Terence, This is Stupid Stuff by A. E. Housman

‘Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’ was published in A. E. Housman’s most important collection, A Shropshire Lad. While the poet takes on a different persona, that of someone named Terence, it is generally considered to be Housman’s own poetry that he is defending. Terence defends his (Housman’s) generally dark and sometimes depressing and pessimistic writing. This fact makes the poem’s position as the second to last in the volume even more important. 

Terence, This is Stupid Stuff by A. E. Housman

 

Summary of Terence, This is Stupid Stuff

Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’ by A. E. Housman contains the words of a poet attempting to defend the merits of his own poetry to a friend.

In the first stanza of the speaker, Terence, relays the words of someone talking to him. This other person tells his friend Terence that the poetry he has been writing is “stupid stuff”. It’s all melancholy and unimportant. As the poem moves on, Terence gets a chance to defend himself. He describes the merits of his poetry in a different way. The poems aren’t meant to make everyone happy all the time. In fact, it’s very much the opposite. They are there to make one aware of the tragedies of life and perhaps help one cope if those tragedies should enter into their own life.

 

Structure of Terence, This is Stupid Stuff

Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’ by A. E. Housman is a sixty-two line poem that is separated into four stanzas of varying lengths. The poem follows a simple rhyme scheme that is made up of couplets or pairs of rhyming lines. These lines are almost always perfectly rhymed. In regards to meter, Housman maintains another steady pattern. Throughout the poem, he uses iambic tetrameter. This means that the lines all contain four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed.

 

Literary Devices in Terence, This is Stupid Stuff

Housman makes use of several literary devices in ‘Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’. These include but are not limited to personification, allusion, and alliteration. The latter, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Moping melancholy mad” in stanza one and “Livelier liquor” in stanza two. 

Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, in the last stanza, the poet refers to the earth as “she” creating an image of a woman, mother earth, purposefully creating and nurturing poisons. 

An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. The entire fourth stanza is a great example of this technique. Housman’s speaker tells the story of Mithridates, an ancient king who made himself immune to poison by sampling as many as he could find. 

 

Analysis of Terence, This is Stupid Stuff 

Stanza One 

‘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.’

In the first stanza of ‘Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’ the speaker, a friend of Terence, tells the poet that his writing is just not as good as it could be. He’s unhappy with the poetry that Terence has been writing as well as the way Terence treats his body with drink and poor food choices. 

The liens of this stanza make clear that the speaker does not like the way Terence writes or what he writes about. His poetry is dark and depressing, something that the speaker says “gives a chap a belly-ache”. The poems are “Moping melancholy mad,” a wonderful example of alliteration. The speaker would rather his friend come and “pipe a tune to dance to” and be cheerful. 

 

Stanza Two 

Lines 1-12

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.

The second stanza of ‘Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’ is the longest. In it, as well as the third stanza, Terence gets the chance to defend what he enjoys writing about. Terence tells his friend that if he’s really looking for something upbeat to dance to that he needs to look for it somewhere else. Terence is not the person to give it to him. Poetry does not supply the simple pleasures many men feel they need.

Terence suggests that his friend should go instead to a brewery or a “hop-yard”. In fact, he says, drinking is really part of life. The poet sees it as the right thing to do ”For fellow whom it hurts to think”. He makes several allusion to great breweries in England in these lines and asks what they were built for it not to encourage drinking as a national past time.

 

Lines 13-28

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.

The poet believes that drinking is the best thing to do if one wants to blunt their mind. Poetry is not going to do that for anyone, he says in this stanza of ‘Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’. He even mentions Milton in these lines as an example. He tried to get to the heart of humankind, God, and sin but wasn’t able to relieve any human suffering. In the last lines of this stanza, Terence outlines one example of when he turned to drink and felt temporarily at peace with everything. But, in the end, he was back to “begin the game anew” as the drink didn’t permanently change anything for him. 

 

Stanza Three 

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.

The third stanza of ‘Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’ contains the next part of Terence’s defense. Here, he describes the importance of facing the “ill” of the world. It can’t be avoided as it is much more prevalent than the “good”. “Luck” might come around sometimes but “trouble” is a sure thing.

Now, he turns back to his poetry and tries to explain to his friend why it’s important that he write it and how it might help others to read it. It’s not as “brisk a brew as ale” but it “should do good to hear and head” if the friend ever finds himself in the same state of mind as the speaker. He describes his poetry as “sour” tasting, comparing it to a drink in a way that the friend can understand. In the last lines of this stanza, he concludes by saying that he is going “friend” his friend when he needs it. The poetry will be there as support when the friend is lost. 

 

Stanza Four 

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.

The last stanza of ‘Terence, This is Stupid Stuff’ is different than the previous three. In this section, the poet goes into the myth of Mithridates, an eastern king. The story starts out with no introduction, meaning that the poet wanted his friend to hear this story and take something from it. He describes how this king and any others were always at risk of being poisoned by meant or drink. 

The king, in what seems to be a very clever turn of events, decides to sample all the different poisons he can find, therefore building an immunity to them. So, when people try to poison him, he eats the food and nothing happens. A reader should take note of the example of personification in these lines when the poet describes the earth as “she,” a common feature. The earth is depicted as a woman, making the poisons that the king tries. 

This allusion-rich story, which works as an analogy, helps the poet convey his emotions about poetry. A reader should reread the passage and consider Housman’s poetry in place of the poison. If one drinks a little bit of the poison/poetry at a time, then when the big doses of it come (such as the biggest tragedies in life) then those tragedies won’t seem so heavy.

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