A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Great Poems: “Terence, this is stupid stuff” by A.E. Housman

"There was a king [who] reigned in the East..."

“There was a king [who] reigned in the East…”

This poem is a bit long but FUN and easy to understand. Its fresh and insightful meaning plays off of the simplicity of its style to result in a clever, funny, accessible, and interesting poem.

My selection of this poem is significant, after last time’s sad poem. I was at first going to choose a happy poem for this Great Poems installment to balance things out, but I decided that there’s plenty of time for that, and I’d rather show you this brilliant defense of sad poetry.

I’m going to sum up the poem’s main points for you first, and then show you the poem.

1st stanza: An unnamed complainer tells Terence (a made-up character, we presume) that the poetry he writes too sad. Cheer up, boy!

2nd stanza: Terence begins his reply by saying that life is painful, and if you want to gloss over and pretty-up the pains of life, happy poetry is not as powerful an analgesic as alcohol. You might as well just drink your problems away! But the effects of any analgesic will wear off and leave you sad again.

3rd stanza: Terence sets out his main thesis, which is that it’s better to prepare for hardship than for good—better to look at life realistically than through rose-colored glasses.

4th (and last) stanza: Terence tells a story to support his thesis: the ancient king Mithridates made himself immune to poison by habitually consuming small amounts of it. The implied analogy is that by habitually facing the pains of reality (through sad poetry or otherwise), we will deal with hardship, when it hits us, better than we would if we had spent the preceding time ignoring reality.

These are the stripped-down points, but you’ve got to read the poem to feel the fun involved in the making of these points. But before I paste the poem, I’ll comment that while I do like Terence’s thesis—I am prone to rose-colored glasses, myself, and I see well my need for more realistic thinking—my own reason for appreciating sad poetry (sad poetry that resonates with me, I mean) has more to do with expression of and companionship in my feelings.

Now, for the poem. Enjoy!

Terence, this is stupid stuff   (Poem LXII in The Shropshire Lad) 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 the 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.



5 comments on “Great Poems: “Terence, this is stupid stuff” by A.E. Housman

  1. emilievardaman
    August 21, 2014

    I’d not have read this with such interest if not for you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Witness
    August 24, 2014

    Loved this poem! I didn’t understand every line, but I think I would if I tried a little harder. It is a delight. Thanks for your introduction and explanation.

    I gotta believe Housman didn’t draw “Terence” out of a hat; poetry is all about careful choice and arrangement of words, yes? And this poem’s words are obviously chosen with lots of attention. So I wonder whence Terence.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      August 25, 2014

      Witness, I’m glad you like this poem! I don’t think I understand every word of every line, either—as you said, it takes effort and time to completely digest a long poem like this. And that’s an interesting question about the name Terence; I would be intrigued to learn the answer. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  3. hawkeyeomaha
    May 28, 2016

    Beautiful! Indeed is it not true that those who moan and complain, see naught but the bad, hurt not the joyful nor the cur; but their own sadness do they stir. Came across this by accident looking for something else.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on August 21, 2014 by in Great Poems and tagged , , , , , , .
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