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.
Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
War had been rumored for months. Public opinion in Britain was divided.
On Sunday, August 2nd, 1914, there was a huge rally for peace in Trafalgar Square, London. Labour MP for West Ham South – Kier Hardie – spoke and was both cheered and heckled by the crowd, Nearby the first crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace.
Monday, August 3rd was a national holiday in Britain. Germany invaded Belgium and public opinion began to shift in favor of the war. Public sympathy began to grow for “Gallant little Belgium” and shift against Germany and the arguments for peace.
Throughout the day on August 4th, people talked about the war. In the era before radio and television people depended on newspapers for information and gathered in the streets to hear the latest. Crowds gathered in Westminster to find out what was going on and enthusiasm for the war mounted.
Larkin’s poem does a remarkable job of recreating that long-lost pre-war era. All those details of a world now forgotten – the way people dressed, the names they gave their children, the tin signs for cocoa and tobacco, the class divisions, the countryside, the coins and the days before DORA (Defense of the Realm Act) and pubs open all day.
And the poignancy of that detail of leaving the garden tidy before departing, leaving the thousands of marriages. Domestic details of a break in time, a great historical divide. Their lives – and the world – would never be the same again.
Never such innocence,
Never before or since