»  A.E. Housman's "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff"


Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff

by A.E. Housman, 1859-1936; read by James Mason


•  Background

Lacking a title, and so commonly referred to just by its opening line, this is the penultimate poem (number LXII) in Housman's 1896 cycle A Shropshire Lad.

Housman, a university professor of classics (mainly a Latinist), produced only two small books of poetry, the other one being Last Poems (1922).

The 63 poems in A Shropshire Lad are mostly of a melancholy strain. This one, almost at the end of the cycle, can be taken as an apology for that strain. In the first stanza, some unknown person is addressing the poet. The remainder is the poet's reply. I do not know why Housman used the name "Terence" for himself here, but it is hard to believe that a Latinist such as he did not have the Roman playwright in mind.

The reading is by the great British movie actor James Mason, who recorded 40-odd of Housman's poems (as many as would fit on a long-playing vinyl record of the time) sometime in the 1970s (I'm guessing).

•  Notes

"Burton" — Burton-on-Trent is a town in England famous for its beer.

"Ludlow" — A town in Shropshire (famously pretty).

"Mithridates" — Surely this one.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem

"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.