Thematically, “This Be the Verse” by Philip Larkin is dark and jarring. It seems to call into question the concepts of parenthood and family which are so fundamental to our society, as well as possibly condemning the communal aspect of humanity in general. Yet, Larkin writes about these dark themes in a starkly different sonic tone. He employs a repetitive rhyme scheme and a regular meter which we might normally associate with a nursery rhyme or a light-hearted children’s poem. When examined more closely, “This Be the Verse” actually shares a lot in common with nursery rhymes, making the work that much more paradoxical. Larkin’s blending of tones and moods creates a stunningly subversive poem which allows him to deliver his message and themes far more effectively than if he had utilized different sonic devices or forms.
“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.”
In the first stanza of Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” we immediately see the jarring conflict between the sonic quality of the poem and the imagery and symbolism which it employs. The Norton Introduction to Literature describes the opening line of the poem as “one of the most (in)famous lines in all of English-language poetry” (817). While it might be easy to write off Larkin’s bold use of profanity as an attention-grabbing ploy, this opening actually serves as a thematic and tonal signpost, acting as both a thesis statement and a model for the rest of the poem. The speaker is addressing the reader directly as “you,” making the speaker’s harsh language and themes that much harsher to the reader. This line directs aggressive profanity at family members and implies that parents may actually hurt their kids in raising them. Though this stanza focuses solely on how flawed traits are passed down within the nuclear family unit, it lays the groundwork for Larkin to expand the conversation to the extended family and all of humanity in the second and third stanzas, respectively.
“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.
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.”
With each successive stanza, Larkin pushes the scope of his thematic argument farther. In the second stanza he excuses the parents for passing on their faults to their children, because “they were fucked up in their turn” by their own parents (817). He uses the second stanza as a springboard to propel his argument outwards onto the entire human race, essentially claiming that human beings continually pass down the worst of humanity to future human beings. Morbidly, Larkin sees no end to this problem, writing to get out of life as early as possible without procreating.
Even as Larkin pushes the thematic scope of his poem farther into darker emotional realms, he maintains and even increases his nursery rhyme tone. “This Be the Verse” is comprised of three quatrains, or four line stanzas. The sing-song quality of the poem comes partly from the metrical pattern which Larkin mostly carries across all twelve of these lines lines, as well as the rhyme scheme which he employs. Almost every line of the poem contains four “iambs,” or four pairs of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This pattern has the effect of giving the poem a slow, deliberate pacing with which we might associate children’s literature. Larkin’s “ABAB” rhyme scheme also adds to the nursery rhyme quality of the poem. For example, in the third Stanza, he rhymes “man” with “can,” and “shelf” with “self” (817). As the poem becomes thematically darker, the contrast between Larkin’s message and his style grows. By the third stanza, when Larkin is bordering on total condemnation of life, his incessant rhyming and deliberate pacing verges on the absurd. Here, we can see how Larkin’s sonic style helps to inform his message; in the same way that the repetition of humans passing down their faults becomes this incessant, repetitive cycle, Larkin’s verse rhythm and rhyming becomes a pattern from which we cannot escape.
With “This Be the Verse,” Larkin taps into a form deeply imbedded in our minds. For many people, rhyming and nursery rhymes are a fundamental part of the physiological process of language acquisition. An Oxford University study found that “young children learn to analyze the component sounds in words with the help of common linguistic routines. Rhymes, and particularly nursery rhymes, are a possible example” (Maclean, Bryant, Bradley 255). Through choosing this nursery rhyme form which is so fundamental to many of us, Larkin taps into a linguistic part of our brain that is almost instinctual, forcing us to identify with his language.
But that same linguistic memory to which Larkin is appealing, the memory of reading nursery rhymes as a child, is part of the very problem which he is condemning. Our “mums and dads” were the ones who read us nursery rhymes, and many of us look forward to reading those same poems with our own children. However, if what Larkin says is true and all man does is “pass misery onto man” (Larkin 817), then reading our kids nursery rhymes would only perpetuate this cycle of misery. In the most subversive move of this work, Larkin used a nursery rhyme, the quintessential piece of literature that is passed down from generation to generation, to remind us that not everything bestowed upon us by our predecessors is necessarily a good thing.
Larkin, Philip. “This Be the Verse.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Comp. Kelly J. Mays. Ed. Spencer Richardson-Jones. 12th ed. New York: Norton, 2016. 817. Print.
Maclean, Morag, Peter Bryant, and Lynette Bradley. “Rhymes, Nursery Rhymes, and Reading in Early Childhood”. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 33.3 (1987): 255–281. Web.
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