Monday, October 20, 2008

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff

Good friends:

Today’s poem is clarity itself in all matters but one, and that one I will clear up right now. “Terence” herein refers not to the Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer, as you might easily assume if you hit up a one-volume deskside encyclopedia, but to Housman himself. He always called himself Terence in his poems. Dunno why.

Here’s the thing itself:

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff
by A. E. Housman

"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.

So. A defense of depressing poetry. I was gonna synopsize it (beginning, “In the first stanza, the poet’s friend says, ‘Fred, your poems are such major gloom-cookies...’”) but let’s be honest, you read it, you got it, you bought the t-shirt, you went home and puked on the rug. Let’s not flog a dead horse. Or cow, as the case may be.

But here’s the major irony of the poem: It’s remembered chiefly not for its laborious observation that great poetry is, like nasty medicine, unpleasant but good for you, but for a throwaway couplet early on, “And malt does more than Milton can/To justify God's ways to man.” Which must be quoted by literate sots literally every day of the year with the first word lopped off:

Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

Note the literate reference to the line early on in Paradise Lost stating Milton’s major theme. By breaking it out of Housman’s gloom-cookie, a million anonymous but well-read boozers have created a work of found-poetry. It states a major truth in an absolute minimum of words. And it rhymes too!

Just keep in mind the wisdom of our major advertisers and Don’t Drink to Excess. Housman lies when he says it cheers you up, but he wasn’t kidding about lying down in the muck.

Your pal,


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