One Reason Why I’m Not A Poet – ‘This Be the Verse’

‘This Be the Verse’ by Philip Larkin

This poem by Philip Larkin is probably as famous by now as Robert Frost’s classic poems “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken”, but it hasn’t been widely anthologized in high school poetry collections. 

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                     This Be The Verse

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.

                                                 Philip Larkin                                                                                          ‘

How could I possibly say it better than Larkin does in this poem?

13 responses to this post.

  1. He was such a superb death-poet that he makes other poets look trivial, or footling, or frightened, when he was probably deeply frightened himself: his oeuvre seems to be the work of a man trying, for years, decades, to grasp the elementary human condition — that everything tends toward death, that his mother, to quote Beckett, “[gave] birth astride of a grave.” He approaches the idea of death, he touches it, he expresses it, he can’t believe it, he approaches it again, on and on for years. No wonder he was hostile toward parents. Look at what they got him into.

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  2. Hi DKS,
    Interesting. I probably should have highlighted a different fine Philip Larkin poem that not everyone is familiar with. This post was a bit of an April Fools joke, and I couldn’t resist. The poem ‘Aubade’ would certainly fit in with your interpretation.
    ‘I work all day and get half drunk at night / Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare / In time the curtain edges will grow light / Till then I see what’s really there: / Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die.’

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  3. I think most of his poems would. ‘Heads in the Women’s Ward.’ (“For old age come / Death’s terror and delirium”) ‘How.’ (“dawns / Of days people will die on.”) ‘Continuing to live.’ (“On that green evening when our death begins.”) ‘Tops.’ (“They are starting to die.”) ‘Arrival’ (“A style of dying only.”) ‘Oils.’ (“Apart from your tribe there is only the dead.”) ‘The Explosion.’ (“The dead go on before us.”) ‘Next, please’ (“Only one ship seeking us” – this ship is our death) ‘Ignorance.’ (“That when we start to die / Have no idea why.”) And on and on.

    And even those of his poems that don’t talk about death outright hint at it: they suggest decay, failure, slowing-down, despair, the tedium or uselessness or hopelessness of life, or they ridicule ambition, writerly ambition in particular (‘Fiction and the reading public,’ ‘A Writer,’ ‘Posterity’).

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    • Hi DKS,
      Your comments have caused me to go back to some of Larkin’s other poems, something I hadn’t done for several years. I’m happy that I purchased his ‘Collected Poems’ – it is one of those books to keep coming back to. Despite his death-obsessed, somewhat depressive view of things, his poems are also witty and lively. I wonder what you think of Robert Lowell. I’ve also gotten into his poetry on occasion, a much different poet but one I also like.

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      • I think it’s the liveliness — that grim liveliness — that made me think of him in tandem with Beckett — it’s a robust view of death they have — and then there are his moments of tenderness (the end of ‘The Explosion’ for example, or the way he considers the hands in ‘Arundel Tomb’ — it would have been easy for a poet who was merely despairing to sneer at the dead couple and call them delusional — Larkin’s tone is not sneering), which go along with the rough and bitter grin — standing out so sharply that they make everything sharp: the despair rides hard against that softer vein of feeling.

        I was reading Harold Bloom’s ‘Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?’ over the weekend, and he, discussing Nietzsche, brought up N.’s idea that pain is part of memory — you’re more likely to remember something that gave you pain. Well Larkin’s poems are painful, and lines from them stick in my head even when I haven’t read the poems themselves for a while. “Never such innocence again,” especially, and the idea of, “Eggs unbroken.”

        I like Lowell, what I’ve read of him, but I’ve only read him casually. I’ll be going through an anthology, there he’ll be, I’ll read the poem, think, “I liked that,” then move on — that kind of casual. Now I’m trying to work out what I think of him, so that I can answer your question. A storyteller, I think, with a sort of roundish rolling proclaiming tone. He sets a scene, a physical scene, something happens in the scene, he reflects on the scene, and the history of the scene. That’s the idea I have of him.

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        • Here is a quite famous Robert Lowell poem that I like.
          Middle Age
          Now the midnight grind
          is on me, New York
          drills through my nerves,
          as I walk
          the chewed-up streets.

          At forty-five
          What next, what next?
          At every corner,
          I meet my Father
          my age, still alive.

          Father, forgive me
          my injuries,
          as I forgive
          those I
          have injured!

          You never climbed
          Mount Sion, you left
          dinosaur
          death-steps on the crust,
          where I must walk.

          Also speaking of Becket, there is this 15 minute movie on the Internet of Becket’s ‘Play’ that fits in very well with what you’ve said about Becket. The link for it is :
          http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3453298926288406872#

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  4. This is such a good poem, I actually memorised it. Not because of my own parents who were not too bad at the job, but more a warning to myself in bringing up my own children

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    • Hi Tom,
      This poem is a much-needed corrective to all the more sentimental views of life. Somehow Philip Larkin, dispite his cynicism and his death-obsessed viewpoint, is a more lively poet than any one else in recent years.

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  5. what a great site and informative posts, I will bookmark your site. Keep up the good work!

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  6. Posted by marco on April 6, 2010 at 8:46 PM

    I remember hearing this poem as a song in a live album by Anne Clark, R.S.V.P. – she let the audience complete the last line of the first stanza “just for you”
    At the time I didn’t know Larkin at all – I only encountered him during my University studies a couple of years later – and then I remember I gave a cassette with copy of the song to my Professor! (after the exam)
    He really was obsessed by death
    From Aubade again:

    And specious stuff that says no rational being
    Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
    that this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
    The anaesthetic from which none come round.

    I also remember this very early poem, Träumerei, perhaps not very subtle but effective

    In this dream that dogs me I am part
    Of a silent crowd walking under a wall,
    Leaving a football match, perhaps, or a pit,
    All moving the same way. After a while
    A second wall closes on our right,
    Pressing us tighter. We are now shut in
    Like pigs down a concrete passage. When I lift
    My head, I see the walls have killed the sun,
    And light is cold. Now a giant whitewashed D
    Comes on the second wall, but much too high
    For them to recognise: I await the E,
    Watch it approach and pass. By now
    We have ceased walking and travel
    Like water through sewers, steeply, despite
    The tread that goes on ringing like an anvil
    Under the striding A. I crook
    My arm to shield my face, for we must pass
    Beneath the huge, decapitated cross,
    White on the wall, the T, and I cannot halt
    The tread, the beat of it, it is my own heart,
    The walls of my room rise, it is still night,
    I have woken again before the word was spelt.

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    • Hi Marco,
      Well, that poem ‘Traumerei” really spells it out for us. D-E-A-T, and then fortunately he wakes up.

      Yes, these lines in “This Be the Verse’ have the most impact for me.

      “They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you.”

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