This Be the Verse Summary

This Be the Verse” is a 1971 poem by Philip Larkin about the emotional burdens that parents place on children over the generations.

  • The poem’s first stanza claims that parents unintentionally damage their children, passing on their own faults and some extra ones.
  • The second stanza considers how parents are damaged in turn by their own parents, who are imagined as deeply flawed figures in historical clothes.
  • The final stanza frames the human condition as a process by which misery is passed down through time. The speaker ultimately advises against having children of one’s own.

Summary

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Last Updated on April 13, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

Introduction

“This Be the Verse” is one of the best-known poems by the British poet Philip Larkin. The poem was first published in 1971 and collected in Larkin’s fourth and final collection of poetry, High Windows, in 1974. The popularity of the poem demonstrates the level of respect that Larkin achieved as a poet during his lifetime. “This Be the Verse” is also an example of how Larkin used traditional forms of poetry imbued with common, accessible language to express modern realities.

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Summary

“This Be the Verse” begins with the speaker addressing the reader directly, using second-person pronouns. In the first stanza, the speaker explains to the reader, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” The parents, the poet argues, have inflicted permanent damage on the child. Although the parents are particularized as “your mum and dad,” they can be understood as stand-ins for parents more generally. The speaker acknowledges that parents may not do this intentionally, but they still cause damage by passing on their own faults to their children, and they even “add some extra.” In raising their children, they cannot help but fill them with flaws.

In the second stanza, the speaker goes back in time. The parents who have damaged their children were once children themselves, damaged by their own parents. These grandparents are characterized as “fools” in historical clothing. Half of the time, they are “soppy-stern” authority figures. By using the word “soppy,” Larkin means that they are sentimentally serious or even drunk. The suggestion is that their parenting style entails compromised attempts at authoritarian discipline. The rest of the time, when they are not parenting, they are “at each other’s throats”—that is, fighting with each other. In both parenting and marriage, these grandparent figures are dysfunctional and hostile to those they love.

Larkin begins the third stanza by going back even further in history and expanding the field of concern to consider the broader human condition. The speaker claims that “Man hands on misery to man”—that is, generation after generation, more damage is done. The interaction between human generations—parent to child—is inevitably a transaction of pain and trauma. Over the expanse of history, this damage “deepens like a coastal shelf.” Through this simile, Larkin means that this intergenerational trauma accumulates gradually but considerably. The simile also suggests that the progression of human history is a downward slope, descending to darker places in the way a coastal shelf slopes towards deeper waters.

In the final two lines, the speaker addresses the reader directly once more. The speaker encourages the reader to “get out” from under their parents’ influence as soon as they can. In the final line, Larkin argues that the best course of action for the reader would be to break the cycle of damage by deciding not to have any children of their own. Larkin’s suggestion to not have any children at all highlights once again that the passing on of “misery” through parenting is inevitable; thus, the only escape from this cycle is to leave the family environment altogether.

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