This Be The Verse, Philip Larkin – an Analysis


…this be the verse that has answer to the meaning of life? Here’s hoping.

Gut Reaction
A true story!

What does it all mean?

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
Preaching to the choir on that one, my friend. Yes. Yes they do, parents the world over have the audacity to be human and to make mistakes with their own lives and those of their offspring. Not that that truth is letting anyone off the hook by any means.

They may not mean to, but they do.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? Either they raise you with good intentions or on the back of their own upbringing be it a bad or good influence. Whether intentional or not, parent break us from the off.

They fill you with the faults they had
…which doesn’t just include bad habits but if you’ve ever wondered where a child learns to be racist or clear an entire cheesecake in one sitting, have a good look at the parents. Phobias are another delightful little inheritance.

And add some extra, just for you.
Of course, life teaches us all manner of things along the way so naturally, the faults passed on to you by your parents because of their own parents will not be alone. Whatever experiences your parents have gone through will also shape you. This is all before you live your own life and let it do what it will to you, without all this familial baggage.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Repeating the sentiment I’ve already made.

Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Ah, the mixed approach of parenting. Tough love and showing you ‘how to’. Or ‘how not to’, perhaps.

Man hands on misery to man.
Like a neverending relay race of unhappiness. Without intending to, we pass on our woes to those around us, no more so than a parent to a child.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Woo hoo! A geographical term, I’m so excited, I knew there would be hope in this poem somewhere. Here’s a lovely example if you’re interested (be interested, please).
It does paint a beautiful visual though. Perhaps you teach your child one bad habit or fault and the problem just deepens, below the surface, where you can’t reach it.

Get out as early as you can,
…do you mean abandon your parents? That’s a little harsh. Do you mean don’t get married and contribute to the vicious cycle? Well yes, anti-marriage myself so I can live with that sentiment. Or do you just mean go into everything with your eyes wide open and try not to cause too much damage along the way? Potentially this too.

And don’t have any kids yourself.
Again. Preaching to the choir. But thank you for reiterating such sound advice!

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
Poem of three quatrains.

Honest and to the point.

Suggested rhyme scheme

Similes and metaphors
Soppy-stern as tough love?

Author’s relationship with their subject
Does that not speak for itself?! No marriage, no kids, no passing on of faults and failings.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
Philip Larkin is one of Hull’s finest icons. This poem seems a popular one for teaching because of the shocking language in the first line, as evidenced in this article.
There is ambiguity over the line ‘get out as early as you can’ – does the author mean suicide, disowning your parents or striving to do better by realising your own faults? There is also uncertainty in the final line of ‘and don’t have any kids yourself’ because that would result in the end of humanity if we all stopped doing that.

Signing off
If you’ve never been to Hull in the north of England, part of me wants to say you’re missing nowt (sorry, nothing), and another wants me to defend this little place that has excellent fish and chips, a lovely Ale Trail, and a pretty decent university.

Many will insist the best thing about Hull is the M62 leaving it.

Each to their own.

But if you’ve never been to Hull, perhaps the term ‘tough love’ or in this case, ‘sloppy-stern’ means nothing to you. Tough love, overprotectiveness, the ‘right’ to discipline your children but woe betide anyone else laying a finger on them. Philip Larkin, as one of Hull’s treasures, would have grown up and experienced such ‘sloppy-stern’ behaviour first hand, for this is the general way there. Which is in no way a criticism before I feel stern looks through my screen. It’s just a well-founded observation, is all. Plain speech, as evidenced in all of Larkin’s work, is the speech of Hull. There is no beating about the bush. What you see is what you get. Which is quite refreshing when you’ve visited some of the other cities of Britain’s fair isle. If there were a delicate way to rhyme ‘pretentious’ with ‘London’ I would, but I’d be fooling no one.

If we approach this poem on a wider scale instead of from the personal view of a parent and their children, the world messes up. Daily. And we live in the aftermath of this whilst trying to steer a path with or without the best intentions to make this world a better place. We both succeed and fail. The universal ‘parents’ are our ‘ancestors’ and we learned to ‘be’ through their existence. We learn both good and bad things. And when it feels like we’ve learned one lesson, there seems to be a thousand more things we need to fix. Which we will do, in numerous ways, and pass this burden on to our children. A cycle. Which is what life really is, isn’t it?

If we all stop having kids then we break the cycle. The end of humanity.

Perhaps all we can take from this poem then, is the hope of the ‘collective’ that limps through blindly, hoping to ‘get it right’ one day.

On a smaller scale, if it’s not already blatantly obvious, I have Parental Issues. The fact that I have always said I never, ever, ever want kids is firmly based on these issues. So for me, this poem is an ode to my life. I will never have kids because I never want to pass on all my faults – both learned and accumulated through whatever heritage I have – to another. It would be unfair and cruel.

Parents do fuck up. Sometimes through no fault of their own. That is the way of things. It does make me wonder if there should be some sort of test implemented for would-be parents, particularly when the news is littered with stories of abuse and neglect, and some just seem to churn children out like they are nothing but a product on a production line. Children do not ask to be born. You choose to have them. Never let them feel responsible for your failings or your ‘missed opportunities’ because you chose to have them. You made that decision, not them. Never let them know, even for a second, if you doubted whether or not you wanted them. Please… trust me on that. And as for those who disapprove of gay couples adopting children, shame on you. Love is love the world over, and how can a child receiving love from two loving parents – or one very strong single parent for that matter – ever be wrong?

Thankfully, my choice to not have children is in the minority. Someone out there has to keep on having the babies that might one day change our world into something a bit more positive than the state it is in now. I’ll salute your decision from over here in the corner. Just please, don’t thrust the child on me, I won’t know which way is up and will likely panic and run.


Philip Larkin – Poetry Foundation

Independent article relating to Whitsun Wedding poem.

The Larkin Trail

When I read this I think of the song… no particular reason but Warning came to mind…


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