A Great War poem for August 2014: MCMXIV (1914) by Philip Larkin

largeAs the weeks fly by and publication of Shell Shocked Britain approaches, I have been turning to poetry in an (often vain) attempt to relax and clear my mind of proofs and tweets and the general organisation of the launch.  The poets of the Great War have, of course, been the focus of programmes about the war on television and radio. The work of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al is moving and descriptive of the horror of the trenches. They describe, angrily, their views of the establishment that sent young men to war, encouraging more and more to join up whilst they sat back in England, in apparent comfort. Poems such as Dulce et Decorum est by Owen and The General by Sassoon have framed the ways many people imagine what that war was like and have fed the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ so brilliantly exemplified by Blackadder Goes Forth.

imagesBut  I heard a reading of a very different type of poem this week, by a man born after the end of the First World War  – Philip Larkin. Having been unfit for active service in WWII due to poor eyesight, he was unfamiliar with the direct horrors of war, but he was a man who understood the power of the emotion present in ordinary lives. His expectation of life was low and he was something of a curmudgeon. But in the following poem, written 50 years after the Great War began, he looks back as we might do, 50 years on into a new century. As if inspired by an old photograph he describes those early, August days of the war and the queues of men, seemingly  in holiday mood waiting at the recruitment office as if they were going to a cricket or football match. The title is MCMXIV (1914); even those Roman numerals harking back to days long gone, as the four verses take as from the shops of the town to the big country houses via a countryside that seems remote from the coming carnage:

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

The very normality of the scenes depicted brings back all the research I have undertaken for  Shell Shocked. Millions of lives were affected by the war across every class and so few, in those early months, understood the reality of the war they were called to join. Larkin reminds us of those things that touch and fascinate us now – the nostalgia of the individual shops, the tins and packets emblazoned with brands long gone and the Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs world of the stately home. There are those ‘thousands of marriages’ that were celebrated by our grandparents and great grandparents. And there is that sense that the very fields  – ‘Shadowing Domesday lines’  and reflecting the poppy fields of France – were part of a history about to be thrust into the past; an old world.

I think it is a poem we should read over the coming month as the commemorations really begin and we look back, with Larkin, at our forbears  walking almost blindly into a carnage that stripped back the veneer of innocence and threw Britain into a century of total war and total change.

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