A summary of one of Larkin’s greatest poems
‘MCMXIV’ is one of Philip Larkin’s best-loved poems. Completed in May 1960, the poem was published in Larkin’s 1964 volume The Whitsun Weddings. You can read ‘MCMXIV’ here; what follows is our analysis of the poem.
‘MCMXIV’ is the year 1914 in Roman numerals. As Christopher Ricks has observed, Larkin’s decision to title his poem ‘MCMXIV’ rather than ‘1914’ or ‘Nineteen Fourteen’ means we cannot be sure how to pronounce the poem’s title aloud: calling it ‘1914’ is accurate, of course, but fails to transmit the Latin stylising of the date. Conversely, reciting the individual letters (or numerals) that make up the title makes little sense. This is a title we need to read, on the page: like the ‘Latin names around the base’ in another of Larkin’s poems, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, ‘MCMXIV’ suggests the lapidary inscriptions on tombs – or, indeed, on war memorials.
In summary, ‘MCMXIV’ focuses on the year 1914 – the year of the outbreak of the First World War, in August 1914. This setting for the poem is hinted at in Larkin’s reference to the ‘August Bank Holiday lark’. The first stanza focuses on an old photograph depicting a group of men who have just signed up to fight in the war, the ‘long uneven lines’ denoting the old style of taking photographs with people arranged into long rows. The expressions on the faces of these men suggests they view the war as a ‘lark’ or a game – no different from a cricket match (‘the Oval’) or a football match (‘Villa Park’). The time setting of 1914 is glimpsed in the broad brush-strokes Larkin paints: the fact that the men are all wearing hats, and the fact that they sport moustaches, after the fashion of the day. Even their faces look ‘archaic’, i.e. old-fashioned.
From this starting point, the second stanza then zooms out – as so many of Philip Larkin’s poems do – to consider the wider context: the style of the shop fronts in those days, the old coins, the children all having names like Victoria and Elizabeth and George and Edward, having been named after kings and queens (no Britneys or Chardonnays back then), the pubs all being open all day (licensing hours were only introduced under the Defence of the Realm Act during WWI).
The third stanza then leaves the world of the town behind and pans out yet further, to consider the countryside, and the big country estates with their clear staff hierarchies (the servants being dressed differently depending on their rank or position in the household): this is the pre-war period that the first series of Downton Abbey would reflect, in more recent times. The reference to ‘Domesday lines’ takes us back to the Norman Conquest of 1066, and the Domesday Book, that vast audit of English towns, cities, and villages undertaken under William the Conqueror. What Larkin is suggesting here is nearly 1,000 years of unaltered English history and social structures, all of which is about to be undermined and destroyed by the First World War.
The final stanza forms a sort of conclusion to the poem, with Larkin pondering the change wrought by the war. The innocent way of life embodied by the pre-war world, and outlined earlier in ‘MCMXIV’, has gone forever. Larkin ends with a couple of examples which are ambiguously phrased. The many men ‘leaving the gardens tidy’ suggests not only the idea that before the war men seemed to be in touch with the land in a more intimate way, but also the notion of these men ‘leaving’ their gardens behind for the very different terrain of the Western Front, many of them never to return. The mention of the marriages lasting ‘a little while longer’ similarly houses two meanings: marriages lasted longer in those days because divorce was less common and people were more traditional in their approach to marriage, but all of these marriages were, of course, literally to last only a little while longer – until the husbands were killed in the conflict.
Larkin’s poem is organised into four eight-line stanzas, with rhymes on the fourth and eighth line of each stanza. But even in a poem that is more unrhymed than rhymed, Larkin’s line endings take on a curious pattern. 14 of the 32 lines end on a plural, including ‘men’ in the final stanza, suggesting how widespread the change – and the loss of life – was.
‘MCMXIV’ might be viewed as a war poem, but a war poem which analyses and explores the impact of the war from a civilian perspective (Larkin was called up to fight in the next world war, WWII, while studying at Oxford, but was excused owing to poor eyesight), and from the vantage-point of nearly 50 years on. It’s a studied analysis, not necessarily of a golden pre-war period, but of an attitude to the past which we are all prey to: the notion that the past was always better and more innocent.
‘MCMXIV’ is one of many, many gems to be discovered in Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. We thoroughly recommending getting hold of this volume.
Continue to explore Larkin’s work with our pick of the most interesting facts about his life, our discussion of his ‘Talking in Bed’, and our analysis of his poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. If you’re studying poetry, we recommend these five helpful guides for the poetry student.
Image: British volunteers for Kitchener’s army, August 1914 (author unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.