World War I was a highly literary war—it was unusual in the number of soldiers who wrote poems, novels, and memoirs about their experience. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Ford Madox Ford, Robert Graves, and David Jones are but a few of the authors to write major works about the war experience. So important is World War I as a subject in modern British literature that it is in no way unusual to see Larkin returning to it nearly fifty years after the event. With “MCMXIV” he places himself in a significant literary tradition.
He also restates for his time the major literary interpretation of the war. His conclusion that innocence was lost as a result of the horrors of war is consistent with the reading of the experience given by his predecessors. In fact, this reading has reached the status of myth or master narrative—a coherent story which claims to explain a major social phenomenon. In this myth, prewar England is seen as idyllic. The social order was fixed and secure: Each class knew its role and strove only to succeed in that role. The country shared adherence to the Church of England. Science assured an unbroken path of progress, promising that life would continue to get better and better. All was orderly, civil, and decorous. In fact, in an ironic contrast, the summer of 1914, the months immediately before the war, were warm and sunny, the most beautiful summer anyone could remember.
The decorous and orderly men who lined up patiently to enlist in August of 1914 were to have their faith in order (even their faith in God) seriously shaken in the trenches of Europe. Those who were not killed by bombs or snipers might face excruciatingly painful deaths from poison gas or entrapment in barbed wire. Those who survived had to live in dirt trenches containing a foot or two of collected rainwater, sharing the space with rats. They were changed, according to the story, by the experience; when the war was over, nothing could be the same. Their world had changed, and romanticism gave way to cynicism and despair. The lower classes were no longer content; the Church of England lost its influence; those who had seen the bestiality of the war could no longer believe in progress: “Never such innocence again.”
The myth of World War I has resonance beyond twentieth century experience. It has literary parallels in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794). Through them it repeats one of the fundamental narratives of Christianity, the fall from innocence in the Garden of Eden, and a basic psychological pattern of maturing from naïve childhood to disillusioned adulthood. From his meditation on an old photograph of men waiting to enlist in World War I, Larkin recapitulates one of the most enduring stories of Western culture, the story of the inevitable movement from idyllic naïveté to disappointed experience.