- "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 will 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 sprang 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.
Terence, this is stupid stuff
March 27th marks two well-known poets' birthdays, A.E. Housman (1859) and Robert Frost (1875). Reading through a few of their poems I came across this one and liked it for several reasons. If you enjoy poetry, and sardonic humor I think you will too. This poem appears in Houseman's first book, A Shropshire Lad the composition date is unknown but was first published in 1896. Professor of Latin at University College in London, Houseman later worked at Cambridge and was feared in his professional life for the bitter form of humor he sometimes used intending to hurt or wound. There is a glimpse of that present in Terence, This is Stupid Stuff and serves as a good example the undertone of poignancy that is present throughout the book. You may be wondering who Terence is. Houseman intended to originally title A Shropshire Lad as The Poems of Terence Hearsay. So you could say that the Shropshire lad is Terence. "Terence" is a name Housman used in his poetry to refer to himself, and some poet scholars say it may be a subtle reference to the ancient comic playwright Terence as in Publius Terentius Afer.
The verse sidesteps any pretence of self pity and instead employs wry irony and sarcasm as means to convey a message. There is fatalism which usually, but not always, stops short of the maudlin. Beginning with a brief outline of the verses. The first one starts with a complaint by a friend of the poet for the gloominess of his poems, asking him to pipe, or sing, a merrier tune.
In the second stanza the poet responds by ridiculing happy poems and the happiness they create for their own sake. A book could be written on the variety of metaphor and threads, yet it is the liquid imagery that catches and holds attention. Burton-upon-Trent is a city famous for its breweries while Ludlow Fair might be conjured up as being famous for its beer drinking parties. And you might be interested to learn that at the beginning of Paradise Lost, Milton petitions the Heavenly Muse to aid him
"assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.
Milton's central theme considers why God tolerates evil in the world and Houseman's postmodern response is not to think about the problem at all. Houseman's relpy to Milton is:
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
Ah yes, there are poets talking among themselves in poetry. Horace, another would say with regards to the relative merits of alcohol and poetry: "No poems can please long, nor live, which are written by water drinkers." and enjoins his friend, "Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink For fellows whom it hurts to think." Terence judges, should his friend desire such false and fleeting joys, to drink beer instead; when you return to the world of reality it will be as bleak as ever.
Explaining further in the third verse the poet to his friend, supports his philosophy with a warning: prepare for the worst that his heart and mind might endure. From the grim wisdom of bleak poems, the poet gleans from his own bitter experience. In the last two lines Housman begins a segue, and the reader will see why in the latter verse, from poets to poetry itself.
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.
By the fourth verse it's become a treat, the payoff is a punctuation with poem within a poem. Mithridates, spelled properly is Mithradates is Housman's reference to The Great King Mithradates VI of Pontus who lived and reigned in Asia Minor for fifty seven years, from 120 to 63 BCE. His story comes from Pliny the Elder's work Natural History, Suetonius has a lively account, as well as, Plutarch. It goes something like this. Being somewhat of a rather large thorn in the side of Rome, Crassus the Triumvir also led an expedition into Asia Minor after Mithradates and was killed. Pompey fought against him too, but it wasn't until Caesar overran Asia Minor, but the old king was dead by then that his sons were subjugated along with his empire. Pliny tells how Mithradates made himself immune to poison by taking small doses every day. In the end, betrayed by his son, Mithradates tried to commit suicide, but could not poison himself, so he ordered a mercenary to kill him.
Other writers join in Housman's lament. In Dorothy L. Sayers' Strange Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey joins forces for the first time with the one true love of his life, Harriet Vane. Harriet is on trial for poisoning her fiance when Wimsey meets her. Not only does Wimsey believe in her innocence, he falls in love with her at first sight. Cleverly he brings home the case for her by using Houseman's poem Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff to deduce the scheme. In fact, the chapter in which he confronts the murderer ends with the same line "Mithridates, he died old."
Public domain text taken from The Poet's Corner.