by Sophia Brookshire
Philip Larkin entitled this poem MCMXIV, which are Roman numerals for the number 1914. Many WWI stone memorials were incised with MCMXIV, so this poem functions as a literary war memorial. Roman numerals are not widely used anymore. Larkin wrote this poem in the early 1960s, so using Roman numerals is his way of letting the reader know that he is writing about the past. Larkin was born four years after WWI ended; so he grew up in the aftermath of WWI but it felt like a distant and unfamiliar event to him. WWI is a major event in world history, because of the huge impact that it had on humanity; the war may have ended, but it continued to influence lives long after.
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; (lines 1-8)
"Those long uneven lines" describes the people that are standing in line "as patiently" as they can "outside the Oval or Villa Park." The Oval is a famous London Cricket Ground, and Villa Park is the Birmingham Football Ground. The people who would be standing outside of these venues would be eager and anxious to get inside so they could watch the day's sporting event. This image is also reminiscent of the men lining up outside of the recruiting office around the beginning of WWI; men were anxious and eager to serve their country. Looking at the long lines of people, all you could see were the tops of hats, and the sun glaring down on the "archaic" (of, relating to, or characteristic of an earlier or more primitive time) mustached faces of men, smiling as if they were on "an August bank Holiday lark." The men seemed blissfully unaware of what they were signing up for when they enlisted; the irony of them grinning is that soon they will long for the days when they could take pleasure in life and holidays. The August bank Holiday is the first Monday in August. "Lark" is defined as a merry, carefree adventure; Larkin likes to use the word "lark" in his poems, because it is a play off of his last name.
Bank Holidays are public holidays in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Bank of England recognized four public holidays: Easter Monday, Whit Monday or Pentecost Monday, First Monday in August, and Boxing Day (December 26) or St. Stephen's Day (December 26/27).
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; (9-16)
The shops are most likely closed for one of two reasons: everyone is on holiday, or because they were out of food. At the start of WWI people were worried that there would be food shortages, so they went around buying up food, and stashing it for later on. Many stores ran out of food in a few days at the beginning of August 1914. The "established [store] names on the sunblinds" have become "bleached" by the sun. The image of the bleached sign functions like the Roman numerals, in the way that this image is used to show that a lot of time has passed since 1914. "Farthings and sovereigns" are also used to show the passage of time. Farthings were the least valuable of British coins at the time, and sovereigns were the most valuable. The "dark-clothed children" is an ominous image; dark clothes are generally reserved for mourning. I believe that "dark-clothed children at play" is a metaphor for the war; children at play is a very innocent image of youth, and the dark clothes connotes that either something bad has happened or will happen. WWI took many lives; families were changed forever when fathers, sons, and brothers were seriously injured or killed. Many of those who were injured or killed were young boys, who didn't even have the chance to experience life. These children at play may be at peace right now, but in a few short years it will be their turn to defend their country, and it may cost them their lives. The children were named after kings and queens (George, Victoria, Henry, Elizabeth, etc.). Advertisements were everywhere during WWI, along with propaganda encouraging men to enlist. For a few examples of tin advertisements CLICK HERE. The pubs/bars were open all day, because it was supposed to be a holiday.
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines; (17-24)
The countryside was not as concerned with the war, because they were not as affected by it. The countryside was ruled by the rich, and the rich generally don't fight in wars. "Place names" refers to the names that places were given when William the Conqueror had the Domesday Book written in 1085-6. Places were originally named after the environment of the region; many of the names have been "hazed over" or changed since the 11th Century. The rich had live-in servants, who tended to all of their needs.
The Domesday Book was a land survey used to assess the extent of the land and resources that were owned by England at the time, and used to establish how high taxes could be raised. This census was on such a grand and comprehensive scale, and its irreversible outcome led people to compare it to the Last Judgment, or "Doomsday." When William the Conqueror invaded England, in 1066, he brought many lords and members of the church with him from France, and William gave them all areas of land to rule over. William took this land from English natives, and they in turn became vassals of William's friends. England during this time operated on the feudal system:
"At the top sat King William who granted land to tenant-in-chief - usually lords or members of the Church, in return for their assistance in the Norman Conquest. Next down the ladder came under tenants who held land from the tenants-in-chief, and so it continued with the bottom of the ladder being occupied by peasants - villagers, bordars and cottars - who earned their opportunity to hold a small amount of land by working on the land of the lordship, and slaves, who held no land" (Doomesdaybook.co.uk). Medieval farmers were give long and narrow plots to farm.
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. (25-34)
People weren't ready for the devastation that was WWI. Innocence was lost forever along with the many men who died fighting for England.
* Greenblatt, Stephen, Ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006.
* Wikipedia contributors. "Bank holiday." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
* http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/ rationing_and_world_war_one.htm
* Wikipedia contributors. "Sovereign (British coin)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Sep. 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
* Wikipedia contributors. "Farthing (British coin)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
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