“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.”
I heard those lines when I was watching the conclusion of the adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix. It sounded familiar. It sounded like poetry.
As often happens these days when I’m watching TV or movies, I find myself searching online for who that actor is or some other reference on screen. The words are said by the series antagonist, Count Olaf, played by Neil Patrick Harris.
The Unfortunate Events series stretched across 13 books and now an odd illustrated tie-in to Netflix’s series. The series of novels might be shelved in the children’s or young adult sections of a bookstore, but the books have lots of allusions to adult literature and wit that probably whizzes by younger readers. And they are quite dark in plot. The same can be said for the TV series.
|Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events promo on Vimeo|
The story concerns three orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, good and very wise kids. The author/narrator (Lemony Snicket, the pen name of Daniel Handler) continually warns readers that this story is full of bad luck, unhappiness and despair and will only make your on life worse.
The children are the remaining members of the Baudelaire family. Yes, they are named for 19th-century poet, Charles Baudelaire, whose most famous book is the grimly titled Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). But that poem at the end of the series is not Baudelaire.
I think I vaguely recalled those lines because when I first read the pom many years ago, it wasn’t that stanza, which closes the series and the poem; it was the poem’s opening stanza that rather shocked me.
Here is the first stanza of Philip Larkin’s poem “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.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events is all about missing parents and caretakers who make lots of parenting mistakes in caring for the three children. In Larkin’s short poem, it’s because we pass on our own miseries to the next generation.
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.
Still, I see it as fortunate whenever poetry and poets are use in popular culture in clever ways.