A. E. Housman’s poem “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” consists of a friendly complaint about the themes and mood of poems contained in A Shropshire Lad, wherein he adopts for himself the name Terence. The opening segment is easily separated from the remainder by quotation marks. Section two is the poet’s response; section three a justification; the concluding section, a historical allusion to give weight to the poet’s reasoning.
The complaint concerns the recurrent gloom of Terence’s subject matter and tone: the “stupid stuff” he writes. It concludes with a single line of suggestion or request. Terence’s interlocutor begins by pointing out that the poet is clearly not physically ailing or dyspeptic or he would be incapable of the quantity and rate of his consumption of food and beer.
He goes on to parody Terence’s poetry subjects, like a cow that has died. “The cow, the old cow, it is dead” pokes fun at poets and their tendency to repetition. “It sleeps well, the horned head” ridicules the way poets can take a single syllable word like “horned” and of metrical necessity make it a two-syllable word (“hor-ned”). Synecdoche or the use of a part to suggest the whole is also satirized. (The entire cow is “sleeping”; not just its head.) The delayed apposition of “it” and “the horned head” is another poetic manipulation as is the euphemistic substitution of “sleeps” for being no longer alive.
Readers can almost smell the beery breath of this speaker as he jests that hearing mournful poetry will be fatal to him and his mates as was whatever brought down the cow. He plays on alliteration (repetition of initial consonants) with “Moping, melancholy, mad,” then requests something upbeat: “a tune to dance to.”
Now begins Terence’s similarly toned defense. Ale is more suitable than poetry for people who find serious subject matter headache-inducing. British aristocracy have made fortunes brewing ale in places like Burton-on-Trent, and their product is livelier or more mood-enhancing than that inspired by the muse of poetry. The poem’s most often quoted lines employ the interlocutor’s alliteration of the letter “m,” in an allusion to John Milton’s thematic statement of purpose in the epic Paradise Lost.
“Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to Man.”
The world view one gets by looking at life through the bottom of a pewter beer flagon is pleasant but false and short-lived. Terence confesses to such past overindulgences at the festivals of Ludlow in Shropshire county. He came home missing his necktie. Individuals may draw their own inferences about
“And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:”
Why only half way?
Part three of the poem is a defense of Housman’s poetic focus on misfortune and death. A few such titles:
• ”Eight O’Clock” is about a condemned man waiting for the church steeple clock to chime the hour of his gallows death;
• ”Is My Team Ploughing?” another conversational exchange between a dead person and the living person who is tending to the dead man’s oxen, home and sweetheart
• ”With Rue My heart Is Laden,”: the title speaking for itself.
The logic is that since life is filled with joy and sorrow, but much more of the latter than of the former, it’s best to train ourselves to handle misfortune and the bitter hours. His poetry is “not as brisk a brew as ale.” It was wrung in a weary land from stems that scored the hand. This leads to the final section involving allusion to a historical/mythical person of antiquity to show the benefits of his sour-tasting product.
In the east of ancient times, kings were always being poisoned when they sat down to eat and drink. But one royal ruler prepared his body to withstand such murderous attempts. He gathered lethal plants and mixtures and sampled them first in tiny amounts, then graduating toward ordinarily lethal dosages. He developed a tolerance for them.
“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.”
Housman’s bitter and lugubrious poetry will prepare us for the worst life has to offer by verbal immunization.
“-I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.”