‘MCMXIV’ was first published in Larkin’s most famous collection, The Whitsun Weddings, in 1964. It is one of the poet’s best-loved poems and was written in response to the First World War. The poem explores themes of war, transformation, and time. The poet focuses on the changes that have come over the country since the beginning and end of the war and alludes to all the changes that are sure to come.
It is important to note before beginning this piece that the title, ‘MCMXIV’ is the year 1914 spelled out in Roman numerals. By choosing the write the title in Roman numerals rather than in numbers Larkin is referencing the grand nature of what has been lost, and how pivotal that year was. It also alludes to inscriptions on memorials or tombs which are often done in numerals.
Summary of MCMXIV
The poem begins with the poet focusing on a picture. Within it are men who have just signed up to go fight in the war. Their faces make it clear that they have no idea what it about to happen to them. The narrative zooms out, taking the reader across the countryside and then to all of England. There are going to be so many changes in the coming years, the speaker says, everything is going to be different and innocence is going to be lost.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of MCMXIV
‘MCMXIV’ by Philip Larkin is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are moments of rhyme within the lines. For instance, the fourth and eighth lines of each stanza rhyme. Upon close inspection, a reader will realize that the sixty-four lines of the poem are one long run-on sentence.
Poetic Techniques in MCMXIV
Larkin makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘MCMXIV’. These include, but are not limited to, juxtaposition, anaphora, and repetition. The latter is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. There is a great example in the last stanza when the poet uses the line “never such innocence” twice. It acts as a refrain within a single stanza of text, reemphasizing how the world has changed and transitioned away, forever, from the innocence of pre-war times.
Juxtaposition is when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to emphasize a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. There is a solid example in the first stanzas when the poet compares the future of the men in the photograph to their expressions within it. They are smiling as though they’re about to go on holiday instead of off to their deaths.
Larkin also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. This can be seen in almost all the stanzas, but most powerfully in the final stanza where the first two lines start with “Never”.
Analysis of MCMXIV
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
In the first lines of ‘MCMXIV’, the speaker begins by describing a photograph. In it, there are the “long uneven lines” of people. These are men who have just signed up to go to war. The poet zooms in on their faces, focusing on them individually but also as a whole in order to get a sense of their numbers, but also their personalities.
He mentions “crowns of hats” that can be seen in the photo, as well as smiling “moustached archaic faces”. These men are looking at him out of the past, unknowingly entering into a fight that will likely take their lives. This is contrasted with their expressions which appear to the speaker as lighthearted. It is as if they are on holiday.
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
In the second stanza of “MCMXIV,’ the speaker moves away from the men to speak on the wider context of the image. There are “shut shops” in the photo, many of these have sun-bleached signs in front of them. They are old fashioned just as the men are.
Around the stores, the poet takes note of “dark-clothed children at play”. These kids represent the time period in their actions and style, as well as their names. They are named after “kings and queens”. These names would include Elizabeth and George, old fashioned names that are less common today, or when the poem was written than they were then. He also takes a moment to note the advertisements on tin plates.
And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Moving further away from the men in the photo, the poet takes the poem out and over the countryside. There are people out there too, living in larger houses with “differently-dressed servants”. These men and women are unconcerned. They don’t know that everything is about to change.
There is a reference in this stanza to “Domesday lines”. This is in regard to a book, the “Domesday Book” that outlined the cities and towns taken by William the Conqueror. Just as things changed then, so too are they going to change now.
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
In the final stanza, Larkin makes use of anaphora. The stanza begins with “Never” at the start of the first two lines. He notes that “Never” will the innocence of this photo return to the world again. We have learned the truth about human nature and can’t go back. The world cannot go back to the gardens of pre-war times. They are confined to the new world of battlefields and death. The marriages of the past were longer lasting. There was less divorce and both parties survived for longer. Now, that is no longer the case.
The poem ends with the repetition of the line “Never such innocence”.