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.
Here Larkin gives us the opening line in poetry. It takes us from zero to sixty in just eight words, forcing an emotional reaction from the reader. Agree or disagree with Larkin, but you’re gonna have some thoughts about this incendiary line. Moreover, this opening, much like the whole poem, is also darkly funny. Larkin’s reputation for bleakness often obscures his talent for comedy, and this poem, one of his gloomiest, is also one of his funniest.
Where does the poem get its title? Larkin is echoing the Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, “Requiem,” where Stevenson’s speaker proposes an epitaph for his own grave: “This be the verse you ‘grave for me: Here he lies where he longed to be…” Larkin counters this placid acceptance with “Get out as early as you can,/ And don’t have any kids yourself.”
It will come as no surprise that Larkin had a difficult relationship with his parents. In an unpublished memoir quoted in Andrew Motion's biography of Larkin, Larkin wrote: "When I try to tune into my childhood, the dominant emotions I pick up are, overwhelmingly, fear and boredom . . . I never left the house without the sense of walking into a cooler, cleaner, saner and pleasanter atmosphere." Elsewhere, in a letter to Monica Jones, he wrote of his parents that “I never remember my parents making a single spontaneous gesture of affection towards each other…."
Larkin’s father was a distant disciplinarian and a Nazi sympathizer in 1930s England, a man who kept a toy statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece at home. This toy made the Nazi salute at the touch of a button. He died in 1948, and Larkin’s mother outlived her husband for another 29 years, dying in 1977. Larkin remained a devoted son, helping his mother throughout the aging process, yet often complaining about it to friends. According to Nicholas Marsh’s, Philip Larkin: The Poems, “Larkin stayed with his mother for weekends and at Christmas, and took her for a week’s holiday each summer, up until the time when she became too frail. He visited the nursing home dutifully and frequently during the final years of her life. So, his commitment of time and effort in caring for his widowed mother was a part of Larkin’s life from the age of 26, until he was 55. In other words, it persisted through most of his adult life.” Andrew Motion’s writes that “There is a remarkable photograph of Eva Larkin circa 1970, sitting relaxedly in an armchair over the back of which her son leans, wearing a look of mingled animosity, defensiveness, and desolation; on the reverse of the picture Larkin had written: ‘Happy As the Day is Long.’”
What gives this poem its crackling vibrancy? Partly the simplicity of its language. Larkin employs uncomplicated diction and sets it to the sing-song rhythm of iambic tetrameter. You can picture a demented teacher getting a class of school kids to clap along while reciting the poem out loud. Here’s one other, subtle detail that also propels this poem: the problem Larkin describes expands in scope from stanza to stanza. The first stanza looks at misery on the individual level: “They fuck you up.” It isn’t “They fuck us up.” The second stanza swells and situates itself on a generational level: “But they were fucked up in their turn.” The final stanza brings it to a global level. This misery is universal, elemental, “a coastal shelf.” The problem isn’t really you, your parents, or their parents. It’s the mere fact of living. In that way, the judgment of the poem is uncompromising but also compassionate. This poem reminds me of Robin William’s shrink in Good Will Hunting. Larkin is hugging us the reader and telling him, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
“This Be the Verse” remains one of Larkin’s best-known poems. Count Olaf, the antagonist in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, recites the final stanza as his the last words. In 2009, a British judge quoted the first stanza as part of his decision in a divorce case, adding that "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.” This poem’s universality is why it will endure so enduring. At some point, everyone feels the same way as Larkin’s narrator. To some, the resentment of their parents is merely a passing concern. To others, it becomes a lifelong obsession to be discussed with friends and shrinks. As long as parents have kids, children will always be placing the blame for their own failures at their parents’ feet, and they’ll always have Larkin to fall back on in these times.
Philip Larkin: The Poems by Nicholas Marsh
Philip Larkin: A Writer’s life By Andrew Motion
 The term “soppy-stern” has always vexed me, and the best explanation of it I know is from this website: “Larkin is combining two different adjectives to speak of the attitudes of your parents' parents. Since Larkin was born in 1922, he probably has in mind the common parenting styles of 1900 or so, at the end of the Victorian era. Parents at that time were frequently stern, demanding obedience and respect from children. They were, however, also soppy-- that is, sentimental and maudlin. Victorian parents would have regarded their children as innocent angels whose purity needed to be treasured and protected, and at the same time would have seen them as unruly savages who needed to be disciplined and beaten into behaving correctly. Yes, there is contradiction here, but that is the poet's point!”
 This echoes the line in “Dockery and Son” that “Life is first boredom then fear.”