A cartoon by Martin Rowson shows Philip Larkin balanced on top of an island, with the rocks seeming to spell out the opening line of his famous poem

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad. /They may not mean to, but they do.” First published in New Humanist in August 1971, these lines are among the best-known poetry in Britain today. They’ve been quoted innumerable times, in newspaper headlines, celebrity interviews and thousands of private conversations. They’ve cropped up in fiction by Lemony Snicket, a Talking Heads song, and in television series like Shantaram, Succession and Ted Lasso.

In a society not much given to poetry, “They fuck you up . . .” is up there with Rabbie Burns’ “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” and, well, what else? “If you can keep your head . . .”? “The boy stood on the burning deck”? Surely not. By now Rudyard Kipling’s and Felicia Hemans’s old classroom warhorses stick in the memory of only the most senior generations. Even Rupert Brooke’s conclusion to his First World War poem “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”, that elegy for Edwardian England – “oh! yet /Stands the Church clock at ten to three? /And is there honey still for tea?” – now speaks to an experience too remote to evoke longing in any but the monied few.

Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse”, on the other hand, remains on the cultural radar. It’s more often cited outside than within a specialist literary context: always the mark of a piece of High Culture that has successfully crossed over to become cultural commons. Like the “Mona Lisa” or the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, the Parthenon or even the Hollywood sign, it’s so successfully become general currency that it’s almost difficult to remember that, when Larkin wrote it, this was that most apparently intractable of creatures: a contemporary poem.

Those are more glamorous examples, of course. Our poet, that notoriously grumpy librarian in his office at the University of Hull, scarcely seems a figure to rival the Renaissance talents of Leonardo da Vinci or the radical Romanticism of Ludwig van Beethoven. So it’s worthwhile asking why this poem has stuck in the collective memory for over half a century.

One thing that’s immediately obvious is that it’s not a work of radical cultural transformation. It’s in the same cosily familiar verse-form as “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers”. Unlike, say, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or, across the Atlantic, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (its first version published in 1855), this modest verse is not a work of which we can say, “After this poetry will never be the same.”

The modesty is part of the puzzle, and also of its secret. “This Be The Verse” is written in a conventional, not-quite-ballad metre, and pinned in place with good old-fashioned full rhyme. Dad and do, for example, rhyme with had and you. The lack of complexity helps make the poem accessible. Helps make it portable, too: it’s easy to remember this iambic jogtrot as it settles in like an earworm.

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.

Before he had even published the piece, Larkin himself acknowledged its formal cousinship with poetry for children. To his sometime editor, the poet Anthony Thwaite, he wrote that “I’ve dashed off a little piece suitable for [a] Garden of Verses.” Robert Louis Stevenson’s hugely popular A Child’s Garden of Verses had been published in 1885, and Stevenson was on Larkin’s mind when he picked his title, too. “This be the verse you grave for me”, from Stevenson’s “Requiem”, continues with lines which were then famous not least because they form Stevenson’s actual epitaph:

Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

This poetic undergrowth goes unseen by most people using the cliché Larkin’s poem has become. As he wrote shortly before he turned 60, “I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before I die.” For “This Be The Verse” is written in a way that allows its message to come through loud and clear. This is not universal poetic intention.

Poetry isn’t usually wilfully obfuscatory. But it can embrace reflection, or gradual revelation, or John Keats’s famous “negative capability”, which he defined in December 1817 in a letter to his brothers as “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. In 1981, on the other hand, Larkin explained of his opening cuss that “These words are part of the palette. You use them when you want to shock. I don’t think I’ve ever shocked for the sake of shocking.”

A serious message rather than arbitrarily shocking the bourgeoisie, then, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad . . .” is a deft, brutal encapsulation of a timeless Oedipal struggle. It’s also sticky: memorable because of the pun which is, as Larkin went on to put it, “funny because it’s ambiguous. Parents bring about your conception and also bugger you up once you are born.” He added – in an era before the idea of helicopter parenting or Tiger mothering had been invented – “Professional parents in particular don’t like that poem.”

Larkin himself never married, though he had long-term relationships with women, and he never had children, echoing his poem’s final flourish. Moreover, while he may not intentionally have “got out as early” as he could, he was indeed dead at 63. He seems to have embraced a fusty late-middle-age even when relatively young. But literary texts are not therapy sessions; authorial voices aren’t exactly coterminous with personhood. Philip Larkin the man is not the most attractive of figures, especially if you are a woman, and now that we know the full extent of his behaviour and comments. His significance lies in the cultural traces he leaves behind him.

So whether or not the tenor of this poem is suicidal is less interesting than what it says about the human condition. It suggests a situation without remedy: a stunted human capacity which can only ever make misery deepen, as the final stanza has it. It also reads oddly today, when some young Britons are choosing to remain childfree as a personal sacrifice. They’re acting on the growing belief that climate change is creating a world in which their unborn kids may suffer or perhaps not survive, or could simply prove too numerous a burden for that world. “This Be The Verse”, on the other hand, is not in the business of protecting anyone or anything. It offers the negative quietism of self-involved despair.

It’s a long way from the childish bounce of that famous opening. What happens in the meantime, in the middle of the poem, is a characteristic Larkin swerve. The second stanza extends his peculiarly chilly compassion to those fuckers-up, the parents, themselves: “But they were fucked up in their turn.” This stanza, mirroring the image of the future as a deepening coastal shelf that dominates the end of the poem, looks back in time through limitless regressions of familial “fuckings-up”.

It’s a poem of loss of faith in the human condition. And it’s hard to reconcile with Larkin as the author, 20 years earlier, of “Church Going”. In that poem, large-F Christian Faith is replaced by a small-f faith, in humanity and its “hunger . . . to be more serious”, that comes much closer to the humanist position.

What had happened in the meantime? At least one part of the answer lies in the date of first publication. “They fuck you up . . .” was speaking to inter-generational culture wars not long after the momentous events of ‘68. Larkin himself, who turned 49 the year the poem first appeared, was contemporary not with the young revolutionaries of Paris or Prague but with their parents, those congenital “fuckers-up”. Perhaps it’s no surprise that his poem mutes the post-war generation’s idealistic anger to a lugubrious grumble. The soixante-huitards occupied public space in search of social reform; the poem reduces their struggle to a personal confession of domestic difficulty.

Which is a convenient solution to a revolutionary tension. A conservative response to social anxiety, it sits snugly within the right-wing British tradition of shifting political difficulty to personal problem. By the time Larkin wrote his poem Margaret Thatcher was already secretary of state for education and science: Thatcherite neoliberalism would use the term “personal responsibility” to blame those it impoverished for being the “losers” competitive capitalism is predicated upon. In 1971, the idea that “the personal is political” was slipping into reverse gear as hippies retreated from the collective public sphere into “personal fulfilment”.

Did Larkin see his most famous poem as part of this tradition? Probably not. But it’s a mark of conservative thinking to assume itself to be the apolitical norm. For all its memorability, for all its punchy monosyllables and daring f-word, “This Be The Verse” holds us in place every time we quote it. Over and over, it tells us that the family is an unmodifiable, nuclear structure; that human experience is necessarily “fucked”; that the progressive search, therefore, is futile.

How telling that this is the poem that has managed to thread itself through the national culture.

This article is from New Humanist's winter 2023 issue. Subscribe now.