Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Terence, This is Stupid Stuff"

“Terence, This is Stupid Stuff,” the penultimate poem (number LXII) in A.E. Housman’s 1896 collection, A Shropshire Lad, can be interpreted as a defense of depressing poetry. The poem consists of rhyming couplets with eight beats per line, making the meter iambic quatrameter, which is common for narratives. The poem shifts in setting from Shropshire to Burton to Ludlow to Pontus and also contains shifts in time from modern-day to memory/flashback to history. The first section consists of a complaint addressed to Terence about the gloomy nature of his subject matter and a request for livelier, more jovial poetry. Terence Hearsay, the supposed narrator of the poem, may possibly be a reference to the Roman playwright Publius Terentius After. The first stanza, an evaluation of Terence’s poetry, ridicules the way poets can take a single-syllable word and make it a two-syllable word out of metrical necessity by using the phrase “hornéd head.” Synecdoche is also satirized, for the cow’s head is described as “sleeping” rather than the entire cow. Furthermore, the delayed apposition of “it” and “the hornéd head” is another poetic manipulation as is the euphemistic substitution of “sleeps” for no longer being alive. The friends also employ hyperbole to emphasize their point: “We poor lads, ‘tis our turn now/To hear such tunes as killed the cow.” The phrase “the tune the (old) cow died of” is idiomatically applied to unmusical or tedious pieces of music.

The second section begins with a shift from Terence’s friends to Terence’s response to his friends’ criticism. In the context of this section, the tone shifts from humorous to serious. In delivering his reply, the speaker sidesteps any pretense of self-pity and instead employs wry irony and sarcasm to convey his message. Terence rebuts that there are better mediums than poetry if one desires to dance, drink, and be merry. He suggests that breweries were made for that very purpose; the route to escapism overflows with alcohol. The narrator alludes to John Milton’s Paradise Lost when he states, “And malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man.” By this statement, Terence is suggesting that whiskey effectively cuts off sensation and gives the drinker a deluded, distorted vision of the world. The narrator continues on to convey that one who sees the world in a false optimistic light will experience a rude awakening when the pleasant effects of inebriation wear off in a similar manner to the tippler who can only get “halfway home, or near” with his stomach full of beer.

The third section consists of the writer’s justification or rationale for his reasoning. The poet shares that he himself experienced a rude awakening when the aroma of unreality dissipated, sadly relating, “Heigho, the tale was all a lie/The world, it was the old world yet.” This part of the poet’s tale reminds me of the Navras section of the Upanishads, which contains the prayer, “From delusion, lead me to truth.” From this point onward, the narrator begins a segue in which he reveals his fatalistic views, which usually, but not always, stop short of maudlin. The narrator writes, “Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure.” The first draft of this verse read: “Good’s a chance, but ill is sure.” The rewriting of this stanza paints humans as reactive victims of life’s evil or pawns in a chess game. Life is not what we make it; rather, life happens to us. A similar theme is conveyed in Countee Cullen’s “Any Human to Another”: “Joy may be shy, unique/Friendly to a few/Sorrow never scorned to spark/To any who/Were false or true.”

The final section utilizes historical allusion to give weight to the poet’s reasoning and reads like a poem within a poem. The poet relates the tale of Mithridates, a king of Pontus who made himself immune to the poisons of the earth by sampling them in gradually increasing doses. The parallel is obvious: We must sample nature’s “killing store” by reading lugubrious poetry such as that of Terence that we may be “seasoned and sound.” This message reminded me of Quarterflash’s song, “Harden My Heart.

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