The First World War was a landmark event in the twentieth century. In terms of social attitude, it marked a transition from a stable orderly world to a more modern age, and with that “modern” age there came a brutal, cynical view of society’s government and a lack of trust in its leaders. First World War poets like Siegfried Sassoon expressed this hardened and more savage viewpoint in their poetry attacking the military leaders and governments, and this change of view and tone (from innocent to cynical) has been of interest to poets of the following generations.
The poems I am going to compare and contrast, ‘MCMXIV’ by Philip Larkin and ‘Six Young men’ by Ted Hughes, were both written at least half a century after the First World War. This shows the importance of the event to modern writers and this distance in time gives them a kind of perspective. Fifty years on, they can see that World War I had no final good purpose and that all that World War I did for Great Britain was not to make it safer or better but just to change the way of life they had always known. How dramatically it was changed in social terms is the subject of Larkin’s poem, whilst Hughes’s poem talks about the impact it had on individual young men of the time.
‘MCMXIV’ by Philip Larkin
Larkin’s poem consists of four stanzas, each of eight lines. He also makes his poem dependent on only one pair of ending rhymes, on lines four and eight (“Park”/”lark”, “play”/”day”, “men”/”again” and the half-rhymes “lines” and “limousines”). This means that the poem is less structured than we expect and sounds more natural when spoken out loud. His title is in Latin numerals, “MCMXIV” because this is how the date “1914” would be carved on a war memorial. This reminds us how the war in 1914 will change everything, and that it is not just lives, which will be lost.
In the first stanza, Larkin is giving us an image of a photo of young men joining the draft, but we do not understand what he is describing until later on in the poem. First he tells of men waiting patiently (“standing as patiently”), and then he describes a holiday atmosphere with young men enjoying themselves with no idea of the horror that awaits them, as they think it will be an adventure (“grinning as if it were all/An August Bank Holiday lark”). Larkin subtly lets the reader know that something is not right here, as he uses the phrase ‘as if’ twice. This gives the reader a sense of unease as Larkin is telling us all is not what it seems. The word ‘archaic’ also tells the reader that Larkin is talking about something that is no longer in use and firmly in the past.
In the second stanza, Larkin gives us a list of things which we would now think of as “archaic” – for example, “farthings”, “sovereigns”, “tin advertisements” and “twist” (an old word for tobacco). We modern twenty-first century readers may not immediately recognize such words, which Larkin uses to his advantage as he is now trying to show us what life used to be like before the war. His choice of words builds up a sense of nostalgia, and he takes us back to a time when shops stayed within families, pleasures were cheap, royalty was respected (the children are “called after Kings and Queens”), and the pubs are “wide open all day”. This makes the pre-war period appear like a golden era of peace and stability.
In the third stanza, Larkin moves away from the city streets into the countryside to underline the way that life just disappeared. He gives an image of the countryside “not caring”, which shows us both a lazy, carefree, sunny past pace of life and also has a more sinister meaning about nature being indifferent to human tragedy. Larkin uses the word ‘Domesday’ about the field boundaries, which shows that these fields have been unchanged since medieval times (when the Domesday book was written) but the word also means “day of judgement”, which will come with the war when people judge their leaders. He also gives the reader details of a time when people knew where they stood and respected the class boundaries (“the differently-dressed servants, with tiny rooms in huge houses”) which also would change with the war.
The final stanza has a tone of sorrow. Larkin knows the men will all die but the men and women themselves at that time were not aware of what was about to happen to them. Larkin uses the word ‘never’ three times, “never such innocence”, “never before or since” and “never such innocence again”. He repeats this word to show what has been lost, a world that can never be recaptured. This repetition underlines to the reader that lives, values, and standards were destroyed by the war. The innocence is betrayed (“changed itself to past”). Larkin reinforces that life would never be the same after 1914 and how it had a massive impact on lives. It’s only in the last stanza that the reader can see that Larkin is telling us about a wartime photo and how no-one then knew just how much life would change, that the men who thought it was an adventure would never return and that the marriages would only last “a little while longer”.
‘Six Young Men’ by Ted Hughes
Hughes’s poem is four stanzas long, each made up of nine lines. This is an unconventional structure for poetry, and at first it appears as if it is even more relaxed in structure than Larkin’s poem. However, when we look more closely we can see that it is actually more controlled than Larkin’s poem, because every line ends in a “half-rhyme” (where the consonant matches but the vowel doesn’t). For example, in the first stanza there are the endings “well”, “smile”, “fashionable” and “bashful”, then “friends” and “hands”, then “tinged”, “pride” and “dead”. This means that the poem seems free when it is actually very closely controlled.
In the first stanza, Hughes states that he is about to tell us about a photo, unlike Larkin who does not tell us at all, and that he is going to relate the story of the six young men in it. He tells us how the fashions were different then (“though their cocked hats are not now fashionable”). He also gives us details of these young lads’ appearances (“one chews a grass, one lower his eyes, bashful/ One ridiculous with cocky pride”). This gives us an idea of their personalities and helps us to imagine what they were like in life. Because Hughes has given us an idea of how they were, the stanza ends with a very a hard-hitting line for the reader (“Six months after this picture they were all dead”).
In the second stanza, Hughes firstly tells us how these young men “all are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt”, which is a slightly archaic word meaning a day out, a good time. Then the stanza goes on to describe a place that has not changed since the photo was taken. Like Larkin’s poem, Hughes’s poem compares fragile human existence with the endlessness of Nature and puts us in the glade with an image that the reader can almost hear and see (“you hear the water of seven streams fall”). Hughes ends this stanza with another hard-hitting line, “though their faces are four decades under the ground” which contrasts with the peaceful scene he has just described.
Unlike Larkin’s poem, Hughes’s third stanza has some very graphic violence as he moves away from the peaceful English countryside and goes directly into the war zone. He gives us personal details of each of the young men in the photograph, and it looks that he wants to shock us with the details of each man’s horrific death (“this one was shot in an attack”, “his best friend/Went out to bring him in and was shot too”, “this one… fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away”). It is short and brutal and succeeds in making us realize how horrific the combat was. Hughes’ last line once again goes straight to the point about what happened, “all were killed”.
In the fourth stanza, Hughes shows us the way in which war can change someone by taking a single soldier, describing him as an individual human being and then describing his agonies, as he lies dying in hospital. Hughes describes a smile with the metaphor of a “locket”, meaning a valuable treasure and also meaning something private and locked away. He does this so that he can contrast this with the wounded soldier who has no privacy in the hospital and is turned into “mangled” “bulk” and “weight”. We are also given the image of “war’s worst thinkable flash and rending”, a missile or grenade exploding. Hughes’s tone is angry, and he doesn’t try to hide the reality of the war’s gruesome pointless deaths (“rotting into soil”).
In the final stanza, Hughes shows us more of his anger at the pointless waste of life in the First World War. He returns to the photograph, which started the poem but carries on using the contrast from the last stanza, the peaceful image of the six young men against the violent gruesome deaths they had. Hughes continues with his use of brutal and horrific words, giving the reader some unpleasant images (“no thought so vivid as their smoking blood” and “such contradictory permanent horrors”) in order to give his poem more impact. Almost every line contains a contrast from alive to dead, from calmness to violence, and the poem’s message is that the change is so puzzling to us that it takes us out of our own modern age and makes us try to put ourselves in their place (“shoulder one’s own body from its instant and heat”).
In conclusion, I would say that I prefer Philip Larkin’s poem “MCMXIV” to Ted Hughes’s “Six Young Men”. Ted Hughes’ poem felt very repetitive sometimes. I thought he was saying the same thing over and over again at the end of every stanza without making his message deeper or more interesting. The violence is also too graphic and doesn’t really move me. Larkin’s view of the war is more subtle but he still gives us an insight to the war and his version of life is more realistic. “Leaving the gardens tidy” is a very sad little personal detail because it seems so pointless and innocent and I think it rings more true than Hughes’s general descriptions of corpses and grenades.