Hvítasunnubrúðhlaupin – Philip Larkin’s best known poem found to be based on previously lost Old Norse manuscript

The poet Philip Larkin might be said to have been the bard of modern Britain, narrating the post-war transition from a boasting, marauding Empire to a world of rickety consumer goods, stale cigarette smoke – and everywhere, the smell of mildew and rain on concrete. But startling new research has revealed that this most modern of poets apparently based his best known poem on a medieval manuscript. In fact, “The Whitsun Weddings”, published in 1964, is not an original composition at all but a translation of a much older work entitled Hvítasunnubrúðhlaupin.

The manuscript was discovered in this bookstore, not far from the Scandinavian Institute in London

Professor Kaj Kage of the Leyton Technical Institute identified the manuscript: “Every now and then my bookseller, Johnny Openhouse on Paradise Street, gives me a tip when he hears of a manuscript fragment on the market. They’re normally grotty old bits of Books of Hours, but he hit the jackpot this time”. Prof. Kage was able to view and photograph the fragment before it was sold to a private collector, and in that time he transcribed the poem. “It was a bizarre piece. The language is Old Norse but the setting is in England. It seems to tell the story of someone following a wedding procession by carriage, and as the procession travels on, more wedding parties join the caravan”. Larkin’s poem tells the story of someone (presumably Larkin himself) riding a train from Hull to London which picks up couples beginning their honeymoons at each station it passes. “It’s not hard to see where Larkin got the idea!”, smirks Kage.

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Illumination from the manuscript depicting one of the honeymoon carriages. Courtesy of Prof. Kage.

The professor points out that the form is unusual for Old Norse poetry: “It’s normally very strict stuff, but this poem has a much looser, more dream-like quality. I can only think of one other poem that even approaches this level of metrical depravity: A scatological mental breakdown of a poem called Grettisfærsla”. Pressed to explain the origins of Hvítasunnubrúðhlaupin, Prof. Kage suggests that it may have been composed by an Icelander visiting the East Midlands or perhaps East Anglia in the 1400s. “The poet refers to the ancient Kingdom of Lindsey, which today is in Lincolnshire, and they conclude their journey in London”, says Kage. “Although they occasionally use archaisms, including some gauche references to Old Norse mythology, there are a few later constructions which make me confidently place the poem in the Late Middle Ages”.

Prof. Kaj Kage, renowned Scandinavianist, who discovered Larkin’s inspiration in a medieval manuscript

But if Larkin borrowed the general premise of The Whitsun Weddings from Hvítasunnubrúðhlaupin, how close is the parallel otherwise? “Well, there’s no doubt that Larkin modernised a lot of details. Let me give you some examples. The original has ladies wearing guðvefir glófar (“god-woven gloves”) which Larkin makes into plain-old “nylon gloves”.

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“God-woven clothes” of the brides adjusted to “nylon gloves” by Larkin.

The original has the procession passing allvangr einnstöpull einn (“a muster field … a steeple”) which Larkin hilariously turned into “An Odeon … a cooling tower”. The poet’s use of mythological references is also a striking difference. The Old Norse original speaks of kílar meinblandnir með löðri Élivága (“streams polluted with the froth of Élivágar”) – Élivágar were poisoned streams in the other world according to Old Norse myth.

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Élivágar, the poisonous river of Nordic mythology, transformed by Larkin into a river with industrial pollution.

Larkin makes it a bit more mundane: “Canals with floatings of industrial froth”. The poet also refers to one of the Norns – beings that decide ones fate – called Verðandi: … búit at leysask með efnit er Verðandi gefr “ready to be released with the promise that Verðandi gives”. Larkin has “ready to be loosed with all the power / That being changed can give”.

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Larkin, the man who is being accused of having copied a medieval text

How did Larkin come across the Old Norse poem though? Prof. Kage responds excitedly: “Well, Larkin was employed as the librarian at the University of Hull from 1955 until 1985. It may be that he came across the poem there, perhaps shown to him by an academic or a local antiquarian bookseller”. Kage is unsure whether Larkin saw the very same manuscript fragment uncovered by Johnny Openhouse. “He might have done, but there may also be another manuscript witness somewhere in the Hull area”. The professor points out that there were Icelanders operating in Eastern England in the middle of the 1400s, especially in Hull: “The project England‘s Immigrants 1330-1550 lists 43 Icelanders in fifteenth-century Hull. Could one of them have been the poem’s original author?”.

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Larkin’s poem with markings by the Exeter Poem Group. https://exeterpoemgroupproject-blog.tumblr.com

Professor Kage pauses for a moment before revealing whether he prefers Larkin’s modern update of the poem or the Old Norse original. “The Old Norse version is a bit mad, really. I think Larkin made it more serious, and he certainly made it more beautiful”. But the professor isn’t willing to dismiss his discovery entirely: “There are a few places where the Old Norse stumbles into beauty, even if it does so in the way that I have been known to stumble into Kebabish at 3.00 o’clock in the morning angrily waving a tenner and demanding to be stuffed with fish pakoras. There is that line of Larkin’s which describes the train ride as “this frail travelling coincidence”. It’s a line that stays with you. The Old Norse stays with me, just as doggedly: þessi skrjúpa sinnanda samkvæmd”.

Prof. Kage has provided readers of Lingoblog with a transcription of Hvítasunnubrúðhlaupin and a translation into modern English, ahead of their publication in a competitive, international academic journal. He also reads the poem aloud here: https://bit.ly/3ryPjFj. Larkin’s version can be read here and is read by the author here.

Á þeirri hvítasunnu, mér seinkaðisk:

Eigi unz

nóntíð leið á inum sólrauða sunnudegi

fór mín brúðgumareið þrír fjórðunga tóm,

ǫll vindauga opin, allir pallkoddar heitir, allr hrapaligr

ferðahugr var farinn. Vér hlupum

fyrir aftan hryggina húsa, sóttum stræti

skuggsjáa blindandi, drógum nasir af fiskahǫfn; þaðan

in rekanda jafnbreidd árinnar hófsk,

þar er loftit ok Líndisey ok vatn mætask

On that Whitsun, I was delayed

Not until

nones passed on the golden-sunned Sunday

did my bridegroom’s procession leave, three quarters empty,

all windows open, all cushions hot, all rushed

preparations for travel gone. We leapt

behind the backs of houses, passed a street

of blinding mirrors, whiffed fishdocks; thence

the drifting equal breadth of the river began,

there where sky and the Kingdom of Lindsey and the water meet

Um aftaninn, allt í gegnum inum háum hita er svaf

yfir mílum á land upp,

héldum vér hlykk seinlátan ok haltan.

Víðir bæir liðu um, auk fé lágskyggð, ok

kílar meinblandnir með lǫðri Élivága;

baðstofa leiftraði einfaldliga: hagar sukku

ok upprísu: en endr ok sinnum ilmr grass

raskaði reykinum reiðarklæðis seymt

unz in næsta borg, ný ok einfǫld,

nálægjask með dagsláttum vagna, brugðinna á eintali.

In the late afternoon, all the way through the tall heat which sleptfor miles inland,

we maintained a curve, slow and halting.

Wide farmsteads went by, as well as short-shadowed cattle, and

streams polluted with the froth of Élivágar.

A bathhouse flashed uniquely: hedges sank

and rose again, and now again the aroma of grass

replaced the smoke of the embroidered cloth of the procession

until the next town, new and simple,

drew near with abandoned wagons, taken apart

At fyrsta sinn, merkti ek eigi hvé þysmiklar

brúðhlaupin váru

á hverjum stað: Sólin glatar

áhuganum um þann er atberr í forsælu,

ok niðr á inum lǫngu þǫnum, skrækir ok óp

sýndisk mér at vera portarar, leikandi með bréfapǫkkum,

ok svá las ek enn. En þó, þegar vér hófumsk

at ganga fram hjá þeim, glottendum ok smurðum, meyjum

í sundrgerðarkaupi, uppháva skúa ok blaka,

allar standandi tortryggiliga, haldandi vǫrð meðan vér fórum

The first time, I did not notice how raucous

the weddings were

in every place: The sun destroys

interest in what is happening in the shade

and down on the long stretching racks, shrieks and cries,

seemed to me to be porters, playing with sacks of letters

and so I read on. However, at once we began

to approach them, grinning and anointed, maidens

in the best clothes they could purchase, raised shoes and shawls,

all standing watching, holding a vigil while we went

Sem þær váru á odd viðburðar

gefandi handarveif

Nǫkkru er lifði hann. Þat lá á mér, svá at ek studdi

greiðligar út næsta, ok meiri forvitinn,

ok endrsá ek allt, nú með nýja skyn:

Feðurnir með breiða linda undir kyrtlum sínum

ok enni hrúkkótt; mæður mǫrvuð með hámælgi;

Frændi einn er kallaði illkyngi; ok svá faldarnir,

Guðvefir glófar ok vesalar gørsemar,

In sǫla, purpura, in mórauða, sem

As though they were on the sharp end of an event,

offering a wave

to something which survived it. It impressed me, so that I leant out

more carefully next time, and more curious,

and I saw everything again, now with new understanding:

The fathers with broad belts under their tunics

and wrinkled foreheads; marrowy mothers with loud voices;

One kinsman who shouted lewd things; and then the headdresses,

Fine-woven gloves and pathetic jewels,

the pale yellow, purple, reddish-brown, which

skildu meyjurnar frá ǫðrum einleikin

Já, frá sǫlunum

ok veizluhǫllunum, ok

herbergjum, brúðkaupsdǫgunum

skulu lokit. Um endilangt

kom ný hjón. ǫnnur þrumuðu;

It síðasta ráð ok inir glingar urðu gefin,

ok, er vér héldum áfram, hvert andlit sýndisk at segja

hvat þat sá ferr brott: bǫrn grettask

um nǫkkurt óskemtiligt; feðurnir hǫfðu aldrei kennt

divided the maidens uncannily from the others

Yea, from the halls

and meadhalls, and

lodgings, the wedding days

were coming to an end. From end to end

there came new couples. Others loitered;

The last advice and trinkets were given,

and, as we carried on, every face appeared to say

what it saw departing: Children frowned

about something dull; the fathers had never known

eitt gengi svá stórt ok allbrosligt;

Konurnar deildu rúnirnar sem erfi glatt;

Meðan meyjur, sem færask fyrirskyrtur sínar í fang traustligari, stǫrðu

á eina heilaga særingu. Loksins frjáls,

ok laðin við ǫllum sem þau sáu

skyntum vér at Lundúnum, með skriðljós sótig.

Nu varð akrar til borgarsmíð, ok espi skyggðu

yfir trollahlǫðum,

ok um litla stund, sem at síðustu sýndisk

success so great and wholly laughable:

The women shared the runes like a happy funeral;

While maidens, who gripped more firmly at their aprons, stared

at a sacred wounding. Free at last,

and laden with all they saw

we hurried towards London, with sooty lanterns.

Now fields became the building of fortifications, and aspens

cast shadows over the works of trolls,

and in a little while, which at last seemed

Gnóg langt at setjask kufla um kyrrt ok segja

ek náliga dó,

tólf samfarir fóru fram.

Þau sátu jafnfram ok litu á landsleginu

— Allvangr einn fór, ok stǫpull einn,

ok nǫkkurr sem leikaði með svǫpp — ok engin

hugsaði um ǫnnur, sem þau hittisk aldrei

eða hversu ǫll líf þeirra teldi stund þessi.

Hugsaði ek um Lundúna, standandi breitt undir sólina,

heruð sín hirt sem hveitisekkar

Long enough to put cowls straight and say

I nearly died,

Twelves marriages began.

They sat side by side and looked at the landscape

– A muster field passed, and a steeple,

and somebody who played with a ball – and nobody

thought of the others, whom they would never meet

or how all their lives would count this moment.

I thought of London, spread out beneath the sun,

its hundreds herded like sacks of wheat

Þangat stefnd várum vér. Ok er vér skyntum þver


yfir refilstígum, veggir gambrmosa svarts

nálægjuzk, ok þat næst var tilgǫrt,

þessi skrjúpa sinnanda samkvæmd; ok þat sem hon hélt

var búit at leysask með efnit

er Verðandi gefr. Vér sljófumsk aftr,

ok er akfærit tókzk ofan, þar þrutnaðisk

felliþokki einn, sem ǫrvadrífa

ór augsýn sent,

at verða regn einhversstaðar.

That’s where we were aimed. And as we sped across

carriage tracks

over mysterious ways, walls of black moss

drew near, and it was almost done,

this frail travelling coincidence; and what it held

was ready to be released with the promise

that Verðandi gives. We slowed again,

and as the driving gear was taken off, there swelled

a feeling of falling, like an arrow shower

sent out of sight

somewhere becoming rain.

Journo 2

Alex Chen is a freelance journalist based in East London. He writes about public art, representation, and investment banking. 

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