly longing perspective in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, Larkin seems to exuded insecurity and uncertainty – “Life is first boredom, then fear.” The ambiguity in his poetry and his often negative reflections after seeming hope presents a poignant realism but is also indicative of his personal struggles between the tribulations of love and his self-comforting isolation. His isolation in society, feelings of inadequacy, and inability to commit to change reflect fear in Larkin. He stated in his three stages of writing poetry that the very first is “when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it” (Hope, 1997, p. 30). The obscurity and ambiguity in the entire collection reflects an “obsession” with uncertainty in love, in work and in purpose, and in being misunderstood. While the collection creates a sense of disappointment and failure, to describe what Larkin has to say simply as failure and disappointment is inconceivable; this would be an attempt to summarise an insight into personal conflict, insecurity and the paradox of life in two words.