Thursday, 24 November 2011

This be the verse

A rather obvious point about Larkin's 'This Be The Verse'.
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 as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Wikipedia (that fount! It's a veritable fount!) suggests the title 'is an allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem"', which also contains familiar lines:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I 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 sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
A touch egregiously, the 'pedia then adds: 'Stevenson's thought of a happy homecoming in death is given an ironic turn'.

But I've always assumed the title makes reference to Pope's couplet from Arbuthnot [283-4]:
Cursed be the verse, how well so e'er it flow,
That tends to make one worthy man my foe.
Larkin's poem has, it seems to me, has a cleverer, more ironic relationship to this famous sentiment than to Stevenson's gooey sentimentality: because the 'cursing' (in the vernacular sense of the word) is precisely what is most memorable about Larkin's ditty; because it is about the inevitable enmity and misery that shapes even the relationships between the worthy.

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