by Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin’s “MCMXIV”—a searing exposé of modern war that artfully tempers its disgust and rage—appeared in the 1964 volume The Whitsun Weddings, arguably the strongest individual volume of British verse produced in the twentieth century. As cultural instruction designed to curtail the making of war, the poem fails miserably. With respect to military hostilities at least, Auden was correct: “poetry makes nothing happen.” As a guide to making poems, however, “1914” cannot be beat.
First, the work carries the intense specificity that drives a forceful, memorable poem, capturing with remarkable compression the particulars of its milieu: “Oval or Villa Park,” “moustached archaic faces,” “dark-clothed children at play / Called after kings and queens,” “tin advertisements / For cocoa and twist,” and so forth. Larkin’s photographic focus on place is matched by his attention to a unique moment in time—right on the cusp of The Great War, the War to End All Wars, the war that Robert Graves called the “Sausage Machine.” Men line up to register as soldiers, believing they will honorably serve their country in a swift, just conflict; but they are lambs naively leading themselves to slaughter. This “cusping” strategy avoids the direct—often sensationalist—treatment that characterizes most art about war, creating ironic distance and forcing the reader to supply such images as gas masks, tanks, trenches, and bombs floating down on England.
The deliberate understatement functions contrapuntally with a breathless quality that arises from the poem’s grammatical structure: a single-sentence that unfolds over four eight-line stanzas. Just as the bodies of soldiers and civilians piled up in a seemingly relentless rush of war, so too this unstoppable poem works down the page, accumulating image after image: “farthings and sovereigns,” “flowering grasses,” “wheat’s restless silence,” “dust behind limousines.” Grade school taught us to scorn the run-on sentence as a rambling mess, a spew devoid of reason and measured style. Yet “MCMXIV” deliberately creates this snowballing effect as preamble to a calculated turn, a sudden, devastating pronouncement: “never such innocence again.”
A poem begins in delight, claimed Frost, and ends in wisdom. This is the inductive logic of many modern poems, and Larkin deploys it here to potent effect. But then—as though the statement went unheard, as if the wisdom came out as a whimper—he re-turns:
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.
Why the reiteration? How might we theorize this carefully manufactured turn-and-return strategy? For one, the restatement registers a redoubled pessimism about a world lost to the military-industrial complex (remember that the poem was written after the atrocities of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin’s purges, various Cold-War scares, and so on).
The turn-and-return therefore signals entropy—an anti-Romantic sense that western culture is spiraling irreversibly downward. The repetition also, it would seem, ironizes the power of literature itself. Larkin urgently repeats himself, knowing on some level that the sage observation, the closing wisdom, can only elegize a vanished hope that art (or the Humanities in general) might somehow save our species from itself. Many who died in WWI were buried under tombstones etched with MCMXIV. Larkin’s turn-and-return gambit would appear to underscore the demise of humanism (if not yet humanity). Never again can we be so “innocent” about our potential for self-destruction, or about the redemptive potential of art forms such as the poem—however masterfully shaped.
Gregory Fraser is the author of three poetry collections: Strange Pietà (Texas Tech UP, 2003), Answering the Ruins (Northwestern UP, 2009), and Designed for Flight (forthcoming from Northwestern in 2013). He is also the co-author, with Chad Davidson, of the workshop textbook Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) and the composition textbook Analyze Anything: A Guide to Critical Reading and Writing (Continuum, 2012). His poetry has appeared in journals including The Paris Review, The Southern Review, and The Gettysburg Review. The recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fraser serves as associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of West Georgia.