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John Boone
ENG 1320-293
Wallenstein
Use of Tone in “This Be the Verse” by Philip Larkin
In his poem “This Be the Verse,” Philip Larkin uses several different tones. Over the course
of just 12 lines, the tone goes from harsh to soft, with several stops in between. The poem
immediately grabs the reader’s attention, goes on to convey emotions like hopelessness and
bitterness, then ends with an imperative. Despite the complex and frequent changes, the poem’s
overall tone is darkly humorous.
In the first stanza, Larkin uses harsh slang to make a jarring assertion about parents: “They
fuck you up your mom and dad” (1). It is vitriolic, and it is an absurdly broad generalization.
However, it is so vitriolic and so absurd that it is funny. In the second line, Larkin is gentler and
momentarily lets parents off the hook, explaining that “They may not mean to, but they do” (2).
The tone here is softer, almost apologetic. Larkin is telling us that they may try their hardest to
be good parents. But despite their best intentions, they can’t help but “fuck you up” (Larkin 1).
The stanza ends bitterly, with the blame put back on the parents: “They fill you with the faults
they had / And add some extra, just for you” (Larkin 3-4). This illustrates the burden that (in
Larkin’s opinion) parents cannot help but pass on for their children to bear. The first stanza ends
on a note of hopelessness.
The second stanza begins on a much gentler tone, again explaining that the blame does not lay
entirely with the parents. Larkin reminds us that although we have been damaged by our parents,
they were damaged, “in their turn” (Larkin 5) by their parents. Just as Larkin would have us
feeling empathy for our parents, he disparages their parents, calling them “fools” (6). The next
line is interesting, saying of the parents: “Who half the time were soppy-stern / And half at one
another’s throats” (Larkin 7-8). The word “soppy” is defined as maudlin, or soaked; but it can
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also mean drunk (Thesaurus.com). It seems that Larkin intended it to be interpreted as the latter.
He is saying that your parents were damaged by people who spent most of their time drunk and
quarrelling with one another. These people passed on their faults to your parents, who inevitably
passed them on to you.
While the first two stanzas focus on just a few generations passing their foibles on to their
children, the last stanza addresses all mankind: “Man hands on misery to man” (Larkin 9). This
is possibly the darkest line in the poem. It implies that misery is hereditary, and sets a tone of
harsh hopelessness. To drive home this hopelessness, Larkin says of mankind’s misery, “it
deepens like a coastal shelf,” (10). However, a coastal shelf is not a steep slope into the abyss. A
coastal shelf gradually descends into the depths of the ocean. It might be very sad, but the simile
also gives the line a gentle tone. This line and its tone set the reader up for the last two lines,
which advise the reader to “Get out as early as you can,” (Larkin 11). One immediately wonders
what Larkin would have us do to achieve this, and leads to some morbid questions. Are we to
leave our parents as soon as we can? Should we cut off all ties to our parents? Must we “get out”
(Larkin 11) by killing ourselves? These are all unpleasant considerations, which help reinforce
the momentum of the helpless tone. Larkin answers these questions in the last line, in which he
gives the instruction, “and don’t have any kids yourself” (12). According to Larkin, your faults
are to be blamed on your parents, who passed on the faults foisted on to them by their parents in
turn. He asserts that this misery is the eternal human condition. His advice to break this ugly
cycle is to “get out” (Larkin 11) by not participating, not having a child to pass your faults on to
in turn. The last line is just as absurd as the first, and thus is just as humorous.
The poem’s content is dark in places, but it also has moments of absurdity. It is this contrast
between darkness and absurdity that gives the poem its overall humorous tone. It is also funny
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that when looked at as a whole, the poem reads like a television commercial. Most television
commercials are written to conform to a specific format. Like a commercial, the poem starts by
getting the reader’s attention: “They fuck you up” (Larkin 1). Then it describes a problem and
makes that problem personal: “And add some extra, just for you” (Larkin 4). It ends with what
advertisement writers call the “call to action”, with the imperative “Get out as early as you can, /
And don’t have any kids yourself” (Larkin 11-12). The use of this familiar structure gives the
poem a simple, “sing-songy” rhythm. All of these elements combined contribute to make this
piece, despite its darkness, an overall humorous poem.



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