Naturally the Foundation will Bear Your Expenses

Hurrying to catch my Comet
One dark November day,
Which soon would snatch me from it
To the sunshine of Bombay,
I pondered pages Berkeley
Not three weeks since had heard,
Perceiving Chatto darkly
Through the mirror of the Third.

Crowds, colourless and careworn
Had made my taxi late,
Yet not till I was airborne
Did I recall the date -
The day when Queen and Minister
And Band of Guards and all
Still act their solemn-sinister
Wreath-rubbish in Whitehall.

It used to make me throw up,
These mawkish, nursery games:
O When will England grow up?
– But I out soar the Thames,
And dwindle off down Auster
To great Professor Lal
(He once met Morgan Forster),
My contact and my pal.


Like ‘Self’s the Man’, this poem should be read as a persona, not Larkin himself. The character voiced here raised much controversy when Larkin first published the poem, and with its “mawkish” view of memorial days, it’s easy to understand why. But there are various reasons why this poem is clearly Larkin adopting a persona: first, if we consider ‘MCMXIV’, we see a much gentler, more nostalgic view of memorials, even if Larkin still found them problematic.

In the first line, another clue that this is a persona, there is an image of travelling: “Hurrying to catch my Comet,” a type of plane. Larkin had a strong dislike of travel, and in fact only left the country for his spell in Belfast, reflected upon in ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’. This persona is clearly well travelled in comparison – the paper he is to read in “Bombay” have first been read in “Berkley” – in the USA. Another clue in this line is the use of the personal pronoun “my”. The persona seems possessive and dislikeable from the first line of the poem, and the stretched alternate line rhyme scheme here reminds us of the teeth-grinding voice in ‘Self’s the Man’.

That the persona is travelling to “Bombay” and reading “pages Berkeley / Not three weeks since had heard”, tells us the persona’s occupation: he is an academic, doing the old trick of “recycling” a paper. This is further evidence of a persona. Larkin, as a librarian, had a dislike of academics, so who better to give the negative view expressed in the poem?

The final two lines of the first two stanza are allusions to various things. “The Third” is a reference to the “Third Program”, a radio station that was a forerunner to BBC Radio 3, the most ‘intellectual’ of all BBC programs. By dropping the name, the persona seems to be showing off his intellect. “Chatto” is a reference to a London publishing house. It seems that once his word has been through the radio, it will then be published and in the phrasing, “darkly / Through the mirror”, he coldly echoes the Bible – 1 Corinthians 13 – “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” In his empty echo he demonstrates that he is exactly lacking what 1 Corinthians 13 is all about – he may appear intelligent and wonderful, but he has not humanity, pity, and isn’t genuine.

In the next stanza, “crowds, colourless and careworn” (“colourless” as they are wearing black) delay his taxi (again note the possessive “my”) and interrupt his plans. Not until he is “airborne”, does he realise why they were there: it is 11th November, Remembrance Day, and “the day when Queen and Minister / And Band of Guards and all” have their remembrance ceremony in “Whitehall”.

The persona’s reaction to Remembrance Day is vicious. He sees it as “solemn-sinister / Wreath-rubbish”. The word “act” implies that it’s all just a show, and a waste of time: a hypocritical lip-service that none, just like him, actually cares about. The next stanza continues this idea. “Mawkish” means ‘sentimental, especially in a contrived or off-putting way’, and the persona wonders when “will England grow up?” When will England stop wasting time with these contrived “games” and leave the past behind?

The persona gives further evidence of his dislikeable character in the final few lines. “(He once met Morgan Foster)” is clear name-dropping, a novelist, trying to show how well contacted he is.

The word “pal”, however, which the poem ends with, is curious. Taken as PAL, they are Phillip Larkin’s initials. Though he creates a clearly dislikeable persona, could Larkin, through use of the initials, be linking himself to the character? Perhaps the persona does have a point about Remembrance Day – perhaps it is “mawkish” lip-service. Although the observer is lacking sentiment, humanity and pity, the people involved in the ritual also seem to be lacking something.

The question Larkin seems to raise is this poem is just how do we remember horrific events like the world wars? In 'MCMXIV', he attempts an answer.

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