The “Hidden Skull” Images in the Philip Larkin Poem “MCMXIV”.
A few years ago I memorized one of my favorite Larkin poem. It is called “MCMXIV”, which, of course, is “1914" in Roman numerals. The year 1914 is when World War One started.
It’s one of Larkin’s better-known poems, and quite a bit has been written about it, but (seemingly) no one has noticed what I have noticed — or am I reading too much into it? Let me know in the comments what you think.
Anyway, having memorized it, and recited it a few times to myself at random, a few weeks later I was having a cup of tea and on a whim I recited it in a different accent of English. It was while doing that that I noticed the seeming cryptic allusions to horrific images of war.
I finally have found some spare time that allows me to share these thoughts with you.
I seem to see, and seem to be the first to see, some remarkable wordplay/imagary/allusion in the Philip Larkin poem MCMXIV. I don’t thinkk it’s just in my imagination, because I’ve never seen anything like it before or since, in any other poem.
There seem to be two ways to read the poem, the obvious way, which is a description of England and innocent English men joyfully signing up to fight in 1914 (MCMXIV). The second way to read or see the poem is as a description, somewhat indirect or even cryptic at times, of France and innocent English men suffering and dying in a sort of hell on earth, in 1914 (MCMXIV).
It calls to mind those pictures of innocent scenes that when looked at the right way clearly look like a skull. This is the only thing that I know of that is similar. Let me know in the comments if you know of something else like this.
I’ve put comments in brackets that show how I see in almost every line a plausible allusion to the war in France. Those comments that I have my doubt about because they seem to refer to a connection that might seem to be tenuous at best I have prefixed with question mark. I have included them to show how one can argue that almost every line alludes to images of the often horrific scenes of war in France.
Here is the text of the poem (Poem © By kind permission of Faber & Faber)
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 Cryptic Allusions Line by Line.
Those long uneven lines (the zigzagging trenches in France)
Standing as patiently (trenches and craters hold standing water, patiently waiting for death, wounded soldiers are patients, including the shell shocked)
As if they were stretched outside (dead soldiers stretched out on the ground outdoors)
The Oval or Villa Park [?](villa means worm -villus?- and dead soldiers are eaten by worms; a park is an area of ground, so villa park means a wormy patch of ground?)
The crowns of hats, the sun (Jack fell down and broke his crown, military helmets are hard hats, crowns of heads blown off)
On moustached archaic faces (the sun shining on the faces of dead soldiers, death’s heads)
Grinning as if it were all (grinning from rictus, perhaps from poison gas, or just grinning skulls)
An August Bank Holiday Lark. [?](Soldiers fighting on bank holidays, First half of “Larkin”?)
And the shut shops, the bleached (Second half of “Larkin” ‘and’ pronounced “n”; shot chops, lives shut down; bleach contains chlorine, sunlight bleaches corpses, and maybe chlorine gas does, too)
Established names on the sunblinds, (stabbed by bayonets, blinded by poison gas or schrapnel)
The farthings and sovereigns [?](ordinary or extraordinary in civilian life, men from all walks of life die like flies)
And dark-clothed children at play (soldiers combat clothing is dark to blend with mud, soldiers in a macabre (dark) game, “boys” as cannon fodder)
Called after kings and queens (obeying the call to fight for king and country)
The tin advertisements (medals and recruitment posters invite the impressionable to fight by promising glory and adventure)
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs (what actually results is that you “croak”, your body is twisted, the “gobs” (mouths) of the dead are wide open all day in the sun)
Wide open all day. (see the comments on the line above)
And the countryside not caring: (the battlefield has no feelings. It’s French countryside and thus doesn’t even “know or care” about the English soldiers or their deaths.)
The place-names all hazed over [?](poison gas might look like a haze, likewise the smoke of battle)
With flowering grasses, and fields [?](“gases” eye-rhymes with “grasses”)
Shadowing Domesday lines (doomsday for each of the soldiers in many cases)
Under wheat’s restless silence; (dead soldiers buried in mud on the battlefield for the rest of time while crops are planted by French farmers regardless, no rest for the wicked)
The differently-dressed servants (servants in civilian life, dressed as soldiers in France, in Hades maybe are restless at how they lived as servants and died as dupes.)
With tiny rooms in huge houses, (the rooms the soldiers live in in the trenches are tiny, the trench, battle line or the army is huge. Tiny cogs in huge machines.)
The dust behind limousines; (clouds of dust look like poison gas, or the smoke of battle, Limousine is a place in France)
Never such innocence, (How naive the soldiers were when they first arrived in France)
Never before of since, (Never did so many soldiers voluntarily die for such naive reasons)
As changed itself to past [?](soldiers became “history” voluntarily)
Without a word — the men [?](stiff upper lip, the soldier accepting his fate stoically)
Leaving the gardens tidy, [?](soldiers probably did some gardening in the mud, and if not, dug trenches, leaving them tidy when they went over the top)
The thousands of marriages [?](a few (thousands) soldiers (gay or not) presumably “married” each other during homosexual relationships caused by absence of females)
Lasting a little while longer: [?](the gay “marriages” lasted only a short time, cut short by the death or wounding of one of both of the soldiers)
Never such innocence again. [?](soldiers had no idea they would end up in gay marriages and then die or get horribly mutilated and lost their innocence forever in France, you only live once)
Let me know in the comments what you think about these connections that I seem to see, and about any that I may have missed, or any other thoughts. Do I have an over-active imagination?