This Be the Verse Themes

The main themes in “This Be the Verse” are parent–child relationships, intergenerational trauma, and self-preservation.

  • Parent–child relationships: Larkin examines how parents inevitably freight their children with their faults, damaging them in the process.
  • Intergenerational trauma: The poem suggests that the damage parents do to their children is part of a historical cycle across generations.
  • Self-preservation: As a solution to the pains and burdens of the family, the speaker recommends refraining from starting a family of one’s own.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 13, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782

Parent–Child Relationships 

The major theme of the poem “This Be the Verse” concerns the relationships between parents and children. According to the poem, there is a large-scale passing on of human misery, from generation to generation, through the channel of parent–child relationships. For this reason, Larkin casts the parent–child relationship in a distinctly negative light. 

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Childhood is sometimes viewed in literature as an innocent, idealistic time. Larkin, in contrast, does not romanticize or soften childhood. Instead, he describes the time period of living with one’s parents as the period, essentially, of being “fuck[ed] up.” That is, the period in which one’s parents pass on their faults, foibles, and sorrows. In the last two lines of the first stanza, the language brings to mind an image of parents concocting a kind of recipe as they raise their children; they pour in their own faults and even “add some extra.” For the young, the environment of living with one’s parents is so toxic that the poem urges them to “get out” from under their parents’ influence.

While the parent–child relationship is portrayed negatively, Larkin’s poem does not demonize the parents themselves. They “may not mean” to cause the damage that they inevitably do, as they themselves are simply functioning out of the trauma inflicted on them by their own parents. These grandparent figures are also not demonized. They are not portrayed as cold, calculating individuals who intend to harm their children; rather, they are portrayed as “fools” who haphazardly inflict damage on those they love, in their parenting and in their marriage. In some sense, the question of intention is irrelevant; Larkin’s poem argues that parents damage their children inevitably.

According to the speaker of the poem, the negatives of the parent–child relationship far outweigh the positives. In the end, the poem suggests that it is better to avoid having children altogether as a way to remove oneself from the cycle of trauma.

Intergenerational Trauma 

In the final stanza of “This Be the Verse,” Larkin shifts from a focus on individual family relationships—speaking in the particular terms of “your mum and dad”—to painting a larger picture of intergenerational trauma. This “misery” that is handed down from parent to child, generation after generation, is framed as fundamental to the human condition. Faults can be traced back through family relationships, and the trauma inflicted “deepens like a coastal shelf.”

The comparison of this misery to a coastal shelf brings to mind a slow accumulation, a broad, unceasing progression of misery. It also suggests a hidden reality, a force under the surface that has a profound impact on what is seen. The downward slope of a coastal shelf might also suggest that, generation after generation, the trauma becomes worse and humanity finds itself descending to darker places.

In the second stanza, Larkin considers the topic of ancestral heritage. Rather than romanticizing such heritage, Larkin portrays predecessors as starkly flawed. Although their clothing is historical, the people wearing them are far from the principled authoritarians one might imagine them to be. Rather, they are “fools in old-style hats and coats” who damage their children, who in turn “fuck up” the current generation. Instead of honoring or respecting ancestors, Larkin views them as prior iterations in the cycle of trauma.

Thus, in this poem, Larkin not only examines specific family relationships; he also considers the far-reaching consequences of generational trauma on humanity as a whole.

Self-Preservation 

The poem “This Be the Verse” presents the reality that parents pass on their own faults to their children. Over time, this generational misery accumulates in the same way that geographical features are formed; indeed, it “deepens like a coastal shelf.”

The poet thus paints a dismaying picture of the human condition, framing the situation as inescapable. The only solution the poem offers is self-preservation. At the end of the poem, the speaker moves back to addressing the reader directly, encouraging the reader to “get out” and “don’t have any kids yourself.”

In this poem, family relationships are a problem rather than a solution. While the poem does not assign individual blame to anyone—humans of all generations are shown to be helplessly influenced by their own childhoods—it does urge the reader toward individual action. The first course of action is to separate from the family of origin, to “get out” from the parents’ influence. The second course of action is to refrain from having any children in the future. According to Larkin, strength is not found in relational ties; rather, the only hope for relief is for individuals to unhitch themselves from the familial cycle of trauma.

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