Warning: You’d better skip this item if bad language is not your thing. Surely this poem by Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985) has one of the most memorable opening lines ever?
This Be the Verse by Philip Larkin
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.
Ironically, the poet was a devoted son, regularly visiting his mother and writing to her. This poem was written after Larkin had been spending what was probably an over-long holiday with her in Loughborough – did all the little accumulating irritations drive him to write this verse? The poem is about genetic inheritance and upbringing, what we inherit and what we pass on. Our parents mess us up, but it’s not really their fault because they were messed up by their parents. This is the way of humanity – like a coastal shelf where deposits of sand build up, so the misery deepens over generations. You can “get out” by killing yourself or shrugging off any sense of responsibility, or you can refuse to have children and hence not pass the misery on even further (Larkin never married and had no children).
The title of the poem comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s gorgeous poem Requiem which includes the line “This be the verse you grave for me”. A requiem is a song sung for the dead, and Stevenson’s poem is about death and remembrance by those who loved you. Larkin has written a very different sort of poem about loved ones, showing their influence as extremely enduring, but not at all positive. It’s an emphatic title, as if the poet has suddenly discovered the meaning of life and is going to share it with you. Appropriately for a requiem, Larkin’s poem has a sing-song rhythm to it, as if an actual song, but the cheery rhythm is undercut by the dark theme. Larkin tries to deconstruct the myth of the happy family in his poem.
The opening line is designed to shock, but is a clever choice of words – our parents do “fuck” us “up” into being because they had sex with each other. Or does the unrefined speech indicate that the poet is ignorant and uncouth and knows no better?
The ABAB rhyme scheme is almost like a nursery rhyme (and nursery rhymes are often violent). Larkin’s language describing the way parents mould their children is rather like a baker creating bread and sprinkling currants in it: “They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra just for you.” Repetition is common in nursery rhymes and in Larkin’s poem the repetition stresses the cyclical operation and theme of the poem.
The first stanza focuses on the individual, the next on the individual and extended family, the third on humanity as a whole. And perhaps its message is, in the end, a positive one – if none of our faults are actually our own fault, then why should we have any sense of responsibility to change or better ourselves?
You can listen to this poem read by the author:
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