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'This be the verse'
by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean, 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.
The type-script of this poem makes its first appearance in April, 1971, when Larkin sent it to his long-term girlfriend, the English-Lecturer, Monica Jones. He claimed that he could 'never remember [his] parents making a single spontaneous gesture of affection towards each other'. The lines are prefaced as 'A little Easter poem'. The same verses were also sent (on 14th April) to Anthony Thwaite, asking - ironically - if Thwaite's wife, Ann, (who was editing Allsorts, a children's annual), might care for them.
'This be the verse' is a reference to Robert Louis Stephenson's Requiem: 'This be the verse you grave for me:/ Here he lies where he longed to be;/ Home is the hunter, home from the sea/ And the hunter, home from the hill'. The piece was first published in the New Humanist (August '71) and included in Larkin's last collection, High Windows (1974).
Philip Larkin would have been 48 when he completed these contentious, though memorable, verses. They'd have found instant recognition and support from miss Jones, one of his two concurrent inamoratas. She, too, would have regarded herself as a holder of 'Advanced' views: one of their favourite holiday pastimes was to deface novels adding prurient variations to originally innocuous passages. The poet might also have found sustenance in Book ten of Paradise Lost: Eve's protestation 'Childless thou art; Childless remain'. John Milton (though he sired children himself) would certainly have found a kindred spirit in the notoriously misanthropic Larkin.
The parents - who conspired to 'fuck' Larkin 'up' - were, indeed, a disparate couple. Eva (nee Day, 1886-1977) was an ex-teacher, mousy, perpetually 'boasting and complaining' -according to her son - in a kind of 'rambling natter'. In the same (1967) letter to Jones, Larkin confided his belief that 'people ought to get away from home as chickens get out of eggs, wholly, utterly, immediately, cleanly [...] I suppose I shall become free at sixty, three years before cancer starts'. In this last assertion he was almost uncannily prescient. Yet Larkin, despite his whingeing, retained a curious attachment towards his mother. He continued to visit regularly when she was admitted to a nursing home with an Alzheimer's-type dementia, and some observers have felt that she was, paradoxically, a kind of Muse. He'd dedicated his first collection, The North Ship, to her. Eva had married the seemingly charmless Sydney Larkin (1884-1947) in October, 1911. The latter made his career in what is now called local government, and reached the dizzying heights of Treasurer to Coventry corporation. He has been portrayed as something of a crypto-fascist; Larkin fils styled him 'the sort of man democracy doesn't suit'. A frequent pre-war visitor to Nazi Germany, attending several Nuremberg rallies, Sydney kept a figurine of Adolf Hitler on his mantelpiece. Both parents seem to have indulged the young Philip (named after sir Philip Sydney).
Larkin began 'This be the verse' on the same mid-June, 1967 evening that he completed 'Annus Mirabilis' ('Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty three'). The two poems share much of the same tone. Their author would not finalise the twelve lines for another four years.
He'd 'got out' fairly early himself when, after an Oxford education under the tutelage of luminaries such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S.Lewis and Neville Coghill, he embarked on a career as librarian which culminated in his appointment as overlord of Hull's 'Brynmor Jones' university library in 1955. He'd occupy this post until the end of his life. Literary recognition came that same year with the publication of The Less Deceived. From 1956 to 1974 Larkin lodged, alone, at number 32, Pearson Park - an upper-storey, one-bedroom flat where he could write, be alone, listen to his beloved jazz records and complain about the noise from his neighbours.
Larkin's last years make for rather a sad catalogue. Artistic inspiration deserted him and his drinking-habit accordingly increased. He wrote to a friend in 1982 that 'there was rather too much of the four-letter Larkin for [his] liking. "They fuck you up" will clearly be my Lake Isle of Inisfree (sic). I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl guides before I die'. A life-long agnostic, Larkin's last words (uttered to a nurse in his private hospital) were 'I am going to the inevitable'.
Bradford, R., First Boredom, then Fear, Peter Owen (2005)
Larkin, P., Required writing: Miscellaneous pieces, Fabers (1983)
Larkin, P., Collected Poems, Fabers and The Marvell Press (1988)
Motion, P., Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life, Fabers (1993)
Thwaite, A. [Ed.] Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1940-1985), Fabers (1992)
Kevin Saving © 2009