In graduate school I loved Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse” – who doesn’t? – but I was determined to find it somehow ironic. I’d like to say that I had read enough of Larkin’s to know that much of it is grounded in irony, but what’s closer to the truth is that I wanted the poem to conform to my own presumptions of adulthood and childbirth and parenting. If there’s one thing I didn’t like when I was in grad school, it was literature that challenged me to rethink my worldview. Total downer, man.
I did some research on Larkin, confident that I would find that he was a family man with twelve kids, a rotund but happy wife, and a bunch of sheepdogs. What I found, of course, was that Philip Larkin was just as unhappy and misogynistic as his poems make him seem. His bleak view of the human race could not be explained away with terms like “persona” and “transferred epithet” and “sympathetic fallacy.” He was a depressed librarian who looked like a toad and lived in near-solitude during England’s bleakest years of postwar austerity. I began the process of slowly accepting the idea that Larkin meant every word of “This Be the Verse” as straightforward truth. This possibility led me to another troubling idea: it seemed for a while as if, without irony, “This Be the Verse” actually wasn’t a very good poem – not much more than schoolboy doggerel, its rhyme and meter existing only as a pretty frame around the F-word, which is the center of the poem’s energy. I had trouble understanding how this poem could be both good and earnest at the same time.
Around that time, a good friend of mine was expecting her first child, and I joked with her that I would cross-stitch a sampler of “This Be the Verse” to hang over her baby’s crib. She loved the idea (N.B: Writer friends are awesome!), and we shared some good laughs at the idea, but of course I never stitched the sampler. Hanging mid-twentieth century English poems with the F-word in them on the wall of an infant’s bedroom is one of those things one talks about but never does. It was only years later (about a year ago, actually, when I was briefly considering opening a Larkin-themed Etsy store. Long story.) that it occurred to me that a sampler of “This Be the Verse,” all neatly stitched up in blue thread and featuring rocking horses and teddy bears in its margins would finally give the poem the irony I desperately thought it needed.
Is the first line of “This Be the Verse” the most famous opening line in English-language poetry? It probably hasn’t overtaken “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” or “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” quite yet, but only because so few people read poetry once they’re finished with high school English, and most high school teachers (I generalize) are not comfortable heading out into the minefield of “This Be the Verse.” If every ninth grader in the country read this poem, they would remember it – by heart – forever. It’s not the kind of poem that leaves you.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a few liberties with the poem’s opening stanza; in particular, I want to do some playing around with the phrase “to fuck up.” We all know what it means, of course – to cause trouble, to damage, to destroy – and I find it interesting that we’ve chosen to use a sexual term to describe acts of blundering and incompetence (we do the same thing, by the way, with the more family-friendly “to screw up”). It’s true that sexuality can create and destroy in nearly equal measure: sex creates children, of course, and can also engender closeness and intimacy, but it can also destroy families, relationships, and individual happiness, confidence, and dignity. I find it interesting to compare “to fuck up” with other verb phrases that contain the preposition “up”: “Hey, Nellie,” an imaginary man named Harold says, “Why don’t you whip up a batch of cookies? I’ll go to the garden and dig up some potatoes for dinner, and then we can go into the bedroom and fuck up some kids.”
I am not at all suggesting that Larkin meant this double meaning; I have no reason to think he did. But I do think that when “fuck up” is compared to similar constructions like “whip up” and “dig up,” it conjures up images of the casual, devil-may-care manner in which most animals – and a stray human being here and there – reproduce. For millennia, animal reproduction was governed by instinct. Eggs were laid, estrus cycles were obeyed, females were mounted and half-ridden around pastures, mates were consumed with relish shortly after coitus.
At some point in our development as a species, human beings became distinct from these instincts to a certain degree. We remained biologically inclined to reproduce, but as our brains grew and developed higher-order thinking skills, we developed several cultures of reproduction that includes such factors as marriage, notions of adolescence and adulthood, puberty rites, religious taboos, polygamy and harems, rules and customs concerning clothing; the science-fiction writer Robert S. Heinlein wrote, “Everything that we call ‘civilization’ began as a way to protect pregnant women and small children.” Still, for centuries and centuries, human reproduction more or less blundered along. People knew what they were supposed to do, and they knew why (they needed heirs and farmhands, and daughters to marry off to other people’s heirs and farmhands), but as centuries passed and lives grew easier, human beings had more time to think and plan, and their attitudes toward sex and reproduction grew more complex and conflicted.
Over and over again, I hear statements like these:
“I don’t want to have a baby because there’s too much mental illness in my family.”
“Overpopulation is one of the worst problems the earth faces today. It’s irresponsible to have more than one child.”
“Women should put their careers first and have children later in life.”
“We face such an uncertain future – I can’t bear the thought of bringing children into the world just to suffer.”
“My parents weren’t good role models. I worry that I won’t be a good parent.”
“I’m over 35 – won’t my children be at a higher risk for Down’s Syndrome?”
“My partner is over 50 – won’t our children be at a higher risk for autism?”
“It’s unethical to have children until you know for sure you’ll be able to pay for their education.”
“I have an autoimmune disorder, and I’ve heard people say that pregnancy sometimes cures my disorder. I wasn’t sure I was going to have kids before, but now I’m thinking I might want to try it.”
“What if I have a baby and something awful happens? What if my child dies, or grows up to be a criminal? I don’t think I could bear it.”
“But I want one. Babies smell good, and they wrap an entire hand around your thumb and just lie there, dozing and holding onto your thumb.”
People who make statements like the ones above – like the speaker of “This Be the Verse” (which, by the way, I have finally accepted as an earnest sentiment not fundamentally couched in irony) – are often thoughtful to a fault. Their attitudes toward their bodies are cognitive, not physical. They’re likely to be educated and self-disciplined, and they see the world as a place dominated by human beings (even if they make noises about carbon footprints and the earth being on loan to them by their children). When and if they are swept away by circumstances, they feel ashamed of their failure to troubleshoot. Many of these people, of course, eventually have children: their first at 32, their second at 35, the optional third at 38. Others, though, get trapped in loops of circular reasoning and worry and despair and the thought that if they become parents, there is a chance that they might not be perfect at it.
It’s almost as if, by discovering the idea of natural selection (thanks, Darwin), we human beings have changed the game. The more we understand how the system works, the more paralyzed we become. And if it was in part our ability to plan and reason that led to our growth as a species, and the most thoughtful members of our species are the most conflicted about the thought of reproducing, there is no reason to suspect that our evolutionary process will continue to follow an upward trend. The final stanza of “This Be the Verse” portrays human misery (and, specifically, the misery that is passed from parents to children) in geological terms, as “a coastal shelf” build up by endless tiny deposits of shame and sadness. The last two lines – “Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself” – are ambiguous because they beg the question Get out of what? Get out of one’s parents’ house? Is Larkin telling his readers to break the cycle of reproduction? Move out, stock up on condoms, don’t participate in the danger and anguish and fear that children can bring about? This is Darwin’s theory of natural selection in reverse, isn’t it? – for a species to grow in cognitive and mechanical prowess over countless centuries, only to find out that the sexual behavior that has always happened via a combination of instinct and a series of well-honed social precepts is actually a small part of a larger biological process through which species change and sometimes go extinct. It’s almost as if Larkin is suggesting that human beings should go on evolutionary strike. Stop playing along with the game, he is saying. Now that we understand it, we can escape it. We can’t change it, necessarily, but we can opt out. But opting out means not the slow perfecting of our species (as natural selection is usually understood) but an immediate screeching of its brakes. Can we do this? And why would Philip Larkin want us to? And most important, have these implications always existed unstated inside this little 12-line poem? Perhaps the reason Larkin begins with the F word is to distract his more frivolous readers from the dark speculations of his final stanza, to keep us snickering and happy when we first encounter this poem in high school or college or grad school, only to stun us with the final stanza when we turn 38 and its meaning comes clear.
A long time ago a professor told me that “This Be the Verse” should always be read side by side with Larkin’s “The Trees.” Both poems are written in the same form: three four-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter. Both poems rhyme, though their rhyme schemes are slightly different. I believe the professor meant that “The Trees” explores the same central question – of what to do about the fact that we are highly aware of our mortality, in spite of the fact that our biology drives us to live a more cyclical existence – as “This Be the Verse,” but in a more optimistic fashion. The word “seem” in line 11 suggests that we can’t know whether it is ever possible to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh” (12), though I suspect that Larkin does not mean this poem to be quite as optimistic as it seems.
To me, the poem that more effectively answers the questions posed by “This Be the Verse” is Larkin’s “Born Yesterday.” Larkin wrote the poem for Kingsley Amis’ daughter Sally on the day after her birth, and the argument of the poem is an almost iconoclastic refusal to say any of the bromides one usually associates with birth. Instead, the nucleus of the poem is in the line “May you be ordinary” (12) and in the lines that follow, in which Larkin wishes that Sally will grow up disinclined to question her surroundings and gifted at the art of balance. In short, he wants her to be average. I have always been terrified of being average, but in this poem, Larkin almost convinces me that the middle of the road is the place to live one’s life. He wishes Sally “nothing uncustomary, / To throw [her] off [her] balance” (16-17) and later even ventures to say “May you be dull” (20). “Dull” can mean either “boring” or “stupid,” and while the first definition seems more consistent with the rest of Larkin’s poem, I’m more intrigued by the second. A person whose mind is “dull” can function reasonably well, hold jobs, and even marry and have children, but you won’t see a dull person questioning whether it is ethical to bring a child into an overpopulated world or scanning through the rolls of online sperm donors, looking for the right blend of athleticism, good looks, and mental health to balance out one’s own questionable genes. In other words, he wants Sally to live a pre-Darwin life: to act, not to think.
Larkin is one of the greatest poets of self-hatred the English language has ever produced. Each of his poems – even the ones that aren’t that great – has a knife hidden in it somewhere, and his poems are driven by the tension between the controlled beauty of his language and the devastating wielding of these knives. I’ve speculated a good bit about some of the implications of his poems, but I can’t help thinking that his own cognitive process is the antagonist in many of his poems. Now that I’ve finished writing this post (which has been in process a LONG time), I think the original question of whether or not “This Be the Verse” is ironic is profoundly beside the point – although I do think this may be the most complex poem without irony that I’ve ever studied.