Many war poems such as “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae depict the typical war themes of death, despair, and sadness. In Alan Bennett’s book “The History Boys”, the students recite the poem “MCMXIV” by war poet Phillip Larkin who describes the more joyous part of the war, the celebrations held in the days before the men left for war. In this commentary, we will analyze the question the students made to their teacher Mr. Irwin asking whether the poem “MCMXIV” as a piece of art describes the truth about history.
As a war poet, Philip Larkin titled his poem “MCMXIV” which are Roman numerals for the year 1914, which is also the year that World War I started, and when the first of thousands of soldiers died. Many gravesites are marked with Roman numerals, so Larkin chose to use the Roman numerals to title his poem rather than a 1914 because the letters MCMXIV create an emotional value and paint a vivid, dark picture in the reader’s head. So Larkin is saying that words aren’t there just to explain things in an easy to understand manner but that the words are art in their own right and have meaning that creates a more beautiful picture than any painting.
The poem uses vivid word choice to create imagery that says one thing but also describes another. For example, the words, “Those long uneven lines, Standing as patiently, As if they were stretched outside, The Oval or Villa Park.” describe a scene of men waiting in long lines to enlist in the army. The reader can picture the men, filled with eagerness and anticipation, slowly shuffling forward just like they would do if they were waiting patiently to get into a fairground or movie theatre. It is easy to imagine that for many of the men that they expected the war to be like a walk in the park or through beautiful countryside.
The poem continues to build on the image that war was an adventure in the countryside by stating that “The crowns of hats, the sun, On moustached archaic faces, Grinning as if it were all, An August Bank Holiday lark.” Larkin has chosen words that could be used to describe a holiday such as “crowns of hats, the sun,” as many people associate the sun and hats with summer activities such as going to the beach or for a picnic. Further, Larkin states “Grinning as if it were all, An August Bank Holiday lark.” which shows the carefree attitude, the sense of adventure that many of the men had before they started fighting.
Of course, it makes perfect sense that many men would think that going to war was an adventure. As Larkin describes many of the men were rather ordinary, had ordinary names like William, George, or Edward “Called after kings and queens,” and lived ordinary lives filled with “ The tin advertisements, For cocoa and twist, and the pubs, Wide open all day;” and would not have experienced war. However, despite the joyous tone of the poem, Larkin uses the same words to tell truth about war to any reader who cares to read a little deeper.
While the poem describes the...