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Buddhist Psychology in the Poetry of Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin is not ordinarily thought of as a Buddhist. Larkin was -- in the opinion of many literary critics -- the quintessential English poet of the latter half of the twentieth century, and the world (and worldview) captured in his poems is largely one that reflects Britain in its new post-war and post-imperial identity. To some extent this made Larkin's poetry a clear-eyed examination of a society in the process of making do with less -- this is, I think, the meaning behind Larkin's often-quoted caustic comment, regarding the sources of his poetic inspiration, that "deprivation is for me what daffodils are for Wordsworth." But the simple fact is that Larkin is basically a pessimist, and it seems that in many cases -- most famously Schopenhauer, in addition to the long list of European writers who were directly influenced by Schopenhauerian thought -- pessimism in the European literary and philosophical tradition ends up approaching many of the tenets of "Eastern" religious thought or philosophical insight the long way around, as it were. In other words, we may not know how Larkin felt or thought about Buddhism per se, but it is apparent that Larkin's poetry can be used to illustrate perfectly some aspects of Buddhist thought and psychology. After all, the European lyric poem is, in its own way, a form of contained verbal meditation: it reaches a conclusion wherein the concluding thought cannot necessarily be grasped by logic, like a syllogistic argument. In this, I think we can approach a European lyric poem as though it were something more like a Zen Buddhist koan or a form of achieved Vipassana, a meditative insight into the nature of reality which is certainly understandable within classical Buddhist terms. I would like to use two of Larkin's better known poems, "This Be The Verse" and "High Windows," both from his 1974 collection entitled High Windows, in order to approach some basic tenets of Buddhist psychology: without making any claims of direct influence, I think we can nonetheless use these poems as illustrations of some basic Buddhist concepts.

Larkin's "This Be The Verse" is perhaps his single most famous poem, although the shock of its opening line still means that -- almost forty years after the poem was written and published -- it still is denied inclusion in some poetry anthologies. I take the liberty of quoting the poem in full:

This Be The Verse

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.

It is important to note, at first, that the title of this short poem is itself an allusion, to the famous "Requiem" from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. Stevenson's "Reqiuem" is itself a poem about the end of life, and concludes with a call for an epitaph: "This be the verse you grave for me." Larkin is deliberately alluding to Stevenson in his title not only because the poem has an epitaph-like directness, but also specifically because Stevenson is writing for children, and Larkin -- despite the defiantly "not appropriate for children" character of using the word "fuck" -- is suggesting that his poem contains the sort of hard wisdom that children ought to learn. I stated in my introduction that Buddhism is probably far from Larkin's mind as he writes this poem: if anything, the use of the word "fuck" with its sexual connotations (despite the fact that the sexual denotation of the word is not its primary use here) shows that Larkin was writing at a time when the Freudian psychological paradigm still predominated. By suggesting that "mum and dad" inevitably "fuck you up," Larkin seems to be making an allusion to the psychosexual constructions of Freudian psychology, in which the child's relationship with his or her parents is not merely the source of later neurosis, but also where that relationship involves the child's nascent sexuality…

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