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“MCMXIV” are the roman numerals for 1914. You might recognise them if you’ve ever looked on a war memorial, and the year naturally refers to the beginning of the First World War – the Great War – the war to end all wars – the war that would be over by Christmas. In some ways, this poem is similar to ‘Naturally the Foundation Will Bear your Expenses’ as it challenges the idea of war memorials. The roman numerals, for instance, make the title distant and unfamiliar, yet these are what mark our memorials. Why don’t we use the simple numbers?
The first stanza presents the image of men waiting to recruit at the beginning of the war. They stand “patiently” in “long uneven lines”, which will naturally remind us of the trench lines that they will soon find themselves in. That they are “waiting” is another echo of trench warfare… a line I’ve never forgotten from GCSE history: “Trench warfare was 99 per cent pure boredom; 1 per cent pure terror.” Much of a soldier’s life was spent in waiting for the order to go ‘over the top’.
Here these unknowing people stand, waiting “as if they were stretched outside / The Oval or Villa Park”. As if they are waiting for a game of cricket – the British game. Games were also where the recruitment took place. The volunteers, enthused with jingoism, don’t have any idea what they are signing up for: for never before had there been a war of such terrific, horrific proportions. Their “moustached archaic faces” remind us how very out of place they were, in believing that they were going to fight in the old way. It also reminds us of the browning photographs that were taken on those recruitment days – pictures that would soon be all that remained of the men.
Yet, ironically, they were “Grinning as if it were all / An August Bank Holiday lark;” – “lark” has been used in a number of poems before: a pun on Larkin’s name.
The second stanza describes the world that they are leaving behind, a peaceful image of “children at play”, “adverts for cocoa” and “the pubs / Wide open all day” as there were no licensing laws. At the beginning of the third stanza, the “countryside” isn’t “caring”. The war is so far removed from that part of the country that they are barely away of its taking place.
This was the time of “differently-dressed servants” – marked out by their clothing – who were confined to “tiny rooms in huge houses”. The wealthy drove around in “limousines”, though “the dust” could perhaps be an allusion to Genesis – how ultimately “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return”, regardless of social position.
The final stanza shows the irrevocability of the war, how there was:
The war did have a lasting effect upon England, for it broke down the social boundaries described in the third stanza. The innocence of those “archaic faces” “standing” “patiently” was never returned to, for eventually compulsory conscription was brought in. “The men leaving the gardens tidy” reminds us that many of those would never return, and “The thousands of marriages / Lasting a little while longer” reminds us of the many marriages that occurred over the desperate period, where men were in so short supply. The marriages didn’t last as the men were slaughtered at the trench, but it also reminds us, that like now, that time wasn’t perfect either: marriages dissolved in those days, just as they do today – it warns of romanticising the past.
Perhaps, too, that’s another reason for “Never such innocence again” – perhaps Larkin means that there will not be such innocence, because in reality, there never was such. In our war memorials and reminiscing, we have created something that wasn’t quite true.