Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff

by A. E. Housman
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 690

“Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” takes its title from the first line of poem sixty-two of A. E. Housman’s first and most important collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad. The poem is divided into four verses of varying length and purpose that, taken together, provide an apology or defense of what is generally regarded as Housman’s pessimistic poetry.

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The speaker of the first stanza addresses the poet’s persona, Terence, who is the ostensible author of the preceding poems. Clearly, the speaker is unhappy with the sort of poetry Terence composes. In fact, he reminds the poet that he seems to be in reasonably good health considering his general consumption of food and drink. Terence’s companion in life has no patience with poetry that speaks of broken hearts and broken lives. Further, he accuses Terence of having such a dismal view of life “melancholy mad” that his poetry is endangering the sanity and well-being of his friends, even to the point of being life-threatening. His counsel is that Terence take up a happier mode of existence: “Come pipe a tune to dance to, lad.”

In the next two stanzas the poet (“Terence”) takes up a lively defense of his work. First, he reminds his friend that if he’s looking simply for pleasure, he’s come to the wrong place: Breweries are a better place to find solace from life’s troubles. Moreover, the poet suggests that the making and consuming of beer is a national endeavor, one in which the upper classes profit from the manufacture of beer consumed in great quantities by the common man. The poet questions why else the great breweries of Burton were built on the river Trent and why the English grow hops if not for the manufacture of ale. He reminds the first speaker that ale does a better job of blunting reality than poetry, for not even the great poet John Milton, whose masterpiece Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) sought to explain the human condition in terms of God’s intentions, provides much in the way of alleviating human suffering.

He flippantly replies that “ale’s the stuff to drink/ For fellows whom it hurts to think.” Terence does not, however, address his friend condescendingly; in fact, he tells of his own encounter with drunken euphoria and its subsequent rude awakening. He reflects that the temporary state of well-being induced by too much drink is pleasant enough but does not last. Self-deception only to be followed by weary resignation leads nowhere but back to the starting point to “begin the game anew.”

Then, if there is no respite from the often-unpleasant realities of life (“Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure”), one must prepare to “face it as a wise man would,/ And train for ill and not for good.” This advice, however, is not given lightly, for it comes from the wisdom of experience, of having suffered and plunged into escape only to find pain inescapable. Thus, Terence offers his friend a recipe for survival in a not-so-pleasant world. Yet, it is an opportunity not only to endure but also to prevail.

In the last stanza, the poet recounts the myth of Mithridates, a North African potentate who, when offered a choice of death by his Roman captors, chose poison. The Roman offer was considered an act of mercy, for the Romans frequently employed more imaginative and painful means of death on their enemies. In this case, it proved to be more merciful than intended, for Mithridates was unaffected by his captors’ efforts to dispatch him. By ingesting small portions of differing poisons from infancy and continuing the process throughout life, he had developed an immunity that left him untouched and the Romans frightened and frustrated, for “Them it was their poison hurt.” The parable of Mithridates draws a parallel between the elegiac reflections of the poet and the poisons ingested by Mithridates. Neither are pleasant, but both provide a bulwark against the sad mischances of life. More to the point, the verse Terence makes acts as an antidote to the pervasive sadness of life that rescues one from despair.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

Much of the appeal of Housman’s poetry derives from its apparent simplicity. The adoption of the persona of Terence Hearsay, a country lad from Shropshire whose conversational candor makes Housman’s poetry immediately accessible to the reader, accounts for much of the continuing popularity of A Shropshire Lad. It is difficult to imagine having an acquaintance with poetry without having encountered “When I Was One-and-Twenty” or “To an Athlete Dying Young.” These poems express the loss of love, youth, and life in a manner so simple and direct that they have become staples of English textbooks and classrooms. Yet one must be careful not to mistake simplicity of style for lack of sophistication. The animus of the classical scholar Alfred Edward Housman informs the poetic voice of Housman’s Terence. The simple yeoman’s reflections on the demands of life draw on a breadth of knowledge and experience beyond that which one associates with rural life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff.”

In this poem, the contrast between form and content provides a bridge between reader and scholar/poet. The opening stanza questions the very nature of Terence’s poetic efforts as his unnamed friend challenges the entire body of work. Moreover, the challenge is put in such a way that the reader can easily recognize it from one’s own adolescent struggles with sad words about dead people who never seemed to get it right—“It gives a chap the belly-ache.” The conversational tone engages the reader and plays into the all-too-human avoidance of the unpleasant.

Terence, however, is up to the challenge. In the manner of a country lawyer, he grants the questioner’s premise that poetry is not the place to turn to for some fun or a respite from daily drudgery. He plays on class consciousness—“Oh many a peer of England brews/ Livelier liquor than the Muse”—and gives thanks for the existence of the upper class, which brews beer for the lower class, for “malt does more than Milton can/ To justify God’s ways to man.” In this stanza is the poet’s first direct allusion to Milton, and it serves several purposes. It continues the folksy intimacy established between Terence and his reader, and it permits the reader to believe that Terence really shares the common prejudice against poetry and gloomy reflection. Finally, it serves to remind the reader of the fall from grace, that Eden and man have become separated, that humankind lives with suffering, and that not even Milton’s poetic explanation can dull the edge of sorrow (“Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink/ For fellows whom it hurts to think”).

Yet, for fear that the reader will be put off by so harsh an assessment, Terence confides that he, too, has searched for relief in drunkenness—and found it to be a lie. The tone of confidentiality and the assumption of shared misery make the reader predisposed to accept the poet’s conclusion. Life is hard, and one had better “train for ill and not for good.”

Oddly enough, this Shropshire lad has a knowledge of classical literature that he disclaims by saying, “—I tell the tale that I heard told.” After all, his surname is Hearsay; he is only repeating the tale of Mithridates, whose story merely happens to be an illustration of the narrator’s point.

Housman successfully hides the scholar/poet behind the mask of his adopted persona, Terence, whose tone of convivial fellowship invites the reader into an exploration of critical theory (such as the purpose and uses of poetry and why it should be read) as old as Aristotle.

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