“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.
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.”
“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...
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Movement” (other Movement poets include Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis, and Donald Davie). All these poets used direct, plain language, which was deliberately chosen in rejection of the rich, melodic, metaphoric language of Dylan Thomas and the dense, allusive, intellectual language of T. S. Eliot. It was an appropriate language for the skeptical, unsentimental, sometimes hopeless worldview of their poems. Larkin, like other Movement authors, worked within a narrow emotional range, ironically noting the pain and dreariness of everyday experience that must be accepted.
When Larkin departs from his usual plain language, the effect is striking. In stanza 3, describing rural fields, he refers to “Domesday lines”: These are the boundaries between property first defined in 1086 by William the Conqueror and recorded in the Domesday Book. The historical reference is a jarring pun, since the Domesday Book is also known as the Doomsday Book. The men in Larkin’s photograph were taking their first step toward their doom.
That Larkin’s language is generally plain does not mean that he eschews metaphor entirely. The lines of men waiting to enlist in the British army are like lines waiting to see a cricket match at the Oval in London. The atmosphere on the day war was declared was like that of a bank holiday. The rural fields are, in their description at least, like the war cemeteries of Europe. Most significantly, the men, in their eagerness to go to war and with their belief that nothing will be changed when they come back, are a metaphor and a symbol for innocence that would be lost.
The images of the poem, like the language, are clear and straightforward. They move in an ever-expanding pattern. The first stanza limits itself to the actual content of the photograph: the appearance of the men standing in line. Stanza 2 moves just outside the picture itself to provide details about the neighborhood of the recruiting office. One sees the advertisements in shop windows, the children playing, the pubs. Next one moves outside the city to the fields and the manor houses. All of England is drawn into the picture. Finally, in the last stanza, the larger significance of the scene is stated; at the same time, the poem returns to the individual men in the photograph, each with his own tidy garden and marriage.