There are times, not a few of them, when I have a great deal of difficulty in writing a post. It’s not that I haven’t read scads of books that, with a little re-familiarization, I could comment upon. It’s not even so much that it’s always a “dark and stormy” day. And it’s not that I think that some people somewhere won’t be interested. Sometimes, it’s just that I’m like Terence in A. E. Housman’s poem, “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff,” and am in a mental, moral, spiritual, or psychological slump, in a deep, dark hole, and can’t dig myself back out. But today when I began to feel that way (and I haven’t been posting regularly as much as I ought lately), I decided to share with you just what I often do when I’m in a blue mood. And this is the truth: I turn to Housman’s poem. It’s not that I necessarily take any part of the advice contained in it (and there are two different remedies propounded, one an allopathic or party-throwing solution, and the other a homeopathic or training-for-bad-days-ahead one). [As you are no doubt aware, the original meaning of allopathy is a type of medication or treatment that runs counter to the illness, homeopathy is a type of medication or treatment that imitates or runs like to the illness.] Even when I don’t take the advice, however, I get a lift from the rhythm and rhyme, and from the wit and insouciance and just plain poetry of Housman’s work. Luckily, since it’s another poem that has a version whose original copyright has expired and which is published elsewhere on the Internet, I can share it here with you in its entirety. It’s a little long, but my posts lately have been short, so as I analyze it (with your tolerance), I’ll take it apart and present the whole piece in order as it comes.
The poem begins with dialogue, presumably aimed at Terence by a friend or friends, after Terence has been gloomily poeticizing. The friend even goes so far as to make fun of Terence (and this part always gives me a wry grin at some of my own sadder poetic offerings) by parodying his offerings in a made-up poem about a cow, adding a bucolic note to the proceedings: “‘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.'” The friend is not of course automatically right, but one can hear the pragmatic, practical voice of a born optimist, and the voice itself gives hope because it suggests that there is an alternative to the way our as-yet-unheard-from Terence sees things.
Another voice speaks now, though not in quotation marks, a sort of intermediate voice between the first voice and Terence. This voice has yet another suggestion: there’s always alcohol! And we’ve already heard that Terence likes beer, in the first stanza. This voice is in a sense partly Terence, yet not entirely, because Terence’s real justification and response come in the last two stanzas. But now for this stanza in the intermediate voice first: “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.” The last two lines and one or two in the middle refer of course to some of the main drawbacks of alcohol, which are that it always requires to be renewed to be efficacious, and can leave one “mucky.” Its effect, when it is working, is allopathic; that is, it works in opposition to the “illness” of reality by causing one “to see the world as the world’s not.”
Terence, however, comes into his own and manages to justify his apparently gloomy poetic tendencies in the last two stanzas. He answers (though again, the poet does not put the lines in dialogue form): “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 brew 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.” Thus here the “medicine” recommended by Terence is homeopathic; that is, it is the same sort of treatment as what happens in reality, in which “luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure.”
Terence’s final “proof” of the real superiority of his “poetry” comes in the final stanza, and is itself wry and caustic, though still in an unusually good-humored way: “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.” And it is of course the king Mithridates that this tale is of, which Housman, in Terence’s voice, is using here as a metaphor for “training for ill and not for good.” The advice is seemingly pessimistic (i.e., always expect the worst), yet the proof of the argument is in the fact that by poisoning himself Mithridates was not attempting to die, but in fact to live a long and healthy life. There is thus a friendly, even funny, paradox contained in this poem, which the progression from the original objection to Terence and his “work” to his final answer has made apparent.
My reaction to this poem is usually to feel quite sing-songy and happy for a while after I read it, not only due to a certain affection for some forms of old-fashioned rhyming verse, but also due to my admiration for the craftsmanship of it. When we see something well-done, even on occasions when we require to be persuaded of the perspective contained therein or even if we don’t entirely agree with it, yet we appreciate the skill with which the writer or poet put it forward. So, the next time you find yourself in a mood to kick a can at the world and say, “To hell with it all, I’m sick of it,” have a look at Housman’s poem: he not only won’t lie to you about finding happiness, he’ll tell you what to do with whatever share of gloom comes your way. In a way, the poem itself is a “dose” of the “poisonous” meat and drink Mithridates took, a dose of homeopathic medicine from the storehouse of Housman. [His collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad had the original title The Poems of Terence Hearsay, thus hinting that Terence is a persona of Housman himself, though he was actually from Worcestershire, and used Shropshire in his poems only because of certain associations he had with the area.]