This is the last of my would-be-articles for the Wagon Magazine, sadly discontinued late last year on the death of its proprietor, Krishna Prasad. The article has become more topical since its writing, as it is on a question that has recently been asked by America’s youngest, trendiest congresswoman: should we have children?
Earlier this year I heard of a South African academic, one David Benatar, who advances the cause of anti-natalism, that is the idea that life is, all things considered, not worth the bother; that is that we would be better off if we hadn’t been born, and our children would be better off not being born either. I’ve heard this idea before, one place or another, although rarely put so bluntly, but what really caught my attention was the title of his book on the subject, ‘Better never to have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.’ The first half of this title is very similar to an Ancient Greek poem of the Archaic era that goes:
For man the best thing is never to be born,
Never to look upon the sun’s hot rays
Next best, to speed at once through Hades’ gates
And lie beneath a piled up heap of earth.
Not a great deal is known about the writer, Theognis, so we can’t be sure how representative of his views on procreation this poem is. Most likely it expresses a dark mood, rather than a settled conviction. But Benatar’s invocation, deliberate or otherwise, of Theognis, and the South African’s own strange beliefs had me thinking about other poets who have pondered whether or not to bring new life onto earth.
Philip Larkin ends his most famous – and infamous – poem, ‘This Be the Verse’ with some to the point advice about family life for young people:
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Larkin, a curmudgeonly man of letters, librarian at the University of Hull, and one of the great poets of post-war England, was famous, as poets go, but ‘This Be the Verse’ is a poem more famous than its author and more famous by far, perhaps undeservingly so, than longer, more thoughtful poems of Larkin’s. With its casual expletive in the first stanza, and its scathing dismissal of the institutions of marriage, and of procreation, it obviously appealed to a country that thought it was throwing off the weight of centuries of oppressive tradition, and embracing a way of life liberated from ancient, outdated strictures and customs.
I wonder how Larkin would feel about that. He was in many ways a small ‘c’ conservative, not altogether at home in a more sexually liberated and less religious land, and with a great deal of nostalgia – love, even – for an England he worried was disappearing. It is true that he took his own advice, never marrying and leaving no children, but that may not have been a chosen lifestyle so much as one thrust on him by circumstances or – who knows – by the limitations of his own character. The poem, sharp and witty, expresses not his final verdict on life, or even a final verdict on his own life, but, again, a mood – it should be read alongside Larkin’’s other poems, striking a bitterly comic note, among others more reflective, nostalgic and ambiguous. To write a whole collection of poems like that would have made Larkin, nothing more than a talented self-parody, something like a twentieth century Lord Rochester.
Rochester, that is John Wilmot, a debauched, cynical wit in the court of Charles II of England touched on the same subject, declaring,
Let the porter and the groom,
Things designed for dirty slaves,
Drudge in fair Aurelia’s womb,
To get supplies for age and graves.
Poets in the 16th and 17th century, starting perhaps with Sidney, were fond of addressing poems to women with Greek names, entirely imaginary paragons of feminine perfection. Wilmot considers such a woman, ‘Aurelia’, and roundly rejects her, in the crudest of terms. Women, even those of her stature, are for the lower classes. Heterosexuality? How passé! All that comes of it, he suggests, is more people to get old and die.
Rochester mentions children almost in passing – his real distaste is for women and courtship, but a poet of a generation earlier, the Cavalier John Suckling, no slouch when it came to the ladies, made a similar argument specifically against the begetting of children:
The world is of a vast extent, we see,
And must be peopled; children there must be;
So must bread too, but since they are enough
Born to the drudgery, what need we plough?
It is not that there are too many people in the world, as some of our misanthropic moderns like to suggest – no one much thought so in the seventeenth century; Suckling accepts that we do actually need to breed to populate the world, only averring that it can be left to others – again, the lower classes – to do the dirty work. Just as we needn’t sow wheat ourselves, neither must we breed– plough, in the seventeenth-century idiom.
Suckling died in the early stages of the English Civil War, though not in England. A hopeless romantic and inveterate Royalist, he was involved in a plot to rescue King Charles’ I’s chief minister, the Earl of Strafford from the clutches of Parliament, and, failing, fled abroad in ignominy. He died without known issue, leaving instead a decent body of poetry and his own semi-comic legend. Perhaps he believed what the poets of the Renaissance liked so often to say: that immortality, or the closest thing going, could be had by leaving traces of you and your beloved in your poetry. William Shakespeare said the same thing in a number of different ways. Here, for example, are the last six lines of sonnet 15:
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.
Shakespeare promises he can remake this young man in poetry, even as time ages him, and yet addressing the same young man in the next sonnet he asks:
But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, time,
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessèd than my barren rhyme?
The language is unequivocal: there is a ‘mightier’, ‘more blessed’ way to ensure your own immortality.
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit.
Which is to say that the mightier, more blessed way to live on is the way that humans have always sought to: by propagating yourself, and by continuing your family line. And that stands in a very elegant rebuke to Suckling, Rochester, Larkin and Theognis, although it should be mentioned that Shakespeare actually had no choice but to come to his pro-natalist conclusion: most likely he was paid to do so.
Sonnets 1-17 are thought to be addressed to Henry Wriothesley the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a young patron of Shakespeare, and possibly the addressee of some of Shakespeare’s later, more romantic, sonnets. The man paying for the poems may have been no less than Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s right-hand man and the most powerful man in England, who hoped to marry the young earl to his grand-daughter. The poems did not have the desired effect, for the earl refused the marriage and instead accepted an eye-watering fine. Perhaps he wanted nothing to do with marriage and children, or, like Suckling and Rochester, thought he had better things to do with his time. But the earl did, after all, leave issue – although with a different spouse, and his line, and their unpronounceable surname, lived on. Perhaps the earl, in later years, had picked up Shakespeare’s sonnets and found them more persuasive.
Theognis’ poem is from Hesiod / Theognis, Transl Dorothea Wender, Penguin, London, 1973
‘This Be the Verse’ from Collected Poems, Philip Larkin, Faber and Faber, London 1988
The other poems are in the public domain