Few poems resonate with such spite as Larkin’s This Be the Verse. If any are unfamiliar with the poem enjoy the entirety of it here.
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 early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
If you are shocked I shouldn’t be too surprised for this short poem remains the only instances of “profanity” in poetry I have ever experienced. Before you begin I am not interested at this juncture to discuss the origin of the word “fuck”, nor am I particularly determined to defend the use of “profanity” in art and thereby reveal the very idea of profanity to be a devise of those in power to censor and stifle the artist. Both of these arguments, while noble, seem a cheap reaction to such a great work. More importantly, they miss the mark. Larkin’s “short little diddy” (described so because it is damned impossible not to bounce the words on your tongue as you read them) captures an aspect to the English language, a potential that is rarely demonstrated because few possess the ability to really, for lack of a better phrase, “work it.”
If we look at the first line Larkin flourishes nothing. “They fuck you up,” is about as straight as it goes. In four words the man has reduced the concept of Freudian, nature vs. nurture, debate into a single utterance that bounces like the notes in a melody. This Be the Verse, is musical in its intonation. The “fuck” is harsh slap to the reader followed by the gentle labial “mum” which rocks us into the delicious “dad.” The remainder of the stanza follows this bouncy pattern until we arrive at the next “fuck” and Larkin once again crafts a harmony of sound while creating the paradigm of succeeding generation. “Fools in old style hats and coats” appears almost playful, despite the statement being made. The harmony of the language, like an standard nursery rhyme softens the message. Ring around the Rosie of course has been revealed as a song crafted during the time of the Black Death and each trope within the song is rooted in the actions of people attempting to stymie the disease from their person resulting in “falling down.”
“Man hands on misery to man,” is the first instance in which I return to the actual poetry for Wordsworth’s My Heart Leaps Up immediately intrudes into my mind. As with the previous poem I will supply it here:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
I have italicized one line of the poem for its connection to Larkin’s verse. “The Child is the father of man,” resonates within my mind for like “man hands on misery to man,” something is revealed about the human condition. Now osmosis is a scientific principle which suggests that in the presence of unbalance, a system will attempt to balance the amount of chemicals in a certain space. Osmosis specifically refers to water and so perhaps diffusion would be a more proper term. What does diffusion and osmosis have to do with Larkin and Wordsworth? Everything. Wordsworth’s poem is not sorrowful, but gleeful. It breaths the essence of the imaginative nature-inspired verse that would become a staple of Romantic rhetoric. We see the example in the physical element: the rainbow. Wordsworth expresses his joy and wonder for the natural phenomena that scientists such as Newton had already unraveled. There is an unfettered joy by association, for the image recalls the promise of youth. This idea of development, and the importance of memory to safeguard against emotional distress however is a romantic notion, and while the sentiment is, in my mind, both beautiful and useful, t does not quite satisfy a realist position. Wordsworth’s short poem was written in 1802, not long after the publication of Lyrical Ballads, the collection of poetry that would later mark the beginning of the “Romantic movement,” as well as a brief moment of peace between Britain and France that would eventually be broken by the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Wordsworth’s hope would eventually become challenged as the he would eventually witness: the decline of his friend Coleridge’s health into laudanum addiction, the eventual falling out between the two men, the French Revolution falling in its idealism to returned dictatorship, as well as the death of several of his children. If we return briefly to Larkin the physical element are “the fools in old style hats and coats” as well as the “coastal shelf.” Both elements are definitively “modern” (or, technically Post-modern if you’re a stickler for the rules). Rather than lifting the reader and inspiring that sense of imagination, Larkin seems to attack the notion of idealism revealing life as nothing more than a perpetual cycle of anguish that deepens into a sea of woe (that, ladies and gentlemen, will be my last attempt at metaphor).
Fine and good sir, but where does that damn diffusion come into play?
Well, let’s address it.
In the last year I attended a colloquium with my wife at the university we attend, in which a documentary concerning the Rwandan genocide was being viewed. The film gratefully, did not attempt to reiterate the appalling violence, but instead attempted to show the recovery process in which both Tutsi and Hutu individuals attended workshop to achieve a kind of catharsis. We were shown a shortened version of the film, but afterwards were afforded the chance to participate in a Q & A. I asked the director how the genocide and impact, if at all, was spilling into the psychology of the succeeding generation. The director’s response was that it was being shown, and instances of said trauma were manifesting, but at the time, it was too early to tell. Diffusion. “Man hands on misery to man,” assumes great power if we consider those who have suffered through great calamity, and given that Larkin lived through the second World War and would have come to understand the tragedies accomplished by the Nazi’s, those interested in humanist interpretations may be able to move past the basic psychology of the poem. Mum and Dad may “fuck you up” but that is only because they were “fucked up” themselves by events beyond their control. Genocide is a great equalizer of humanity for it strips all emotion down into the basics of: fear, hatred, sorrow, or intense self loathing. In an environment being operated by adults suffering from such emotional burdens healthy development is impossible. We see then that the substance presented in the original space, in this case chemical trauma, diffuses across the membrane of generation, to achieve a kind of equilibrium at the expense of healthy growth (I’m sorry, I promised I would refrain from metaphors but here it is again). This diffusion is unfortunate, but necessary, for it will allow the emotion to eventually bleed itself out (who said the old medical ways were bullshit, apart from Byron) and leave the general population.
Larkin sounds painfully modern as he advises the reader to “get out as quickly as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself.” While on the surface this statement appears full of spite, I believe Larkin is attempting something else entirely, a kind of mixed hope. While the inevitability of pain, frustration, and being “fucked up” by our elders is inevitable, it should not be treated as submission. This Be the Verse, is Larkin’s attempt at the modern “shrug.” I’ve been fucked up, what can I do?
Nothing, except move on and try to find some meaning in life, outside and away from procreation. Because that’s all you’ll really get from the world at the end of the day.