Larkin’s “This be the Verse”

A while back Robyn Summerlin recommended I read Phillip Larkin so I ended up putting him on my Amazon wish list. My daughter Dawn ended up buying it for my birthday, noting that Larkin sounded old and crotchety, kind of like me.

Perhaps it’s not entirely accidental, then, that I found this poem upon beginning to browse the volume:


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.

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.

Since Dawn bought the book through Amazon I doubt she could have seen this poem, at least I hope not. Right now, though, I’m feeling a bit grouchier than usual and since I’m on a roll of reading recommended books, I thought I’d look at Phillip Larkin: Collected Poems and see if I like all of them as well as I like this one.

There’s certainly more truth than we want to admit in the first line, and I appreciate Larkin’s directness. Nor does it hurt that there‚Äôs a touch of humor, or at least I’m interpreting it as humor, in the last two lines of the poem. With a line like “Man hands on misery to man” you can almost imagine that Larkin has just finished reading a Thomas Hardy or W.G. Sebald novel.