At first glance this might seem to be an unremarkable opening, but in fact it tells a lot about the narrator of the poem. This narrator only wants to go into the church when he is sure there’s nothing going on. The nothing suggests that he does not want to be a part of a religious service, or any other kind of activity associated with the church. This is an isolated character that Larkin is describing. A man who does not want to be a part of the public ceremonies and yet, in a way, he also does. That is why he goes into the church in the first place.
As he takes off his cycle clips in awkward reverence (8-9) this character may remind the reader of one of Eliot’s most famous creations: Prufrock. One can imagine Prufrock removing his cycle clips too, just as I have measured out my life with coffee-spoons (Eliot, 1991). There is the hint of uncertainty, or a painfully lived with a painful understanding of isolation within the world. If the outside world is like a patient etherized upon the table (Eliot, 1991) the person perceiving it is acutely aware.
Prufrock does not think that they will sing for me when he speaks of the mermaids, and many of Larkin’s poems echo a similar alienation from the world. But Larkin’s alienation is perhaps quieter that Eliot’s, he inhabits a more sanguine world in which the suffering caused by war at least had some kind of point in contrast to the aimless, nihilistic destruction of World War I. Larkin stated that deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth and it is within deprivation, or the potential for it, that he often finds his most compelling muse.
Deprivation is as far as possible from the minds of the young men whom Larkin describes in MCMXIV. In this poem he analyses the men lining up to join the army just before World War I and thus provides a kind of long-distance glance at the wasteland that Eliot actually lived through (Larkin was born in 1922). Larkin describes small details in this poem, including the crowns of hats and the sun on moustached archaic faces (Larkin, 2004) adopts what is a characteristically ironic tone at the beginning of the poem. He adopts an almost judgmental tone towards these men who are so casual that they appear to be lining up to enter a sports ground rather than to enter a war. Yet as often happens in Larkin, as the poem continues he reveals, beneath the superficial distance and near cynicism, an intense mixture of both sympathy and empathy with these men, many of whom are about to go to their deaths.
This change occurs with the lines,
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
And continues with heart-wrenching details of,
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
The repetition of never such innocence turns into something of a choric lament, and the almost casual observation of the marriages that will last a little while lo