MCMXIV, by Philip Larkin

5 January 2014

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

//

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War – the start of four years of rolling dates to commemorate. From the perspective of someone living in what is now Belgium, it will be interesting to see the contrast with how, amidst this, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is marked in June 2015. No popular recreation of the Battle of the Somme, I expect.

2014 also marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of this poem in Larkin’s third collection, The Whitsun Weddings. The ‘marriages / lasting a little while longer’ are the most tellingly Larkinesque contribution from the poem to our stock of perceptions about the war, the tidy gardens perhaps the most moving. So much (English) literary history cites the Great War as an event of mass disillusionment, and Larkin’s final stanza is a famous crystallisation of this. Therefore, it’s interesting to read Anthony Quinn’s review of Mark Bostridge’s The Fateful Year: England in 2014: the war is the defining event of the year in our memories, but it was, for many reasons, a full and fractious year.

[Read in Collected Poems by Philip Larkin, ripped from http://exhibits.lib.byu.edu/wwi/influence/MCMXIV.html.]

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