Thursday, January 27, 2011

Terence, this is stupid stuff -

This is the only poem I ever loved so much that I had to memorize it. It's from A.E. Housman's Shropshire Lad. It was written in 1896. Terence was Housman's nickname for himself. It starts with his friends making fun of him for "the verse you make, it gives a chap the belly-ache". They suggest instead of these "melancholy, mad" poems, they dance. Or maybe get drunk. Terence sees the virture in getting drunk (like the last poem) "Malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man". But Terence thinks it futile. From 15-43 below, Housman sums up everything there is to know about drinking. Well, drinking beer. He especially kills it with the most devastating couplet ever to sum up a hangover in the history of the English language: "The world, it was the old world yet. I was I, my things were wet."

Terence then decides to defend his poetry, his sad stories. Sad stories, he says, help the listener when they are sad: "It should do good to heart and head when your soul is in my soul's stead". The way an immunization injects a live virus into your body so your body can learn to kill it, sad stories inject pain into your heart, so your heart can learn to survive when it has its own pain. Housman, to make this point, tells the tale of Mithridates. Read it below.

‘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, 5
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. 10
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, 15
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, 20
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 25
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, 30
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, 35
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, 40
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 45
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: 50
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 55
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, 60
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more, 65
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; 70
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. 75
Mithridates, he died old.

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