Those of us who teach literature have had to become downright crafty in how we sell it these days. Once it was self-evident that poetry was worth reading, but now we have to use our imaginations and all of our teaching skills to make a case for it.
That’s one reason why I enjoy A. E. Housman’s poem “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff,” which I taught earlier this week. Terence Hearsay, the persona that Housman adopts in his collection Shropshire Lad (1896), is a poet facing a skeptical audience. He writes about morbid subjects like dead cows and the like, and his fellow lads don’t get the point. They know he likes to party so why can’t he loosen up? If he has to write poetry, he should at least write cheerful poems that they can dance to:
Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There’s nothing 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 bellyache.
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.
Terence’s reply is that, if they want stuff that they can dance to without having to think, why bother with poetry at all? Why not just go straight for the bottle?
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.
The “mischief” with beer, of course, is that “’twill not last.” Terence knows this from personal experience:
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.
Turning teacher, Terence makes his case for poetry. Since life will inevitably go sour—“luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure”—his poems are ready to hand when they are needed. He has been training “for ill and not for good,” wringing his poems “in a weary land,” so that his friends will have help when the day grows “dark and cloudy.” You’ll be grateful for my verse, he tells them, when “your soul is in my soul’s stead”:
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.
To illustrate his point, Terence concludes with the story of Mithradites, the legendary king who made himself immune to poisoning by ingesting tiny amounts of poison throughout his life. I take Terence to be saying that, if you make it a lifelong habit to ingest tiny amounts of melancholy poetry, you’ll be prepared for any disasters that come your 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 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.
So eat your poetry. It may have a sour smack but it will save your life.