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Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff - A. E. Housman

Being called a pragmatist is the polite way of saying you are a skeptic, or more seriously, a misanthrope. At various times, I have been called all three (along with a few other choice terms). I prefer to think of myself as guardedly inviting of new ideas and personal acquaintances. It might come with the territory, so to speak, when possessing a stereotypically somewhat introverted 'engineer' personality. I plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court. To do otherwise would be disingenuous.

Why bring this up? Something I read this morning reminded me of what was one of my favorite poems from my college English Literature classes - "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff," by A.E. Housman. It perfectly describes my cautious optimism throughout life. It sort of parallels the "trust but verify" mindset (Russian origin 'doveryai no proveryai') of the U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament efforts in the 1980s.

The last stanza sums up what I consider to be a prudent tack in life - basically another form of the old adage that says 'the best defense is a good offense' (attributed to Sun Tzu's The Art of War). Mithridates VI of Pontus is referenced because of his practice of subjecting himself to nonlethal doses of poisons in order to develop an immunity to malicious attempts on his life - know as "Mithridates' Antidote." You? 

Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff, c1896

By A. E. Housman (1859–1936)

 

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 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.

  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 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.

 

 

 

 

Posted  October 30, 2014

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