This Be the Verse

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"This Be The Verse"
is a lyric poem in three verses of four iambic tetrameter on an alternating rhyme scheme, by the English poet Philip Larkin (1922–1985). It was written around April 1971, first published in the August 1971 issue of New Humanist, and appeared in the 1974 collection High Windows. The title also ironically recalls the recurring phrase in the Old Testament threatening the sins of the father against his sons: "for I the Lord, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" [Exodus 20:5]. Larkin parodies the divine threat by rewriting the deliberate retribution of an angry vengeful God as the tragic shortcomings of "your mum and dad" (l. 1). This biblical allusion injects a homiletic quality into the unabashedly profane poem and hints at a certain awareness on Larkin's part that, of all his poems, this one will be the poem his readers will remember.

One of Philip Larkin’s most famous and controversial poems, “This Be The Verse” has become a fixture in poetry anthologies, and the minds of many people who don’t ordinarily read poetry. Whilst it is probably famous for its inflammatory, and very quotable, first line, the poem is far more subtle than a first glance might suggest. The title “This Be The Verse” is obviously ironic: the archaic phrasing and grandeur mockingly demands that the reader pay attention to what will be a statement of great weight and wisdom. There is also a play on the word “verse”, used to refer to poetry in general, as well as specific stanzas, and lines from the Bible. There is an ironic echo here of phrases like “This is the word of the Lord” from the Anglican liturgy. These archaic tones are picked up by the last stanza’s opening line “Man hands on misery to man”, with its general, gnomic tone.

The famous first line “They f*** you up, your mum and dad” is typically Larkin. He uses obscenity at the beginning of several other of his famous poems, as if to set the poem’s tone, or jolt the reader into paying attention. “Love Again” and “High Windows” both contain a defiant obscenity in the early lines, and both poems (like “The Old Fools” and “This Be The Verse” ) move from this opening violence to a more thoughtful tone in the final images. Larkin’s control in this line is masterly: the words flow perfectly naturally, but also fit the requirements of the metre, an iambic tetrameter, with the use of “you” and “mum” provides a casual, colloquial impression. The inversion of the sentence (which would ordinarily be “Your mum and dad f*** you up”) makes the metre and rhyme possible, but also enhance the chatty, unforced tone of the poem. The image of a coastal shelf is an unexpectedly expansive one after the previous stanzas strewn with “fools”, “f***”, “at each other’s throats”. It has been criticised for sounding forced, but in fits with Larkin’s poetic technique in “High Windows” and “Love Again”, with their images of windows and trees in the final stanzas. The image simply marks the move from a direct style of address to a more oblique one. It is also quite resonant, with its implications of inevitability and collapse, of time only making problems worse. The poem’s end is purposefully glib and puzzling. Having enumerated the problems with family life, Larkin (or the poem’s speaker) appears to be suggesting that the only way of solving the issue is to abandon one’s family and not reproduce. If taken to its logical conclusion this would mean the end of the human race – it is surely a deliberately impractical suggestion, made to emphasize both the poet’s depth of feeling, and the apparent insolubility of the problem. It’s not unlike the ending of “A Study of Reading Habits”, where the speaker declares “books are a load of crap” – a line which has troubled some readers as being simply inconsistent with Larkin’s lifelong involvement with books and literature. The impractical practical solution...
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