Those long uneven linesStanding as patientlyAs if they were stretched outsideThe Oval or Villa Park,The crowns of hats, the sunOn moustached archaic facesGrinning as if it were allAn August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleachedEstablished names on the sunblinds,The farthings and sovereigns,And dark-clothed children at playCalled after kings and queens,The tin advertisementsFor cocoa and twist, and the pubsWide open all day—
And the countryside not caring:The place names all hazed overWith flowering grasses, and fieldsShadowing Domesday linesUnder wheat’s restless silence;The differently-dressed servantsWith tiny rooms in huge houses,The dust behind limousines;Never such innocence,Never before or since,As changed itself to pastWithout a word – the menLeaving 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.