The poem “This Be The Verse” by Philip Larkin offers, at its surface, a cynical view of the world, where the only way to escape the perpetuation of cycles of pain and misery is to simply stop trying for the good things, like having children. Jehanne Dubrow makes the claim that “as with any nursery rhyme, ‘This Be the Verse’ privileges musicality” and takes the similarity to nursery rhymes as a given, amidst her wider argument (Dubrow). I argue that Larkin’s poem can be seen as a nursery rhyme not only on a surface level of “musicality” but in its form and meaning as well. “This Be The Verse” is more of a nursery rhyme than Dubrow realizes. The iambic rhymes and the form of the poem give the sense that “This Be The Verse” is a nursery rhyme – with easy to remember rhythm and a lesson to be learned. If Larkin’s poem (published in 1971) is read as a modern nursery rhyme, the poem can be seen, not as a warning to never have kids at all, but not to have them simply for the sake of following old patterns. If nursery rhymes are an instruction, than Larkin’s poem shows how with time, those instructions may have to change. Traditions should not be blindly followed, because as times change, they can become harmful rather than helpful.
“This Be The Verse” has a song-like quality due to the “iambs [which] reassure, while tetrameter gives the poem momentum” which invokes a feeling of being moved across on a wave, up and down (Dubrow). This wave-like motion is also found in the poem’s visual form, as every other line is indented. Take the first verse for example:
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.
The first two stanzas of “This Be The Verse” lay out the cycle the rhythm mimics. The first verse speaks of “your mum and dad” and the way they pass down their negative traits. The second verse moves forward in space, speaking of “fools in old-style hats and coats” meaning the grandparents, who passed their faults to your own parents. This cycle shown in the form shows the cycle of family and passing down faults as well as genetics.
The third stanza is markedly different, moving to the abstract from the direct and second-person which speaks to the reader. There is a consolidation of the message the speaker wants to send in the third stanza, written in the third-person, as if intended for broader consumption than the first two stanzas, which read as more personal.
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.
This last stanza speaks of misery, which is handed down from parent to child, and which “deepens like a coastal shelf” reaching the conclusion that the only way to break the cycle of misery, which wears a person down the way waves wear down the shore, is to simply stop trying to have kids all together. The third verse is a break in the cycle; to stop dwelling on the mistakes of the past, and reach a call to action to prevent the passing on of misery. Larkin follows most traditions of nursery rhymes except for euphemizing the difficult; he puts it on display, even highlighting the uncomfortable by using shocking “child inappropriate” language such as “fuck” which forces you to listen to what he is saying, rather than simply getting swept along by the rhythm.
You can take Larkin’s poem at his final line “And don’t have any kids yourself.” Or you can see it as a nursery rhyme warning: do not have kids, unless you are willing to take the consequences just as well as the rewards. You can prevent the passing on of misery by not passing on power structures or ideas which perpetuates that misery, rather than simply giving up on having children by viewing the passing on of misery as inevitable and hopeless. Nursery rhymes show that even that which is lovely or worth knowing is sometimes painful, and Larkin’s poem shows child rearing is no different.
Nursery rhymes are seen as intended for children, and this poem could be seen as a warning to those emerging from adolescence not to repeat the cycles which seem as inescapable as the waves the iambic rhyme conjures. The poem is a message for adults not to be complacent about blindly following traditions for tradition’s sake. Nursery rhymes have always been warnings; for example, “Hush A-Bye Baby” tells the occasional inevitability of a child’s death and “London Bridge” teaches children about tragedies which are sometimes manmade (Denslow). These are harsh truths, the kind nursery rhymes impart on children, that sometimes adults must hear too.
“This Be The Verse” is a warning, not to never have children, but to not blindly follow tradition. This blind faith in tradition can lead to complacency and the perpetuation of harmful ideas. For example, Millennials are also having children later in life and not feeling as pressured to have children they do not want, as earlier generations were, which is an interesting way to see how people have headed Larkin’s warning not to blindly follow tradition (DeSilver). Nursery rhymes are a foothold of tradition especially when it comes to children, so why does Larkin invoke such a cornerstone of tradition to warn against their following? To make a point: if you’re going to take your advice solely from tradition, from nursery rhymes, then listen to this poem, do not have children just to continue the cycle you follow blindly. If you choose to have children, then you are inherently choosing to break the cycle, because you are not listening to the nursery rhyme of the poem, in which case, should you have children, you will not blindly do them wrong.
Danielson, Elaine. “The Importance of Nursery Rhymes.” Journal of Research in Education, Eastern Educational Research Association. George Watson, Marshall University, One John Marshall Drive, College of Education and Professional Development, Huntington, WV 25755. e-Mail: Eerajournal@Gmail.com; Web Site: Http://Www.eeraorganization.org, 30 Nov. 1999, eric.ed.gov/?id=ED442117.
Denslow, W. W. “Denslow’s Mother Goose by W. W. Denslow.” Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg, 10 June 2006, www.gutenberg.org/etext/18546. Original pub. 1902, the featured image is from this book.
DeSilver, Drew. “Generations and Age.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 26 Feb. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/topics/generations-and-age/.
Dubrow, Jehanne. “Don’t Have Any Kids Yourself: On Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse.’” Blackbird, 2013, blackbird.vcu.edu/v12n1/nonfiction/dubrow_j/larkin_page.shtml.
Larkin, Philip, “This Be The Verse”, The Norton Introduction to Literature, Edited by Kelley J. Mays, W. W. Norton and Company, 2016, pp. 817.
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