The most widely-known as well as the most notorious poem of the second half of the twentieth century is Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse." For those of you who don't know the poem by heart, here it is in its brief and startling entirety.
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 the turn
By fools in old style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern,
And half at one another's throats.
Man adds on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.
Pessimistic? Jaded? Angry? Yes, I think it's fair to call it so. And let's also add, unsubtle with a vengeance.
Larkin is hyperbolically illogical. It can't be true that every generation is more deranged than the one that preceded it. When were the good times? A few generations ago? In the Dark Ages? In antiquity? No, in Larkin's view, it's been all downhill, all the time. No doubt those early primates were already fucking up their kids when they came down from the trees and started to walk upright on the savannah. "There's only one piece of roasted rhinoceros left. You take it. I don't mind being hungry."
Despite its dyspepsia and illogicality, "This Be the Verse" is a curiously lovable poem. Whenever I've heard it read or recited, audiences react not with horror but with amusement. The poem's misanthropy is so absolute and its language so blunt that it can't help but provoke tittering.
The laughter arises because the poem doesn't earn its pessimism. It's too fluent and too easy -- unlike, say, King Lear, where the sublunary world is rank with incest, betrayal, and murder. After three thousand lines and five full horrific acts, Shakespeare earns the standing to conclude that life is miserable and that "humanity must perforce/ Prey on itself, like monsters of the deep." So it is in Oedipus, where the events lend credibility to the difficult apercu that it's best not to be born at all, next best to die very young.
While Shakespeare and Sophocles are philosophically serious, Larkin is merely flip. There's a monumental disproportion between his gloom and the light-verse vessel in which his gloom is contained. And so arises the off-kilter comedy.
It's a whiny poem. "Poor poor pitiful me. I had a difficult mommy."
If "This Be the Verse" is in fact the most popular poem of the last fifty years, it supersedes Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." What a remarkable devolution! While Frost endures, Larkin abhors.
I doubt whether Larkin had "Stopping by Woods" in mind, but he certainly glosses Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem" -- the poem from which he drew his title. Stevenson's performance is charming, gentle, self-effacing, and modest.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die.
And laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be.
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Stevenson praises the adventurous life lived well and brought to completion. Death may end it all but it also closes the circle. There is no completion, no circles in Larkin, where natural processes are crudely truncated: "don't have any kids yourself."
"This Be the Verse" is a hilarious and wonderful piece of joking, but it's victimology is unsettling. It's tempting to claim that it satirizes its own pessimism, but, I'm sorry to say, it does not. Larkin loves to wallow in his own gloom.
Here's another Victorian variation on the thema Larkiniana.
Is life a thorn?
Then count it not a whit.
Man is well done with it.
As soon as he's born,
He should all means assay
To put the plague away.
Pessimistic, yes. But Colonel Fairfax, even-handed, also entertains the possibility that life might be a boon (which, as we all know, is true at least some of the time).