Philip Larkin’s, “This Be The Verse,” A Poem about Parents

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

I was thinking about the influence of parents, living or dead, on their adult children. No doubt the impact is significant, and fate deals her hand randomly in such matters. But to what extent can we overcome circumstances, for example parental influence? Philip Larkin wrote the most depressing poem I’ve ever read about parents,

This Be The Verse

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.

I don’t like this poem, and not because I’m afraid to face the nihilistic side of human life. (As anyone who reads this blog can attest.) The first stanza accuses, ok. The second excuses, ok. But the third is deeply problematic.

First, if misery deepens by necessity, which is clearly implied, then we live in a fatalistic universe where all our efforts are pointless. Moreover, in that universe whether we remain childless or commit suicide would also be determined by fate, and there would be no point in advocating for either. For such reasons fatalism has few advocates among philosophers.

Second, if misery does not deepen by necessity, then we have the chance to rectify it. Surely this is a better solution than suicide or childlessness. Larkin may believe that we are better off never having been born, but this doesn’t follow from a soft determinism or compatibilism (the idea that free will and determinism can be reconciled.) The fact that life is less than perfect, doesn’t imply that it isn’t worth living.

In my next post I’ll consider another poem that is more positive about the possibility of overcoming circumstances.

4 thoughts on “Philip Larkin’s, “This Be The Verse,” A Poem about Parents

  1. I have a simple proof that some significant form of Free Will exists. I would like to discuss it with you or Kip Werking. Does not meet Kip’s criteria which. Kip’s criteria seemly clearly non-existant. Does this seemingly contradict my proof

    By the way, Your avatar picture looks distinguished.

  2. People will read into the Larkin poem what suits their outlook on life. I have found it for the most part to be true. If you are a struggling mother then Larkin’s poem will come as a kind of i-told-you-so.

    If you are a fearless Carpe-diem person, then Larkin’s poem will read as a challenge.
    Either way, we have (don’t we ?) a responsibility to try better ourselves and our (family’s) lot in life no matter the insurmountable odds.

    But they do fuck up !

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