MCMXIV – Philip Larkin

I tend to come across poems in occasionally vague ways – a line heard and committed to memory; a few words ringing a vague bell, prompting a frantic search through a poetry book I received the year the millennium dawned or an old dogeared copy of WW1 poetry. I’ve copied bits of poems onto napkins, backs of receipts and occasionally my own hand. Sometimes I come across poems through studying them, like many people – Owen, Sassoon, Brooke; names I am unlikely to ever forget and poems that will remain forever lodged into my mind. There are poems found through blogging, posts from other people that lead me to borrowing yet another poetry book from the library and falling (however briefly) in love with a new stanza of words, a new poet with their pen. Less frequently, I find poems through film. A roundabout way, somewhat, but film is where I first heard Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV.

It is a poem, briefly referenced and quoted by Scripps – a character in the Alan Bennett play The History Boys. I was never lucky enough to see it onstage, but I saw it on DVD; drawn to it when I saw the quote ‘history is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind…with a bucket.’

There are other moments in the film- naturally – that stuck with me. The reciting of Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy (Yet portion of that unknown plain/Will Hodge forever be) and the comment on remembrance – worthy of a post all its own. But, this post is for Philip Larkin’s poem. It is not one written during the war, but instead it was penned some time afterward; the gift of hindsight in his writing and perhaps a little romanticism. Still, it’s a poem that has lingered, certain lines more than others. It is not one I studied, though I might try to one day.

The first and last stanzas are the ones I find myself drawn to.

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;

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.

I am not sure why it’s those two stanzas that I find myself lingering upon, and not the lines ‘And the countryside not caring/the place names all glazed over’ for instance, from the third stanza. I think its the sense of before, the innocence which Larkin imbues his words with. As a reader, one knows what will come next, what will happen when the men have left their tidy gardens and gone away. One knows that there will never be such innocence again, a dull ache in recognising that that comes with the final line.

An August Bank Holiday Lark is also the name of a play I saw in the summer of 2014, somewhat appropriately. It had a similar feeling to Larkin’s poem itself, a slight melancholy – making it difficult to concentrate on the brightness and the laughter for the all encroaching knowledge of what was to come, sooner rather than later.

The entirety of MCMXIV by Philip Larkin can be found here.

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