Philip Larkin’s father was a self-made man, who managed to rise to the position of Coventry City Treasurer. His father had a great love for literature, and introduced Philip to T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence. It is also said that his father had an interest in Nazism, and he reportedly attended two Nuremburg rallies in the mid-30s. Philip was educated at home by his mother and sister (who was 10 years older than him) until he was eight years old. It was rare for anyone to come to the family home, and Philip did not get out much, so he developed a stammer. He was enrolled at Coventry’s King Henry VIII Junior School where he overcame his stammer, and made long-lasting friendships. His family was not the most outwardly loving, but they did encourage his passion for jazz music. Philip failed the medical exam for the military because of his poor eyesight, which was a blessing for him because it allowed him to study for the usual three years at Oxford University (1940-43); WWII began in 1939 when Larkin was seventeen, and many of Larkin’s contemporaries were recruited to fight in the war.
This Be The Verse is reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem, which was engraved on R. L. S.’s tombstone as his epitaph; Larkin’s verse is meant to warn future generations against procreating.
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. (lines 1-4)
“Fuck you up” is very untypical of formal poetry; colloquial language was largely looked at as informal, and had no place in high-literature. Larkin is famous for his use of everyday language; he wanted the general public to be able to relate to his writing, so he took on an “average Joe” voice in his writing.
Larkin addresses the plight of everyday man; kids inherit their parent’s bad behaviors, and no matter how hard they try to avoid it, they will become just like their parents. Parent’s pass on their faults and the faults of their parents; it is a never-ending cycle. It is a legacy of defects. For example: children born to alcoholics are at an extremely high-risk of someday becoming alcoholics themselves. Children tend to emulate their parents, which mean that they pick up on their bad habits and flaws without consciously realizing it.
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. (5-8)
Larkin offers an escape for blame; parents can’t help that they have inherited their parent’s drama; it is tradition to wreck your children. “Old-style hats and coats” alludes to those of previous generations, such as parents or grandparents. “Soppy” means overly sentimental and “stern” means strict; so the previous generation was overly protective, which is inevitably passed on to their children. “Half at one another’s throats” means that they were figuratively fighting or arguing with one another (with words not fists).
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. (9-12)
Misery is a part of life and there is no escaping it. “Hands on” means passes on/down through generations. A “coastal shelf” is underwater land off of a coast. With each passing generation the misery grows deeper and pretty soon it will consume us all. The last two lines serve as the final warning: end the misery and don’t have kids. “Get out as early as you can” is somewhat ambiguous, because it can have several meanings: kill yourself, run away, move far away from your parents, etc. He wants people to not continue the cycle, but there is a major flaw in his argument: not having children equals death to humanity.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. 8th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 2565-2573.
Wikipedia contributors, ‘Philip Larkin’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 August 2011, 15:36 UTC,
http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Philip_Larkin&oldid=445350053 [accessed 22 August 2011]