Compare and contrast - Sample Essay

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.