A. E. Houseman — Alfred Edward Housman was born March 26, 1859 in Worcestershire, England. His mother died when he was twelve, a traumatic and deeply influential event in his life and his poetry. He had great knowledge of the classics but, because he refused to answer, or didn’t know how to answer, certain questions on the written examination, he was refused graduation with honors from Oxford, another traumatic and influential event.
He took a job in the Patent Office in London, registering trademarks, continuing his studies, publishing scholarly papers. He was appointed professor of Latin at University College in London, then moved on to Cambridge, where he remained until his death in 1936. His poetry published during his lifetime consisted of the proverbial “two slim volumes”: A SHROPSHIRE LAD (a printing of only 500 copies–Housman had to pay the publisher to print a second edition), in 1896, and LAST POEMS, in 1922. Two posthumous volumes appeared: MORE POEMS and ADDITIONAL POEMS. By the time of his death, he was a scholar of world-wide renown, having published volumes of Manilius, Juvenal, and Lucan, and over a hundred scholarly papers.
Housman’s poetry, though praised by the critics, was not a “best-seller” until the coming of World War I, when its “militant masculine spirit” (Dr. Joseph Mersand, supplementary material to Avon’s 1950 edition of ASL) made it immensely popular. Lawrence Durrell, another poet, calls Housman’s poetry new, the work of an ironist in a time of sentimental melancholy. In the poem I’m going to read, you’ll see him take a dig at that sentimentality. Housman’s poetry is simple, sharp, tight, and both pungent and poignant.
Nesca A. Robb says, in his book FOUR IN EXILE, that A SHROPSHIRE LAD is not just a collection of random poems, but almost one whole poem. “They are arranged with extreme deliberateness, so that not only does one theme follow another in logical sequence, but the themes prophesy, recall, and intertwine with each other…”
Here is one of my favorite poems ever:
Poem LXII from A 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 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.
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.
Housman originally intended to call the book THE POEMS OF TERENCE HEARSAY, but an Oxford friend persuaded him to change it.
In the first section, we hear a friend scolding and teasing the poet, asking him why he writes such sad poetry, when he’s obviously in excellent health. He urges “Terence” to write happy poems instead.
In the next section, Terence replies that, if you want to be happy, get drunk. Of course, he says, he’s tried that himself and the next morning, apart from a hangover, everything (including himself) was the same as it had been before.
In the third section, he says that it’s wiser to inoculate yourself against the world’s troubles, and poetry is better for that than liquor.
Finally, he tells the story of King Mithradates, who lived in a time and place where poisoning monarchs was a common occurrence. The story illustrates Terence’s point.
I’m posting today at Fatal Foodies about my DIY Fungus Hummungous.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: What does your main character think of Houseman’s poem?
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