A Shropshire Lad "Mithridates, He Died Old"

A. E. Housman

"Mithridates, He Died Old"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: One of A. E. Housman's recurring themes is the dreariness and bleakness of life and man's lifelong burden to endure it. In the poem beginning "'Terence, this is stupid stuff:'" a friend asks the country lad Terence to give some of his poetry. Terence tells his friend that beer is better than poetry to make life pleasant, and help one forget the terrible reality of living. Beer and ale, though, can give only temporary relief, Terence says, so he must adjust to the world somehow. As there is more ill fortune than good fortune, he adjusts to the ill. He illustrates his method of facing the world by relating the tale of Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, who supposedly made himself immune to poison by taking it in larger and larger quantities. The result was that all attempts to poison the king were unsuccessful. The efficacy of the method is ironically expressed in the last line of the concluding verses of the poem:

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.