The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 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...

(The entire section is 418 words.)