This Be The Verse
"This Be The Verse" is a lyric poem in three verses of four iambic tetrameter on an alternating rhyme scheme, by the English poet Philip Larkin (1922–1985). It was written around April 1971, first published in the August 1971 issue of New Humanist, and appeared in the 1974 collection High Windows.
It is one of Larkin's best known poems; the opening lines ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad") are among his most frequently quoted. Larkin himself compared it with W. B. Yeats's "Lake Isle of Innisfree" and said he expected to hear it recited in his honour by a thousand Girl Guides before he died. It is frequently parodied. Television viewers in the United Kingdom voted it one of the "Nation's Top 100 Poems".
A testament to the enduring appeal of Larkin's poem came in April 2009, when the first four lines were recited by a British appeal court judge as part of his judgement of a particularly acrimonious divorce case involving the future custody arrangements of a nine-year-old child. Lord Justice Wall referred to the emotional damage caused to the child, saying: "These four lines seem to me to give a clear warning to parents who, post-separation, continue to fight the battles of the past, and show each other no respect."
Indeed, it is quoted on occasions by people who do not know they are quoting Larkin. It is brief and memorable enough that many who read it are then able to recite it from memory, and do so to others, who also remember it and recite it again with minor variations. It has been heard on the lips of adolescents who do not know who Larkin was. As such, the poem shows signs of having entered the folklore process of oral tradition, and may be on its way to becoming an underground nursery rhyme of sorts, after the manner of Pounds, Shillings, and Pence.
The title of the poem 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.
Stevenson's thought of a happy homecoming in death is given an ironic turn.
References in popular culture
- The final stanza of the poem, in its entirety, becomes the last words of villain Count Olaf in The End, the final book of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.
- Anne Clark performs a version to music in her album R.S.V.P., calling it "a nursery rhyme for grown-ups". The song was first published on her album "Hopeless Cases" (1987).
- The opening of the poem is referenced in the fourth episode of the third series of the E4 drama Skins.
- A modern variant relates to web-based encyclopaedias: "It fucks you up, this wiki-web / it may not mean to, but it do / Serving some naff lo-res web page / To high-res tablets near to you". Etc. Wikipedia, in particular, has such diabolically broken HTML / CSS that it serves pages designed for tiny "feature 'phone" screens to tablet devices, such as Apple iPads, Google Chrome devices and Samsung Galaxy devices, as well as many others.
- In April 2009 a British Appeal Court judge quoted the opening stanza during a custody case, saying "These four lines give a clear warning to parents". The popular tabloid newspaper The Sun, reporting on the story, took the opportunity to quote the poem in full.
- The opening line was quoted by the Monkey Dust character known only as Chat room pervert, who writes "they fuck you up, your mum and dad... as eminem says".
- British clinical psychologist Oliver James published a book in 2002 entitled They F*** You Up, starting each chapter with a line or stanza from Larkin's verse, followed in 2010 by a further book on parenting and child development called How Not to F*** Them Up.
- The Talking Heads song "Sax and Violins" features a variation of the poem's opening line: "Mom and Pop, they will fuck you up, for sure."
- The Philadelphian punk band Ex Friends put the words of the poem to music in their digital single "This Be The Verse".
- The American television program Criminal Minds quoted the first verse in the second episode of its ninth season, but used the euphemism "They mess you up, your mum and dad."
- Grant Morrison's Multiversity name checks the poem in the third issue, Earth Me, in which Alexis Luthor, daughter of Lex Luthor refers to it as "the best poem ever".
- In the sixth issue of The Wicked + The Divine a character quotes the first verse of the poem while standing at the grave of Elenore Rigby.
- Rhys-Jones, Griff, ed. (1996), The Nation's Favourite Poems, BBC Books, ISBN 978-0-563-38782-4
- Pidd (agency), Helen (30 April 2009). "They quote you Larkin, your appeal court judges". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 November 2009.
- Crick, Andy (30 April 2009). "His lewdship". The Sun. Retrieved 16 November 2009.
- "This Be The Verse, (Digital Only) Single". Ex Friends. Bandcamp.
- Philip Larkin reads "This Be the Verse" - YouTube Audio File.
- The Poet of Dirty Words: History takes a second look at Philip Larkin by Stephen Burt at slate.com.