For many, Philip Larkin's 'The Whitsun Weddings' is one of the greatest of 20th century British poems. Famously, it tells the story of a train journey, where the poetic speaker encounters numerous newlyweds. Images of fecundity and completion, as well as ritual and wounding, flesh out the poem. Until now, however, no one had noted the remarkable similarities between this seminal text, and an earlier poem by Noel Coward - until a Cambridge visiting fellow, doing research at Pembroke College, spotted the affinities, astonishing in their way.
Dr Todd Swift, currently at Pembroke (and director of Eyewear Publishing) says: 'Few recall that Coward wrote a lot of what he called verse - some songs, some light verse, and some poetry. His work had an impact on Larkin, in terms of imagery and style.'
The Coward poem in question is called 'Honeymoon 1905' (usually dated around 1907-1922, according to Barry Day) and is a long poem, about the length of Larkin's, and is a striking model for the later poem. It begins in Paddington train station, where a newlywed couple are preparing to board a train:
'They got into a train/ And, having settled themselves into a reserved carriage,/ Sought relief, with jokes and nervous laughter,/ From the sudden, frightening awareness of their marriage.'
Coward's poem continues to offer the themes Larkin adopted:
'Caught in the web their fate had spun/ They watched the suburbs sliding by,' and proceeds with images of countryside, suburban and pastoral, flashing by.
There is even a reference to rain. The poems are different, in that Larkin multiplied the couples, and Coward's poem, a little like 'On Chesil Beach' ends with the awkward couple alone, facing their first night together. This is clearly the template for one of Larkin's greatest works, and an exciting footnote in his estimable career.