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February 2014

Nomination: MCMXIV [17 May 1960. The Whitsun Weddings]

I’d like to nominate and comment on ‘MCMXIV’.

When Larkin was deciding the title for this wonderfully soft-focus masterpiece of understatement, he settled on MCMXIV not only to stay true to the carving on the memorial, but also because he considered 1914 in Arabic numerals would have too great an emotional impact on readers for anything he might write. How wrong, at least for this reader, for whom the use of historical Roman numerals on a 20th century cenotaph suggests a kind of hypocrisy, saying we are sorry about these events, but prefer to think of them happening before our time: “Not on our watch, Matey”. But they did, and still do happen in our time. In 1960 when this poem was being written, Larkin would have been well aware of further worldwide atrocities, including the indiscriminate bombing of Coventry where he had lived as a youngster, of his adoptive Hull, of London, Berlin, Dresden, Pearl Harbour, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, plus many other instances of less than human behaviour in Concentration Camps and POW Camps in numerous locations. The poem makes direct reference to none of these, yet they all combine with what was happening in 1914 to point an accusatory finger in my direction from these stark Roman numerals.

Shortly after finishing the poem, Larkin realized that it had no main verb, but decided to leave it this way. How right; it doesn’t need one. That verb screams out to me from the monument itself, it is the one that follows the greatest of human failings: man’s inability to settle international disagreements without resort to violence. The verb is ‘warring’.

‘MCMXIV’ portrays a vanishing England of “innocence” at the beginning of what would become known as The Great War during which, because of censorship and the slow speed of communications, much of the innocence back home in Blighty lasted for most of the four year conflict, until the truth could no longer be withheld or ignored when the blinded, gassed or otherwise maimed returned to various homelands, leaving behind their thousands of “fallen” comrades.

I welcome a poem which disturbs my emotions, even in a negative way as does Sir Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitae Lampada’ which juxtaposes war and cricket, a poem which I was pleased to learn Newbolt in later years expressed regret at having written. Of course, my opinion is prejudiced, but it is worthwhile noting that by the time of WW2 Montgomery still talked about “hitting the enemy for six”, and that cavalry officers in my own tank regiment would use such expressions as “my mount has spread a plate” as if they still wore their hunting pink, to explain that the Sherman they commanded had slipped a track and was stuck in the mud! So, even in battle there persisted a need to sanitize war by pretending – or trying to pretend – it was some sort of game. ‘MCMXIV’ goes a long way to redressing the balance.

Read the poem once more, stand with the men lining up to answer the call, “Your country needs you!”, see the shops’ awnings announcing ‘Smith & Sons, Established 1876′, glimpse the rich man’s gold sovereigns, count the poor’s farthings (of which you’d need 960 to make £1). Blink and rub the dust from your eyes as the Gaffer’s limo curves up the drive to an upstairs/downstairs home, follow him back into those ‘good old days’, but before entering, pause a moment with the “thousands of marriages/lasting a little while longer.”. Ignore, if you can, the widows, the orphans, the crippled and the dead of this, and all other conflicts, whom this poem leaves entirely to our individual and collective conscience.

Never, indeed, such innocence again.

Maurice Rutherford

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