Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Terence, this is stupid stuff

    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 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.

A.E. Housman

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."


Blair, Bob

Public domain text taken from The Poet's Corner.

The Wondering Minstrels

Monday, April 04, 2005

Here lies one whose name was writ in water

The Founatin that inspired Keats and his tombstone. Posted by Hello

Utter this phrase to just about any English Lit major and chances are they will know whom you are talking about. So why the nebulous expression and what body of water is the author referring to?

In many literary circles water can indicate a cleansing and certainly Shakespeare's The Tempest is awash with it. Water in Genesis is a means of destroying the wicked and in Matthew as a way of remitting sins. It can also symbolize the river of life or the extinguishing of baptism by fire and re birth.

Calling it his "posthumous life" in 1820 John Keats dutifully headed to the warmer climes of sunny Italy after being diagnosed with an almost certain death sentence, tuberculosis. After declining Percy Bysshe Shelley's invitation to join him at Pisa, Keats went to Rome with his friend, the painter Joseph Severn where they lived in the Piazza of the Spanish Steps. Not far from the bottom of the steps is the Fontana della Barcaccia (1627) or "leaky old boat" created by Pietro Bernini, the son of Giovanni.

In a city famed for its fountains, this one stands out from the rest. Pope Urban VIII commissioned the Fontana della Barcaccia and even reopened an ancient aqueduct from the 17th century to provide water to the arid region. Instead of spouting grandeur with the magnificence of great crashing torrents, the streams flow with gentle murmurs. Carved in the shape of a half sunken ship with water overflowing its bows, researchers differ on what it is a tribute to. Some say that its mild mannered form was simply a necessity in a part of the city with such low water pressure, while others conjecture that it is symbolic of the Catholic Church ceaselessly afloat in the face of unfeasible odds. Another theory suggests that the fountain is a reminder that the Tiber River which frequently flooded this area of Rome. Still many like to imagine this is the where Domitian, a Roman emperor, held splendid sea battles in his great water stadium.

Keats could hear the sound of the water flowing soothingly from his deathbed and perhaps the marble carving echoed Charon's leaky boat upon the river Styx. He said it reminded him of the lines from the 17th century play Philaster Or: Love Lies A-bleeding (1611) by playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher. They often portrayed stories about the loyal devotion of both men and women to king, lover, or friend and Philaster is one of their best. The tragedy is about a Sicilian king whose kingdom was taken by the father of the woman he loves. It is a romance and tragicomedy about forgiveness. Thinking he is about to be put to death King Philaster observes:

    Sir, let me speak next,
    And let my dying words be better with you
    Than my dull living actions; if you aime
    At the dear life of this sweet Innocent,
    Y'are a Tyrant and a savage Monster;
    Your memory shall be as soul behind you
    As you are living, Shall be in water writ"
    all your better deeds
    Shall be in water writ
    , but this in Marble:
    No Chronicle shall speak you, though your own,
    But for the shame of men.

    Philaster. Act v. Sc. 3.

Beaumont and Fletcher's published Philaster in 1714 having borrowed the line from another tragicomic romance. These kinds of plays were rising in popularity at the time and it was a genre Shakespeare frequently used nearly a century earlier. In this instance the expression comes from Henry VIII a different play that centers on the instabilities of another royal court. Only this one dates from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The Bard's intentions are to portray the warning signs of far-ranging consequences of infighting among the members of the court. One historian says, "The king of Shakespeare's day, James I, was a direct descendent of the royal family in this play. The merging of romance and history provides the suggestion that fate or providence helped to determine the unfolding of English history of the previous century."

In the fourth act Queen Katherine is being divorce from Henry VIII and discovers Cardinal Wolsey has schemed against her for political reasons. Angry, she swears him as her enemy. The Cardinal is put to death for his plans and hearing of his demise Katherine speaks out against him again and her attendant Griffith observes:

Katharine is eventually convinced by Griffith to exonerate Wolsey with his elegy of forgiveness and pity that is encouraged throughout the play. So perhaps it is with speech and pardon in mind that Keats desires his pithy epitaph. There is no doubt that there are a few readers who are wondering what has brought this 25-year-old poetic genius in the making to such a humble summit.

The lower class son of a livery stable owner John was apprenticed to a surgeon only to discard a medical career in pursuit of a passion for poetry. By the fall of 1816 two of his sonnets, O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell and On First Looking into Chapman's Homer were published in the Examiner, a literary magazine edited by journalist and poet Leigh Hunt. Hunt introduced Keats to an upper class circle of literary men including poet Percy Shelly Blythe. With the support of this group Keats was able to get his first volume of verse Poems by John Keats published in 1817. His thesis was a justification of Romantic poetry and it main beliefs as publicized by Hunt and the assailing of the practice of Romanticism as represented by Lord Byron.

Two years later a follow up volume by Keats was published, Endymion. It was brutally criticized by the Quarterly Review and in particular Blackwood's Magazine who called it "nonsense" recommending Keats abandon poetry altogether. One biographer writes:

    Keats's second book, the woefully ambitious Endymion (1818), was savaged by the Tory press. Blackwood's sneered: "It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr. John." Undeterred, Keats entered a period of rapid intellectual and poetic development, beautifully charted in his remarkable and moving letters. With astonishing speed, supreme confidence, and the greatest artistic mastery, Keats wrote virtually all his major poetry between January and September of 1819.
Blackwood's was relentless with their criticisms calling the romantic verse of Hunt's literary circle, "the Cockney school of poetry." But in spite of the disparagement Keats most impressive production of verse followed and by the summer of 1820 his third and best volume Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems was published. Not only did he benefit from a huge critical success, Keats also fell madly in love with Fanny Brawne (1801-1865) and it was also the year that he first showed signs of tuberculosis.

Dying in a small room in Rome Keats realized that his accolades on the publication of the volume Lamia, Isabella would be the end of his career as a poet. Keats told Joseph Severn that he wanted no dedications on his gravestone not even his name, but simply the words: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

After Keats death Severn deliberated on a variety of combination of Keats' words that would explain his choice was from the poet's sense of disregard by his peers. Nevertheless he kept his word for the time being and although the common sentiment towards the remembrance of Keats between English residents and visitors were for the most part considerate, there were a few insolent jeers, -"his name was writ in water"; yes, and his poetry in milk and water.' Even so his friend Shelley nobly defied Keats vague phrase in his own poem Adonais with," He lives, he wakes - 'tis Death is dead, not he."

Over the years Joseph Severn eagerly looked for any signs of growing admiration of his friend's poetry, or of change in attitude from the scoffers, but reprints of Keats's poems weren't published until nearly a decade later, "and then only by the Paris house of Galignani, who printed for the continental market, in a single tall volume with double columns, a collective edition of the poems of Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats."

Severn felt regret at agreeing to such an insignificant tombstone and after much deliberation among his group of friends that included several proposals of change Keats tombstone was carefully re-cut more than half a century later. A design of a lyre with only two strings attached was added perhaps as a symbolic metaphor for lyricists life cut tragically short. Today Keats's tombstone rests upon a green, sunny slope in the Rome's Protestant Cemetery. In addition to the lyre is the inscription:

    This Grave
    contains all that was Mortal
    of a
    on his death bed
    in the Bitterness of his Heart
    at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
    these Words to be engraved on His Tomb Stone
    "Here Lies One
    Whose Name was writ in Water"

    Feb 24 1821

When John Keats died it had only been a handful of years after he had begun to write and the value of his legacy was only evident to his friends. There was a deep desire to ensure that Keats' brief work became well known, and it soon attained great popularity. Not only is it a reminder to many that the poet was a victim to the malice of his enemies, but that he was also capable of forgiveness. And like Shakespeare's plays about court rivalries and the ripples they cause across time, the simple epitaph has had its own far-ranging consequences of infighting among the poetical elites because today Keats' odes are to be found in almost every anthology of English poetry.


CCS Web Academy - English IV - Unit 6, Lesson 1

Fontana della Barcaccia

John Keats


The Literature Network


A Pilgrim in Paradise

Teaching Letters