The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

“MCMXIV,” like many of Philip Larkin’s poems, is a meditation. This poetic form, modeled on John Donne’s prose Meditations, begins with a description of an object, a place, or an event. The description leads directly into a response or a consideration of the issues, problems, and complexities suggested by the object; this consideration then leads to a conclusion or resolution. In “MCMXIV” the object is a 1914 photograph of British volunteers lined up in front of an army recruiting office after England entered World War I. By extension the poem considers the prewar British society that those men represent. The poem itself does not overtly indicate that the photograph is the object of meditation; rather, the title (Roman numerals for 1914) and the description provide that context. While readers can not know whether Larkin was contemplating a particular photograph, there are examples of this type of picture in most illustrated histories of World War I.

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The first three stanzas of the four-stanza poem offer an interpretive description of the scene in the photograph. The men stand patiently in line, as they might wait to gain admission to a sporting event or an “August Bank Holiday lark.” (In England a bank holiday is a legal holiday when the banks are ordered closed.) This holiday is in August, since August 4, 1914, was the date England declared war on the Central Powers. The scene Larkin describes is holiday-like: The shops are closed, but the pubs are open. Children are playing; the men in line are grinning. No one yet suspects the horrors that World War I will bring.

Stanza 3 moves beyond the photo of the men in line at the recruiting office to include the countryside. In the poetry, novels, and memoirs of World War I, idyllic, pastoral prewar England is often contrasted with the horrors of European trench warfare. Therefore Larkin’s meditation on innocence includes such pastoral references. Significantly, the grass and wheat fields cover place names and property lines, much as they would later cover the graves and names of the five million Allied casualties of the war.

Also recalled as background to the photograph and the war experience is the orderly class structure of prewar England: “The differently-dressed servants/ With tiny rooms in huge houses.” Many authors, such as Ford Madox Ford in his Parade’s End novels (1924-1928), wrote about men from all social classes, content in their separation before the war, who suddenly found themselves fighting side by side in the trenches. The belief in the inevitability and morality of the class structure was part of the “innocence” lost during the war.

“Never such innocence” is the poet’s interpretative conclusion. The prewar world “changed itself to past” and could never be recaptured. The photograph shows a large crowd of men willingly, happily volunteering for the war. They were doing their duty as well as heading off for an adventure, never imagining the misery and destruction ahead of them. While the poem does not describe the battlefields, the idea of lost innocence brings into the poem World War I as described by those who experienced it. The trenches, mud, rats, barbed wire, tanks, snipers, poison gas, grenades, and air attacks (vividly described, for example, in Wilfred Owen’s poetry) were yet unimagined horrors. The war destroyed all fantasies of war as a glorious, heroic adventure played out on orderly battlefields by gentlemen: “Never such innocence again.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

“MCMXIV,” like all of Larkin’s poems, is characterized by clear, straightforward, unadorned language. Larkin is the best-known and most successful of a group of British poets from the 1950’s known as “The...

(The entire section contains 986 words.)

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