This Be the Verse

by Philip Larkin

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949

One of the first things readers notice about the poem “This Be the Verse” is the diction. Larkin chooses one of the most startling words in the English language—“fuck”—to immediately set an honest, casual, and brusque tone from the very first line. He claims the reader’s attention and highlights the intensity of the trauma that parents inflict on their children by declaring that they “fuck them up.” The language is strong and clear.

Larkin also speaks directly to the reader, arguing that “your mum and dad” inevitably “fuck you up.” This is another instance of diction designed to seize the reader’s attention. The fundamental problem between parents and children is significant because it has shaped “you,” the reader, and “your” parents. The discussion is in fact more general, with “your mum and dad” referring to an archetypal pair of parents. But the poem and the issue it presents is made personal by the use of second-person pronouns, and the informal language suggests that the poet is presenting an honest representation of reality. In this way, the casual language actually builds trust between the poet and the reader. One can almost imagine an older, wiser speaker pulling a younger figure aside to let them know what life is really like and giving them honest advice.

Larkin’s diction holds to this clear, straightforward tone until the third stanza. Momentarily, Larkin uses more lofty language: “Man hands on misery to man.” In the next line, the poet uses imagery and simile when he writes, “It deepens like a coastal shelf.” This is the only simile in the entire poem. For these two lines, the tone seems to have shifted to a more formal, elevated style poetry. However, the speaker then breaks out of this meditation, and the last two lines of the poem revert back to an informal tone. In these lines, the poet uses contractions (“don’t”) and words such as “get out” and “kids” to again achieve a casual, conversational tone.

“This Be the Verse” is a highly structured poem. Although Larkin uses very casual language and even obscenities at times, the form of the poem is traditional. The lines are composed in a neat iambic tetrameter, and the alternating rhyme scheme of ABAB is followed carefully in all three stanzas. 

With this classic ballad structure, “This Be the Verse” is a very musical poem. It appeals to the ear, and the rhythms and rhymes of the poem make it easy to recite. Larkin uses various tools to further this effect. He uses repetition, beginning the first three lines with the word “They.” He also uses alliteration; in several parts of the poem, he places words that have the same initial sounds in close proximity. Examples of alliteration would be “fill you with the faults,” “soppy-stern,” and “man hands on misery to man.” Larkin also uses short lines, phrases, and sentences to add to the poem’s conversational tone and accessible style.

The sound of the poem, like the speaker’s focus, shifts throughout. It begins with punchy, short words and hard consonant sounds. For example, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” combines brusque, punchy, monosyllabic diction with the lilting, sing-song quality of the ballad form’s iambic tetrameter. In this way, Larkin achieves a kind of sardonic version of a nursery rhyme. Later in the poem, when Larkin shifts his focus to the human condition in general, the pace slows down. The 

Even though the ninth and tenth lines maintain the tetrameter rhythm, they slow down the pace of the poem with long vowel sounds and multisyllabic words, such as...

(This entire section contains 949 words.)

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“misery,” “deepens,” and “coastal.” The poem’s tone grows more somber as the speaker steps back from the particulars of family life to the broader sweep of the human condition. The poet then reverts back to the punchy rhythm of shorter words with harsher consonant sounds in the final two lines as the attention shifts back to the individual scale, with the speaker encouraging the reader to “get out” and avoid having children of their own.

Larkin’s individualistic focus, urging the reader toward their own self-preservation, is indicative of his context as a modern poet. Larkin uses the tools of traditional English poetry in combination with the language of common contemporary people to express a modern perspective. Indeed, much of the poem’s unique power arises from the tonal contrast between the classic and the contemporary, the old and the new. This contrast befits the poem’s themes, with its critique of traditional family-centric values.

The title of Larkin’s poem is a phrase taken from the poem “Requiem” by the Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson. “Requiem” is a peaceful description of death; the poet lies under “a wide and starry sky” after a full life “gladly” lived. The phrase “this be the verse” refers to the lines that the poet wants engraved on his tombstone. Larkin’s poem seems to stand at odds with Stevenson’s in a few ways. First, Larkin’s portrayal of “home”—and the beginning of life in general—is dark and tumultuous. Home, according to Larkin’s poem, is a hostile place where parents traumatize and damage their children. In contrast, Stevenson portrays the end of life as a peaceful return “home” to the earth. Stevenson’s poem also has finality to it. Death is the end, and the poet requests that his audience “let [him] lie.” Larkin’s poem shows the ways in which death is not the end. Indeed, long after an individual’s death, their faults and failures continue to flow down through the subsequent generations of humanity as a dark legacy.