Saturday, 3 July 2010

Larkin's MCMXIV

We don't think of Larkin as a particularly self-reflexive poet, I suppose. But sometimes: as in 'MCMXIV', his retrospective first-world-war poem:
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;
Lark, there, evokes the poet's name; and the 'long uneven lines' turn the would-be army recruits into the phsyical structure of a poem. That, more than the tropological momento-mori death's-head-grin of the 'archaic faces', brings the poem back to itself.
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;
That last is surely a drinker's observation. But the 'lines' come back in the third stanza:
And the countryside not caring
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;
'Domesday' carrying the nostaligic backward looking glance even further into the past, even as it self-consciously looks forward to Verdun and the Somme. Yet the lines are here the underlying structure of things; and things, on a very straightforward level, are in this case: this verse. The last stanza is the one that gets quoted so often:
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.
Which is properly affecting, in part because it manages to disguise its characteristically Larkinian self-pity so effectively. But the sense remains that this is a poem not about the first-world-war so much as it is a poem about first-world-war poetry.

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