© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936) was one of the foremost classical scholars of the Victorian era. Many consider him to have been one of the greatest scholars of all time. He became a professor of Latin at University College, London, and then at Cambridge, though he had established his reputation for scholarship by publishing as an independent scholar before receiving his initial academic appointment in 1892. Meanwhile, in 1896, he firmly established his place in English literary history with the publication of A Shropshire Lad, a collection of poems built around the experiences of “Terence Hearsay,” a young poet and the fictional lad of the title. Together, the poems essentially address the passing of traditional ways of life in the English countryside amid the inexorable urbanization and modernization of the nineteenth century. In this, the poems have much in common with the novels of Thomas Hardy, especially Jude the Obscure (1895). Many of the poems deal with the theme of death, and especially with the deaths of young men, in war or otherwise. On the other hand, some of the poems nevertheless display a keen (though dark) sense of humor, including the most famous poem of the collection, “Terence, this is stupid stuff.”
A Shropshire Lad was slow to gain attention, but it eventually became (and has remained) one of the most important literary monuments of late-Victorian Britain. On the other hand, its melancholy tone has sometimes been mocked, as when the American modernist poet summed up Housman’s work in the following brief poem:
O woe, woe,
People are born and die,
We also shall be dead pretty soon
Therefore let us act as if we were
Then again, Housman was the first to mock his own work in “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” which humorously acknowledges the dark nature of Terence’s poems, while offering an amusing defense of their sad tone.
“Terence” consists of four stanzas, all of which are composed of rhymed couplets, giving the poem a humorous, almost doggerel-like tone that is partly meant as a parody of the mannered nature of Terence’s other poems and partly meant simply to establish the lighter atmosphere of this poem, relative to others in the collection. In the first stanza, an unidentified speaker castigates Terence for writing such sad poetry, parodying it as being mostly about how an old cow has died and we, too, will die soon, possibly from the effects of exposure to Terence’s poetry. Meanwhile, the speaker notes that Terence seems to be enjoying his own food and drink well enough, despite his ostensibly dark view of life. Note also how this stanza introduces the heavy use of alliteration [beginning neighboring words with the same consonant sound] that will be prominent throughout the poem. The exaggerated use of alliteration here parodies the use of alliteration and other poetic mannerisms throughout A Shropshire Lad. For example, “stupid stuff” itself involves alliteration, though the best example in this stanza occurs in the characterization of Terence’s poems as “moping melancholy mad.”
‘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, 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.’
In the second stanza (the longest and probably funniest in the poem), Terence begins his response, largely by arguing that, if his companion wishes to seek simple pleasures, there are probably better ways to do it than through poetry, which has more serious work to do. He particularly recommends liquor, including in what are perhaps the two most famous lines of the poem: “And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.” The reference here is to Milton’s stated aim, in Paradise Lost, to attempt to “justify God’s ways to man.”
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.
Terence continues his defense in the third stanza in a more serious vein, suggesting that he sees his poetry as providing preparation for dealing with the hardships of life in a world full of trouble. The tone is still only half serious, but this view of the world is, in fact, one that informs most of A Shropshire Lad. It also informs much late-Victorian thought, which is filled with anxiety and pessimism.
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.
In the fourth stanza, Terence continues his characterization of his poetry as preparation for life in a harsh world. This time, though, he employs an ancient precedent, as is perhaps appropriate given Housman’s status as a scholar of the classics. The precedent concerns the story of
Mithridates VI Eupator (135–63 BC), who was the ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus in Asia Minor, which was one of the Roman Republic’s fiercest rivals. What we know of Mithridates comes from the accounts of Roman historians, which are not entirely consistent, but the part of his story that Housman draws upon, though, is well established. According to most accounts, Mithridates had once been the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt, so he became especially fearful of being poisoned. To guard against this, he began regularly taking small doses of poison so that he could gradually develop an immunity to it. Terence suggests that his poetry is like the poisons of Mithridates: by delivering small doses of misery to his readers, he helps them to build up a resistance to the greater miseries that life will no doubt eventually bring them.
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.