»  Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse"

 

This Be the Verse

by Philip Larkin, 1922-1985

 

•  Background

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was an odd sort of person to become a poet. He was a librarian by profession, a very good one according to his colleagues. Privately, however, he was solitary and misanthropic. An atheist, he believed that death was the end of existence, and he wrote several striking poems on that theme. Though heterosexual, he never married, and seems not to have had much liking for women beyond the sexual interest. He positively loathed children:  "Until I grew up I thought I hated everybody, but when I grew up I realized it was just children I didn't like. Once you started meeting grown-ups life was much pleasanter. Children are very horrible, aren't they? Selfish, noisy, cruel, vulgar little brutes."

All this negativity has repelled many poetry lovers. One critic, explaining why he denied that Larkin was a good poet, said:  "Poetry is supposed to affirm." Well, it's true:  Larkin doesn't affirm much. Another quote from his own lips (he is very quotable):  "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth." If you believe that life is pointless, that death is utter extinction, that procreation is a waste of time, that sex is a nuisance, and that children are horrible, obviously your poetry isn't going to be very affirmative.

We all feel like that some of the time, though. These are normal human thoughts and feelings, and it is hard to see why they shouldn't be entitled to poetic expression, or why a poet who expresses them elegantly and memorably should not be counted among the good poets. I am very glad I don't go around in a Larkin frame of mind 24/7. On the occasions when I do find myself in that mood, however, I am very glad of Larkin's company.

"This Be The Verse" was written in the spring of 1971, when the poet was 48 years old. It evoked at least two upbeat parodies. Here is one from amateur poet Richard Kell, in the pages of the London Spectator.


        This Be The Converse

They buck you up, your mum and dad,
    Or if they don't they clearly should.
No decent parents let the bad
    They've handed on defeat the good.

Forebears you reckon daft old farts,
    Bucked up in their turn by a creed
Whose homely mixture warmed their hearts,
    Were just the counsellors you need.

Life is no continental shelf:
    It lifts and falls as mountains do.
So, if you have some kids yourself,
    They could reach higher ground than you.

Here is another one from anarchist poet Adrian Mitchell.


        This Be The Converse

They tuck you up, your Mum and Dad,
    They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

They were tucked up when they were small,
    (Pink perfume, blue tobacco-smoke),
By those whose kiss healed any fall,
    Whose laughter doubled any joke.

Man hands on happiness to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
    And have some cheerful kids yourself.

There is another nice rebuttal in Chapter 15 of Judith Rich Harris's book The Nurture Assumption. Ms. Harris is arguing against the assumption, universal in late-20th-century America, that parental child-rearing practices per se (as opposed to matters like where the parents choose to live) are the main determinant, or even one of the main determinants, of adult human personality. To quote her from later in that same chapter:  "Group socialization theory makes this prediction:  that children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged — left them in their schools and their neighborhoods — but switched all the parents around."

Well, Ms. Harris starts off her Chapter 15 with the first stanza of "This Be the Verse." She then says:

Poor old Mum and Dad:  publicly accused by their son, the poet, and never given a chance to reply to his charges. They shall have one now, if I may take the liberty of speaking for them.

            How sharper than a serpent's tooth
                To hear your child make such a fuss.
            It isn't fair — it's not the truth —
                He's fucked up, yes, but not by us.

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•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don't have any kids yourself.