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.
Commentary by Patrick Chester
This Be The Verse, published in 1971, is often attributed as being one of the most quoted poems in the English language, while also being one of the most nihilistic. The poem preaches against the continuation of the human race and the existence of the people who are picking up the poem for the first time today by Philip Larkin’s reckoning should not exist. Despite this the poem has evidently become a part of British culture and it’s contradictory composition sits at the heart of British black humour.
Even on the first reading of this poem it appears impossible to not understand the humour and the irony behind it. This is made clear both by Larkin’s careful choice of language but also in the very form of the poem. Structurally it is a simple lyric poem and this central to the comedic effect of the poem for a number of reasons. Firstly this poetic form can be seen as one of the oldest, dating back to antiquity and often performed accompanied by a lyre (where the form gets its name from), however, it was also widely used by the Romantics. Thus this form can be seen as symbolic of a poetic hegemony, which Larkin seeks to undermine with his diatribe against human society and civilisation. In a deeper sense the subversive use of this format also mirrors the Larkin’s distaste for societal constructions, embodied in the poem by the modern family. Furthermore, the very simplistic ABAB rhyme scheme and use of iambic tetrameter is reminiscent of a nursery rhyme creating an even deeper sense of irony in that a poem with such serious subject matter should be laid out in a structure so appealing to children, the very thing the poem aims to warn against producing. In his later years Larkin often suggested that a choir of a thousand girl guides should intone the poem at his funeral. This epitomises the irony of the poem, suggesting it is a poem about a desire for the extinction of mankind yet it is designed to be performed and the irony is heightened by his desire to have it performed by girl guides, who by the time of his death would not have existed if the poem we’re to be taken literally.
Moving on to the actual content of the poem we first come to its title, which is primarily an allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem, a poem that is very positive about existence and essentially suggests that man should be happy if he achieves his goals. Larkin turns this idea in on itself suggesting that man has nothing to be proud of and that in light of two world wars as a society all we have managed to create is death and destruction Furthermore, in isolation of this allusion the title helps create a prayer like poem, while also suggesting Larkin’s is the definitive viewpoint. This in the context of the poem creates a joke in itself, poetry is by definition subjective and yet Larkin claiming that “this is the verse” suggests that his poem is objective fact that all must listen to. This humour is heightened further in the first line as he informs us that “they fuck you up,” a line one would not expect to see in a poem of such formal construction. Moreover, his use of they creates a sense of homogenous anonymity; we do not know who “they” are yet they are a group and they will destroy your life. Following this Larkin uses a caesura to create a sense of suspense as the reader waits to discover who exactly fucks one up, which is rewarded by the revelation it is our “mum and dad.” This is extremely shocking as the poet suggests that the very people who are responsible for ever aspect of our growth and wellbeing are in actual fact damaging us. This again subverts accepted societal beliefs and challenges the reader’s views of man kind and the civilisation in which we inhabit. However, moving on from this he makes it explicitly clear that “they may not mean to” absolving them of some of the blame. This idea I further heightened in the second stanza in which the reader is informed that ones parents “were fucked up in their turn by fools in old style hats and coats”. This suggests that not only are the parents not responsible for their children being fucked up but that this process of mental and physical degradation is a product of society, which increases with each generation. In such a sense parents simply stand as a symbol of the past and the trauma we inherit from it.
It is extremely important for one to read this product as a product of its time. Larkin was very much a member of the World War Two generation and had only missed out fighting in the war due to his poor eyesight. It is clear that he blames the previous generations for the events, which caused both World Wars, and as such he believes that the generation who caused the First World War passed on their faults to the next generation. In such context the poem can be read as an anti war protest-poem, though one that believes it is in mans nature to create conflict and that as man advances, socially and scientifically these wars will only get worse. The fact this poem was written during the cold war suggests a real awareness of the potential man can do to himself. The atomic bomb was a product of the Second World War yet it was only in Larkin’s generation that its true and terrible potential could be realised. This results in the poet believing that the only real means for peace is the discontinuation of the human race by choosing to not “have any kids yourself.
The popularity of Larkin’s poem lies in its humour, there is something intrinsically comedic about a poet to wish death upon the reader he so desperately needs. Larkin is credited as saying “the whole point of drawing is choosing the right line” and this idea is evident in this poem. It is one, which is carefully crafted each word painstakingly chosen and placed and the structure expertly considered. This poem truly represents the contradictory nature of our society and though unavoidably nihilistic, it lives at the heart of British culture and will ironically remain there for generations to come.