As Britain today marks
the centenary of its entry into what became known as the Great War, it seems fitting to post Phillip Larkin’s MCMXIV
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 wheat’s 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 poem is, of course, a highly romanticized view of an England—and it is a very English poem— that was soon to vanish for good. It was written to mark the war’s fiftieth anniversary, and looks back at a lost world, seen from the perspective of a man contemplating the country in which he lived and, quite clearly, feeling that there was something missing. It is a poem of myth and memory and the place that they meet.
Larkin’s poem blends images of town and country. For a contemporary glimpse of that lost countryside, there’s no lovelier place to turn than Adlestrop, a poem by Edward Thomas (1878-1917) about an unexpected stop one day in June 1914 in a small country railway station in a village that, yes, predated the Domesday Book. You can find it here.
As for Thomas, after a period of indecision, he volunteered for the army in 1915. When asked why, he picked up a handful of earth, and replied, “literally, for this”.
He was killed at Arras in 1917.