Monday, April 02, 2007

National Poetry Month Meme

I see from Keith DeCandido that this is National Poetry Month. To mark the occasion, he posted one of his favorite poems, which I think is a fine idea. (He's planning to keep doing it every Sunday this month, but I'm not committing to any more than one.)

So here's one of my favorites (I had big chunks of it memorized at one point), "Terrence, 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.


Anonymous said...

i hate this poem. we're reading this in our english class and our homework is to write a paragraph on if poetry is really as strong as terrance describes it to be. how am i supposed to write that if i have no idea what this poem even means. since u like this poem, if u can just briefly tell me what it means, i'd really appreciate it.

Andrew Wheeler said...

anonymous: Well, the first stanza is in a different voice. (I'm not sure if you got that; I've often sped right over minor points in poems I hate.) A drunk guy is essentially asking Terrence, the poet, "Hey, sing us a funny, happy song, not that depressing shit you're usually slinging."

And then Terrence points out that if you want to be happy, drinking is a much better bet than reading -- "malt [beer] does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man." When you're drunk, the world seems wonderful and special and made just for you. can't live drunk. Eventually you sober up and discover that you're lying in the muck, and that all of your problems are still there, the same if not worse.

The world, Terrence says, has both good and bad in it -- but more bad than good. So, to survive it, you need to toughen up. ("Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure.")

So, if you're ready for the worst -- if you inoculate yourself with the truth about the ills of the world -- you will survive, as Mithridates did, the attempts of the world to kill you. (For a while, at least. Mithridates didn't live forever, after all -- he "died old.")

Housman is saying that poetry (literature in general, really) has the power to show readers the world as it really is, and to help them prepare for the bad things that will happen to them in their own lives. The metaphor in the Mithridates stanza is that poetry = is the equivalent of the small doses of poison that build up immunity.

His poem may be bitter, he says, but it may just keep you from falling for some romantic nonsense later in life and dying because of that.

How you feel about all that depends if you agree with Housman's argument -- do you agree that the world is full of horrible things, and that the best way to get through life is to face the bad parts head on, with eyes open? Or do you think that Housman/Terrence is missing out on the true wonder and positive nature of the world by focusing on the bad stuff?

Gillikin said...

This is my favorite poem. I memorized it in 11th grade english eons ago and can still recite it.

Anonymous said...

Was Houseman not depressed throughout his adult life? I recall reading that in his biographical information somewhere. It leads one to think that his depression overflowed into his writing. He did have a tendency to focus on the negative. His friend was telling him to lighten up and enjoy life because Terrance was serious all of the time.

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