Dr Oliver Tearle’s summary of a classic Larkin poem
Readers not fond of swearing in poetry are advised to look away now, for Philip Larkin‘s opening lines can get pretty sweary. ‘They f*ck you up, your mum and dad’: a memorable opening line for one of Philip Larkin’s best-known poems, ‘This Be The Verse’, not exactly a laudatory paean to parenthood. But what is Larkin’s poem actually saying, and why did he feel the need to write it? The following analysis attempts some answers to these questions. You can read ‘This Be the Verse’ here.
A summary of what Larkin’s poem actually says is pretty straightforward. Our parents ‘f*ck us up’ (more on that colourful choice of phrase in a moment), perhaps unintentionally, because they pass on their own failings to us (since we inherit their genes) and, through the way they raise us, they inspire more failings within us. Larkin then says, in defence of parents everywhere, that this wasn’t their fault: they, too, were damaged by their upbringing by their parents, who spent their lives being either emotionally buttoned-up or, when they did show any emotion, arguing and creating a fraught home life for their children. Larkin concludes by saying that this is the way of humankind: we pass on our own miseries to our children, and they pass on theirs to their children’s children, and so on. Like a coastal shelf where deposits of sand and rock are laid down gradually over centuries, this misery ‘deepens’ over generations. Larkin’s advice is to leave home (and possibly even life itself?) as soon as you can – and don’t, of course, have children of your own.
It’s fitting that Larkin may well have written ‘This Be The Verse’ while he was staying with his mother at her home in Loughborough, where she lived from the early 1950s until 1972. Anthony Thwaite tentatively dates the poem to April 1971, which means that Larkin was possibly in Loughborough with his mother for the Easter holidays. (He worked as a librarian at the University of Hull, but during the university holidays would usually go and stay with his mother in Loughborough. She lived on her own, following the death of Larkin’s father in 1948.) Like other poems which Larkin wrote about his mother, such as ‘Love Songs in Age’ (completed on New Year’s Day 1957) and ‘Reference Back’ (written during the summer holidays 1955), the inspiration for ‘This Be The Verse’ may have come from Larkin being in the company of his mother for several weeks (with all the annoyances and petty irritations that tend to erupt anew when we go home and spend time with our parents).
Larkin was, by all accounts, a devoted son, who regularly went to visit his mother, who was prone to bouts of depression. Yet Larkin the poet could not shy away from examining and analysing the role that our parents play in shaping our own attitudes, behaviour, and prejudices. Larkin’s father was an admirer of Germany and Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts; following Larkin’s death in 1985, and the publication of Philip Larkin: Selected Letters and Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, Larkin himself has been accused of right-wing sympathies and even of racism. Does the apple fall far from the tree? This is something else that ‘This Be The Verse’ seems to ask.
What does the poem’s title mean? It’s a direct borrowing from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson called ‘Requiem’:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me die.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Stevenson’s poem is about death and remembrance: a ‘requiem’ is a song sung for the dead. Stevenson asks that his loved ones remember him after he dies. Larkin, by comparison, presents a somewhat different view of his loved ones: rather than honouring one’s parents, and respecting and remembering them when they die, he focuses on a different aspect of the parent-child relationship: resentment. ‘This be the verse you grave for me’, Stevenson’s poem proclaims, suggesting the following lines be read as epitaph, literally set in stone (with a faint play on the double meaning of the word ‘grave’ too). This be another sort of verse about loved ones, Larkin’s title seems to say, not as commemorative maybe (or at least not in the usual sense) but just as authoritative and enduring. (Larkin’s poems often touch upon the idea of things enduring forever: see the ending to ‘An Arundel Tomb’, for instance.)
The famous opening line of the poem seems straightforward enough, though we might analyse (over-analyse?) that four-lettered expletive and detect a faint pun: our parents literally ‘f*ck’ us ‘up’, they conjure us up if you will, in the sense that it is only because his parents had sex with each other that Larkin was born at all. The rest of the trouble followed from that. Not a particularly cheery take on human existence, perhaps, but delivered with the usual Larkinesque wit. This be the real verse, no?
‘This Be the Verse’ is available in Philip Larkin: Collected Poems. We thoroughly recommending getting hold of this volume, as a way of discovering more of Larkin’s marvellous work.
Continue to explore Larkin’s later poetry with our analysis of his fine lyric ‘The Trees’, or our summary of his ‘Going, Going’; alternatively, discover the work of a fellow Hull poet with our discussion of Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving But Drowning’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Larkin with Gin & Tonic, 1961; photographer unknown. First published in Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite. Via Simon K on Flickr (share-alike licence).