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Terence, this is stupid stuff -- A E Housman

Guest poem submitted by Reed C. Bowman:
(Poem #588) Terence, this is stupid stuff
  "Terence, this is stupid stuff:
 You eat your victuals fast enough;
 There can't be much amiss, 'tis clear,
 To see the rate you drink your beer.
 But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
 It gives a chap the belly-ache.
 The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
 It sleeps well, the horned head:
 We poor lads, 'tis our turn now
 To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
 Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme
 Your friends to death before their time
 Moping melancholy mad:
 Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad."

  Why, if 'tis dancing you would be
 There's brisker pipes than poetry.
 Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
 Or why was Burton built on Trent?
 Oh, many a peer of England brews
 Livelier liquor than the Muse,
 And malt does more than Milton can
 To justify God's ways to man.
 Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
 For fellows whom it hurts to think:
 Look into the pewter pot
 To see the world as the world's not.
 And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
 The mischief is that 'twill not last.
 Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
 And left my necktie god knows where,
 And carried half-way home, or near,
 Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
 Then the world seemed none so bad,
 And I myself a sterling lad;
 And down in lovely muck I've lain,
 Happy till I woke again.
 Then I saw the morning sky:
 Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
 The world, it was the old world yet,
 I was I, my things were wet,
 And nothing now remained to do
 But begin the game anew.

  Therefore, since the world has still
 Much good, but much less good than ill,
 And while the sun and moon endure
 Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
 I'd face it as a wise man would,
 And train for ill and not for good.
 'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
 Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
 Out of a stem that scored the hand
 I wrung it in a weary land.
 But take it: if the smack is sour,
 The better for the embittered hour;
 It should do good to heart and head
 When your soul is in my soul's stead;
 And I will friend you, if I may,
 In the dark and cloudy day.

  There was a king reigned in the East:
 There, when kings will sit to feast,
 They get their fill before they think
 With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
 He gathered all that springs to birth
 From the many-venomed earth;
 First a little, thence to more,
 He sampled all her killing store;
 And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
 Sate the king when healths went round.
 They put arsenic in his meat
 And stared aghast to watch him eat;
 They poured strychnine in his cup
 And shook to see him drink it up:
 They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
 Them it was their poison hurt
        - I tell the tale that I heard told.
 Mithridates, he died old.
-- A E Housman
Another poem I love, and memorized long ago (and still have memorized) is
brought strongly to mind by Baudelaire's "Enivrez-vous". It's a poem in
defense of gloomy poetry, and its take on the situation, and the relative
merits of alcohol and poetry, is a little different from Baudelaire's. It's
from the collection _A Shropshire Lad_.

The poem seems to require some notes and discussion. First of all, "Terence"
is a name Housman used in his poetry to refer to himself. I don't know
enough about the ancient comic playwright Terence (Publius Terentius Afer),
or for that matter about Housman himself, to know what reference Housman may
have intended by this.


Now, on the poem's outline:

It begins with a complaint by a friend of the poet for the gloominess of his
poems, asking him to sing, or pipe, a happier tune.

The second section is the poet's direct response, scoffing at the idea of
happy poems for their own sake. If you want false (and fleeting) cheer, he
says, drink beer; when you return to the world of reality it will be as
dismal as ever.

The third section states and recommends his philosophy: prepare your heart
and mind for the worst, that you may endure it. In this, the grim wisdom of
bleak poems - gleaned from the poet's own bitter experience - may aid you.
In the last two lines of this section, the could almost be said to have
shifted from the poet to the poem itself.

The final section is a poem within a poem. It is nicely self-referential, in
that it both illustrates the gloomy poetry Housman is defending, and
provides a parable illustrating the philosophy of the third section: just as
Mithridates outlasted the unprepared feasters and imbibers (and all the
other unprepared kings of the East) by inoculating himself against poisons,
so can one innoculate oneself against all ills by judiciously taking of the
bitter wisdom in advance.


Much could be said on the threads and metaphors and interesting usages
running through the poem, but I don't want to write a book here. Do take
some time to look at all the liquid imagery through the whole poem, though.
Have we any comments so far on the list on the ancient Northern metaphor of
the Mead of Poetry?

Finally, just a few footnotes here on matters which may not be obvious:

Burton-upon-Trent is a city famous for its breweries. (I don't know if
Ludlow fair was also particularly famous for beer or beer drinking, but,
well, any fair would probably do.)

At the beginning of _Paradise Lost_, Milton invokes the Heavenly Muse to
help him "assert Eternal Providence,/And justify the ways of God to men."

"Mithridates", properly spelt "Mithradates", is King Mithradates VI (the
Great) of Pontus, in Asia Minor. He reigned from 120 to 63 BCE - fifty-seven
years. The story of the poison comes from Pliny the Elder's _Natural
History_. In the end, betrayed by his son, he tried to commit suicide, but
could not poison himself, so he ordered a mercenary to kill him.

Enjoy, all.


29 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Mihail Faina said...

About the "the relative merits of alcohol and poetry" here is what Horace said:

"No poems can please long, nor live, which are written by water drinkers."
Not so sure about the readers though...

Anustup.DATTA said...


Do you remember "Strong Poison", by Dorothy Sayers? The ploy used by the
murderer is similar to that of Mithridates Rex, and Lord Peter Wimsey
deduces this using Housman's "A Shropshire Lad". In fact - the chapter he
confronts the murderer with ends with the line "Mithridates, he died old."

Jokes apart, old Mithridates was a thorn in the side of Rome. Crassus (the
triumvir) led an expedition into Asia Minor after him and was defeated and
killed. Pompey fought against him and obtained victories but temporarily.
It was not till incomparable Caesar overran Asia Minor (the old king was
dead by then) that he subjugated his sons and his empire. Suetonius has a
lively account of this, as does Plutarch.

Great piece, by the way.


Almaguer Dana said...

What I have always loved about this poem is that it seems to almost move
through time following the path of emotional maturity.

In the first section, Terence, or any other angst-ridden youth, holds
forth, apparently in great and gruesome detail, about the injustices of
life, while all his friends simply want to drink and have fun. I have
read enough teenage "blogs" on the internet to know that there are many
young 'Terences' out there, pouring out their hearts ad nauseum about
life's cruel turns,and asking the eternal question "What's it all
about?" until I sometimes feel like responding to them, "Come, pipe a
tune to dance to . . . "

In the second section, the poet has perhaps matured somewhat past the
woeful teenage stage and has moved on to the slightly more mature if
equally ineffective self-medication-to-counteract-life's-unbearables
stage. But like many people in their post-teen times and even those in
their twenties and thirties, he learns and acknowledges that covering up
the painful aspects of life--Housman uses alcohol as his analogy, but we
all know there are many other ways to anesthetize ourselves; work, sex,
sports, etc.--is not the same as satisfactorily justifying "God's ways
to man." Despite attempts to blur it, the world is still "the old world

The next section of the poem, and the most meaningful to me, is often
misunderstood to be negative and pessimistic, when, in fact it is the
most positive and, I believe, celebratory of the entire poem. I don't
believe the poet is saying "Plan for the worst because then you won't be
disappointed" so much as he is advising, "Learn to accept and live with
the mystery of life, and then nothing has the power to take you down"
which could be seen as very liberating and full of hope. The phrase
"Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure" doesn't bemoan the presence of
trouble so much as it acknowledges the possibility of luck and fortune .
. . as long as we are willing to accept both. And the very essence of
the entire poem is the promise that, "I will friend you, if I may."
Yes, it is important to accept and weather the tough times, but the
reason we are here on earth, and the one bond that has the power to tie
us all together, is that we can see each other through.

Finally the concluding story of Mithridates seems to celebrate a human's
senior years when, having learned these important truths, we can grow
old in contentment and satisfaction, rich in our knowledge about life,
while others around us, perhaps youth who haven't learned what we've
learned, will "stare aghast" at our lack of dissatisfaction with life.
We "sate" when "healths go round" because we are "easy, smiling,
seasoned sound," a strength which results, like Mithridates, in a long

Sorry this is so long, but I've always wanted to share my feelings about
my very favorite poem.

marcus said...

I remember reading this poem when I was 15 years old and away in a reform school for 2 years. We had hemmingway stories and things assigned but this story was in one of my literature books. It really fit with what I was going through, being that I was in a reform school I guess it's easy to say I didn't do much homework or reading. The matter-of-factness that the poet writes with about the trials of drinking and "piping a tune" but shortly getting hit over the head with the world being just as problematic as before when you come to your Senses sticks with me. I havelearned responsibility and maturity since then and now do not drink thanks to AA. Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on his poem.

Anonymous said...

A very enjoyable poem with a lot to sift through. Good background on the king...

"The Poems of Terence Hearsay" was Housman's intended title for "The Shropshire Lad."

line 13- Moping melancholy mad is also from Milton, book 11

Anonymous said...

Oh I have been to Ludlow fair/ And left my necktie god knows where... Ludlow is famous for its fests, in particular, its food and drinking fests. Go to the one in September. I was told that the prostitutes at these fairs have the habit of cutting off the neckties of their drunken clients. Housman is buried at St Lawrence Church in Ludlow.

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Anonymous said...

"carried half way home, or near
pints and quarts of Ludlow beer"

Why half way home? He whizzed it all away...

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