This Be The Verse

Ages ago the movie 49 Up was released in theaters and, having no children and abundant free time, my wife and I watched it at Rochester’s excellent little independent local theatre. (Amazing, from my current perspective, is that we were actual members of this place. Once we watched a movie, and then decided to stay for another one, just because we wanted to.) The film is a fascinating case study on the role of class in determining fate. Too much time has passed for me to feel comfortable commenting on its content (and I have not seen the two followups in the intervening years), but one thing really stuck with me from the movie. The introduction to the movie presents the following Jesuit proverb as motivation for the documentary:

Give me a child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man.

I have been haunted by that thought ever since, especially this year, when my youngest child will turn eight. According to the proverb, maybe, my chance to form my children has passed. I’m not ready at this moment to speculate on its veracity, or on the more interesting question of how much influence I ever wielded to begin with, but any father is bound to wonder to himself, What kind of father am I?, in moments of urgency and crisis and regret.

There’s no special magic in this poem, but it is one that often comes to mind in light of this question. I take it to be the anthropologist’s version of the Old Testament idea of the “sins of the father” being passed down to the great grandkids.1

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mom 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 early while you can
and don’t have any kids yourself.
— Philip Larkin

That written, I can’t sign on to the third stanza of this poem, and in fact would advise the opposite to most people. And for that reason, I love the idea of rebuttals to this poem. I believe this trend began with This be the converse (“They tuck you up, your mom and dad”). But the best of them that I’ve come across belongs to Richard Kell:

This Be The Converse

They buck you up, your mum and dad,
Or if they don’t they clearly should.
No decent parents let the bad
They’ve handed on defeat the good.

Forebears you reckon daft old farts,
Bucked up in their turn by a creed
Whose homely mixture warmed their hearts,
Were just the counsellors you need.

Life is no continental shelf:
It lifts and falls as mountains do.
So, if you have some kids yourself,
They could reach higher ground than you.

This falls apart at the third stanza, which begins by hewing too close to the original in an unsensible way, and misses the point with the last two lines. It feels incomplete, despite the strong start. Here is my attempt:

That be the obverse
They fill you up, your mom and dad
In ways they hope to never rue;
They do their best to keep the sad
that saturates the world from you.

For they were filled up in their turn
By folks who tried to do the same,
And flailed, and fastly time did burn
Before you left to make your name.

Man passes down a kind of love
That deepens like a coastal shelf
—and that you’ll never understand
Unless you have a kid yourself.

The best rebuttal remains to be written.

  1. If you apply it inductively, you can prove Original Sin