Today, 11/11/11, at 11am, most of the world will pause for two minutes to remember the ceasefire on the Western Front in 1918. Last year, I featured what could be considered as one of the best-loved and most moving war poems, In Flanders Field, which was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on 3rd May 1915, one day after he witnessed the death of his buddy, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer.
This year, to once again commemorate Remembrance Day, I have picked out another beloved war poem from an equally beloved poet, Philip Larkin.
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 wheats’ 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.
First published in Whitsun Weddings in 1964, MCMXIV, which translates into 1914, is a meditation written as one long sentence, intimating the continuous, linear and unavoidable flow of time.
Beginning with the description of an imagined, carefree scene, or collection of scenes, a bleak tone infiltrates and pervades the poem, and it ends on a poignant, nostalgic note. The innocence and happiness depicted by the “long uneven lines” of “grinning” men enlisting; the “children at play”, the pubs, “wide open all day”, and the countryside, “not caring”, is soon to be stolen away by that “Shadowing Domesday”. The flow of time is abruptly stopped by this shadowy foreboding, as a “restless silence” and “dust” enters the poem. Something has changed.
Unlike John McCrae and Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin isn’t known as a so-called war poet, but he is known for being a poet of the people. Larkin grew up in a world changed by war, a world changed by tremendous bloodshed and loss.
Never such innocence again? Indeed.