Themes: Women, Marraige, Religion, Passage of Time,
This poem describes a train journey on a hot Saturday afternoon. Newly wed couples board at each station. Larkin watches them, and their families left behind on the platform. He thinks about the transition that marriage represents, and the 'frail travelling coincidence' which the passengers share as they journey onward.
Time and voice: The poem is written in the past tense and the first person. It is based on an autobiographical experience, which Larkin had in 1955. Whitsun was originally a church festival where newly baptised people wore white. This makes it an appropriate holiday to associate with weddings, which are also festivals of change, where the bride wears white.
Structure: The poem has eight rhymed stanzas, of ten lines each. The rhyme scheme is ABABCDECDE. The lines in each stanza have five stresses except the second line, which has only two. The shorter line introduces a visual contrast and may suggest to you the alternating but regular rhythm of a train. This rhythm is also created by run-on lines which pause briefly in the middle of sentences: 'all sense / Of being in a hurry gone'; 'we ran / Behind the backs of houses'.
Language and imagery: The language of the first part of the poem appeals to our senses - the feel of the 'hot cushions', the sight of cars' 'blinding windscreens' reflecting the sun, the smell of the fish-dock, of grass and of the train's upholstery. A warm, sleepy atmosphere is created which draws the reader in. Larkin gives us quick snapshots of the passing landscape. As in the poem 'Here', we see industry as well as countryside. The canal's 'industrial froth' and the 'new and nondescript' towns with 'acres of dismantled cars' suggest that Larkin doesn't find modern scenery entirely sympathetic. When he finally notices the wedding parties he is ruthless in his description of their style - the women?s dresses are 'parodies of fashion', they are 'grinning' (a word often associated with stupidity) and 'pomaded' (covered in hair gel). The mothers are 'loud and fat', the uncles 'shout ****' the fathers are sweaty ('seamy foreheads'). You might consider whether Larkin's presentation of the wedding parties also reflects his view of their social class.
Gradually, Larkin and the reader become involved in the moment of transition when the newly married couples leave their families and join the train. This 'moving on' is both actual and symbolic. Women 'share the secret like a happy funeral': a conjunction of words, which at first seems contradictory. How can a funeral be happy, or a wedding resemble a funeral? Larkin uses the odd juxtaposition to suggest the conflicting emotions, which marriage inspires - it is both joyful, and represents a loss. Part of this loss can be a loss of sexual virginity, implied by the 'religious wounding', which awes the girls.
The vocabulary of Larkin's poems is typically familiar (look for everyday words like 'perm', 'nylon', 'Odeon') but in the last two stanzas the imagery becomes more metaphorical. London in the sun seems like a golden field, its postal districts 'packed like squares of wheat', the train with all its passengers is compared to 'an arrow-shower' shooting forward - a positive image of shared experience. Change brings energy and 'power'. Larkin stands halfway between involvement and detachment - observing marriage's rite of passage without directly participating in it.