#63: “Terence, this is stupid stuff” (A.E. Housman)

A. E. Housman (1859–1936) was one of the masters of the short, classic English lyric poem. He studied hard to achieve this mastery: he was a professor of classics, one of the greatest experts on the texts of ancient Latin literature. The untitled poem that begins “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” is actually one of the longer pieces he ever wrote.

There are a few proper names in the poem that may pose some difficulty, but they are not as hard as they look; they’re just awkwardly placed. “Terence” in the first line seems difficult if you don’t know who Terence is. But I assume that the poem is a dialogue. The first speaker, unnamed, tells Terence he’s stupid. The rest of the poem is Terence explaining why he’s not stupid. It’s sort of a Point / Counterpoint debate.

“Mithridates” in the very last line is just the name of the king that Terence has been describing at length. All anybody knows about Mithridates is that he tried the poison-protection program outlined in the paragraph before Terence mentions his name.

“Burton built on Trent” refers to the greatest brewery city in England and the river that gives its breweries water. You could substitute “why was Milwaukee built on Lake Michigan,” but that wouldn’t fit the pattern of the poem. Besides, Housman was from England, not the Midwest, and Milwaukee wasn’t yet famous in the 1890s. Meanwhile, “Ludlow fair” with its “Ludlow beer” could be anywhere that offers some kind of comfort substance. We’ve all probably been there.

And then there’s Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost “to justify the ways of God to man.” Housman suggests a quicker way of appreciating the Universe than having to read Paradise Lost.

Do you agree with the main idea in the poem – that by reading poetry (you could substitute “listening to music,” “looking at art,” or other aesthetic experiences) you become toughened up for what life will throw at you? Or is it too early yet to tell? Is Terence being cynical? Rationalizing his own depression?

Terence’s challenging philosophy is one reason to love this poem. But another and greater reason is the humanism of the poem’s take on the person who has “left his necktie God knows where.” The ideas in the poem could possibly be expressed in prose. But Housman conveys great, emotionally sensitive respect for the human tendency to lose ourselves in whatever gives us comfort (beer here, but it could be TV or ice cream or baseball or pop music). Life can be depressing. Housman, possibly, was depressed. His poetry, because it understands both joys and sorrows, is neither depressed nor depressing.

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16 responses to “#63: “Terence, this is stupid stuff” (A.E. Housman)

  1. I do agree to an extent that poetry, among other things, can give us comfort when we feel sad or depressed. Personally, I like to listen to music that fits whatever mood I am currently experiencing. I believe that poetry can be used the same way, however too much of anything is not healthy. Sad or depressing poetry can have a negative effect on an individual that doesn’t have the same beliefs as “Terence.” For Terence, poetry is his saving grace but for someone else reading such sad poetry might cause push him or her into an even deeper depression. There are some people who don’t know how to take things in small doses. If someone with less patience as Mithridates had decided to they wanted to be immune to poison they might have just taken a larger dose and accidentally killed themselves! The same could be said about sad poetry. It seems to me that “Terence” believes that sad poetry is something for everyone but I disagree. Sad poetry is preference the same as anything else. I like to listen to sad music when I’m sad but my best friend likes to watch depressing movies. I think that “Terence” has found something that works for him and he thinks that if it worked for him it should work for everyone else.

  2. I do agree with the fact that you can substitute poetry with art and or music. Art and music are forms for expressing oneself. When other people see and or hear art and music they can put themselves in antoher place and or time. You could relate to the person who made the artistic object and or wrote the music. It can take you to a time and place in your memory when you yourself went through something similar. Poems are just that. They are the doors to that place at that particular time. One can loose themselves in the aurthors words, in thier own minds and memories. Walking into the poem you can feel the saddness or happiness of the aurthor. So yes, you substitue peoms to listening to music and or looking at art.
    Terrence is in a way teaching us or expressing that you need both depressive and positive feelings and thoughts. When you have a small dosage of the bad or negative at a time , when you get hit in life with a strong and huge negative and or sad moment it won’t hurt as much.
    I relate it to excersise. If a person walks long distances, takes the stairs instead of the elevator everyday for a good while in life, that person will last much longer in a long and fast sprint race than a person who doesn’t. You must condition your body. Here you must conditon your mind and soul. Life isn’t aways going to be happyness.

  3. I agree with the idea that by reading poetry, listening to music or any other form of art you are toughening yourself up to face life. Something that was said about Mithridates being a metaphor, explanation, and justification as to why it makes sense to consume little bits of things that aren’t necessarily good for you (food in his case, or sad poetry/beer in Terrence’s) is also true. I don’t think that we as humans would survive all of the terrible things in life such as death, if it weren’t for the bits of sadness and sorrow we experience along the way. In a way I would say those who attempted to poison Mithridates, were a metaphor as well. I believe they symbolized an event during his life that would have completely broken him down, however it did not because he had been preparing himself all along. I would say that Terrrence probably is somewhat cynical, but I would argue that cynical people are probably let down in life a lot less than those that are not. If you maintain a view that the world is generally not good, then bad things affect you in a less severe way.

  4. I think that the answer to this question depends on who you are. For some people, reading, watching, or listening to depressing things can help them cope with the pain they will inevitably experience themselves. Some people just don’t want to expose themselves to sad things when they don’t have to because they would rather dwell in a happier place. Does it mean that they are any less prepared for the sadness in life? Or do they simply know what’s coming and choose to focus on the positive in spite of that? I think you can read something like “Paradise Lost” and try to convince yourself that human suffering is a necessary evil, and in turn you can rationalize that every depressing and awful thing that happens to you is in some way a positive thing because it makes you more human. Or, on the other side of that, you can acknowledge that, yes, bad things happen. Yes, things in life are going to take you by suprise and you’ll probably end up hurt and depressed. But in spite of it all, it’s easier to cope by focusing on the fact that there are still good and beautiful things in the world. And that’s not to say that depressing art, music, or poetry is of no worth other than to prepare us for our own depressing futures. They show us that we never really suffer alone, and it gives us all a bond in what might be an otherwise isolating experience. For some it makes an amazing tool for preperation. For others, it might just amplify their sadness. Not everyone needs that kind of preperation, though there’s nothing wrong with needing it.

    And when all else fails, there’s nothing wrong with a good drink or two.

  5. This poem is a good representation of the famous phrase, “Me thinks thou doth protest too much,” from the play ‘Hamlet’. The first speaker spends a fairly short amount of time explaining his or her disapproval of drinking, while Terence spends the entire rest of the poem defending himself. To me, it almost makes him sound even more guilty that he feels the need to ramble on and on about his innocence.

  6. I think Terence felt his life was sad and difficult when he said “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.” He used his drinking to forget his troubles. He was Mithridates…he felt like the world was against him..being poisoned while everyone watched yet that is not what killed him..it was just old age. He had the same routine of drinking, getting drunk, passing out and doing it again. I think that at one time he was happy…he was King and somewhere, something bad happened to him that turned his life upside down and he couldn’t or maybe wouldn’t allow himself to get past it, so he turned to drinking. Cynical? Rationalizing his own depression? Absolutely. He said “To see the world as the world’s not.” He sounded like he was quite distrusting. Art, no matter how it is expressed is not only a way to release one’s emotions but in a way it is to maybe get someone else, even if it is just one person to see what it is the artist/writer is feeling or trying to say. To be understood is very important and I think Terence really wanted someone to hear him and understand him. But people just sat back and watched. They watched him eat and drink. Mithridates died old of a broken heart, in my opinion.

  7. firewaterboi321

    If you want to be happy drink up! At least, that’s what it appears Terrence is saying on the surface. Honestly, at first glance I thought this poem was an explanation from Terrence in drinking for the sake of forgetting troubles and worrying about them the next morning (along with the hangover). The more closely I read the poem, however, the more I began to understand Housman’s underlying feeling. Terrence is not speaking to his friend to defend why he’s not writing happy poetry. Instead, Terrence is explaining why it’s necessary to have such sadness conveyed through verse. His example is the king, Mithridates, who willingly takes small doses of different poisons in order to build immunity to them in the event someone decided to put something exotic in his wine or food. This kind of self-inoculation appears to be an example of why it’s necessary to be reminded of sadness in one’s life. Without sadness, the good in life loses something. Without the lessons of pain, do we grow and evolve as thinking, feeling, and sentient beings? Or are we doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over again so we don’t have to feel momentary sadness?

  8. andreamcginley

    Each one to their own is what Terrance is arguing to his unknown accuser. Terrance was searching for good in the world in which he found at the bottom of a glass. Only being happy when he drank; he would drink himself into oblivion and then when he woke to the same old world he would begin the process over again. Terrance was pragmatic in his wisdom, that the “world has much less good than ill”; therefore drinking helped him prepare for life. In the same way that poisoning him, Mithridates prepared himself from poisoning attacks against those who tried to harm his majesty. Why expect more from the world than is actually possible? It is not all peace and love but hate and war; Terrance pompously explains that “a wise man would train for ill and not for good”. He expects the worse and drinks to get away from the fact that the world cannot be cured of its inhumanities.
    I agree with his rationality on the subject, you cannot hope to see everything good in life it would just bring on an even deeper depression when it is finally realized that it will never happen. However, to never see the good in anything is detrimental to everything we live for. Yes we can hope and want well for all but we must be honest with one another and know that sometimes no matter how hard we try it may not come out how we wish. We have to try to see the good in the world or else there would be none.

  9. kursteilnehmer

    These words have been read and rhymed for all to see for many years. The author of the poetry wrote this to convey some of his impressions on a philosophy of life. His poetry is beautifully constructed with many literary elements. These include assonance, alliteration, metaphors, imagery, anthropomorphism and many others that are intricately constructed to render the reader in awe. One may often think of a poem such as this one to be nothing more than a good life lesson disguised in rhyme and meter. However, it is not the overall goal of this class to discern the poet’s intents through the strict interpretation of his use of diction, grammar, rhyme, meter and other literary elements.
    We can see that the deeper issue addressed within this poetry lies within each individual reader. In the first section of this poem we see that some people need to constantly embrace happiness in life and neglect bad aspects of the world in order to feel fine. The second section is the poet’s direct response to the instigator of cheer. In this section he mocks happy poems. He implies that if one wants pseudo contentment they need only to embrace wine and spirits of that nature. He goes on to enlighten his inebriated friend that when one returns from the world of Bacchus the world will be as wretched as ever. The third section shares his philosophy to both the reader and his friend. He essentially says to prepare yourself for the evil the world has to offer, that you may learn to endure it in the worst of times. The final section illustrates the depressing poetry and song Housman is defending, and provides a parable related to the philosophy the third section advocates. This section gives rise to the belief that if you partake in the wisdom of the poem you may avoid future heartache.
    I have some doubts regarding the question of “Do you agree with the main idea in the poem – that by reading poetry (you could substitute “listening to music,” “looking at art,” or other aesthetic experiences) you become toughened up for what life will throw at you?” I have thought about this for several days and have come to the conclusion that every person is different in this regard. People can be resilient and strong to what life throws at them. However, every person is given a different amount of faith that will allow them to overcome their personal tribulations. Some people may be able to read this poem and be strengthened, but others may read the poem and only see it for aesthetic value only. I believe it all depends on personal maturity, and the objective of the reader. Others may believe it is what you make it out to be. Whatever the case may be, it still is a great poem to me.

  10. I believe that any form of art can take the place of the others in an eye of a person. Each person has a medium of art that they find enjoyable. In Terrance’s case poetry was the form of art that he enjoy and sought comfort in. I believe that any art form can help to toughen you up for life situations. It is all in the eye of the beholder in what you want to calm you or help you to cope with life situations. In the life of someone at any age there are times that certain forms of art can help them to cope with the situations that are thrown at them. It is a proven fact that young children can be soothed by classical music and pastel colored paintings. When looking at Terrances case though you can see that he is somewhat rationalizing his own love of poetry. He gets somewhat defensive when speaking about poetry. Terrance has a love for something that his friends do not understand. He has also experienced something in life that makes him feel that he is due the depreesive alcholism that he is living in. I agree that Terrance can love the poetry even though it is sad and some people think that he is a self serving alcholic. But I also agree with the thought that you should never judge another until you have walked in their shoes.

  11. We all turn to different things in times of emotional duress, whether it be family, friends, drink, music, or any other person or thing that might give us comfort, it’s something that people do, it’s part of our nature to seek out comfort in the bad times. Housman shows us this in his poem, and I believe it’s absolutely true that we find comfort in these things. Like moffles82 said art is a form for expressing oneself, and part of that expression is emotion. When another person experiences the art that someone created that emotion can be transferred to the person. This is especially true for me with music, it can pull me in a lot of different ways, but it always makes me feel better. Terrence explains this point to us, telling us how his drinking has helped him, justifying the way God treats man, seeing the world for the goods that’s in it while at the same time helping him to cope with the bad. Housman uses Mithridates to bring this point home, as he says in the poem, after Mithridates had built up immunities to the poisons that men tried to kill him with, Terrence says he sat there relaxed and smiling as he ate the poisoned food. As we use these things to give us comfort they help us to prepare for what lies ahead, and help us to become stronger.

  12. Absolutely. Art (poetry, music, film etc..)is just another coping mechinism we as humans have at our desposal for dealing with the fact that life can sometimes be a real bitch. It opens up a little side door gives us an avenue of escape from the real world. I like to think of it as a guided daydream. your mind will go whereever it goes, but it travels along the path provided by the art, and the whole time your there, you are not having to deal with real world outside of you head. Now does this “toughen” you up ?? depends on your definition of toughen. If the art makes life a little bit easier to deal with, then sure, you could say you’ve been “toughened” I like to think of it as just another way to cope.

  13. I do agree that poetry, music, and art can help us when we are feeling down and sad about something . I have always felt that music and the lyrics in it help sooth a person’s soul. After listening to a song with lyrics in it that a person can relate to, it help bring a person out of the storm. Whether a person is feeling happy or sad, poetry brings comfort to a person. In the poem “Terence”, he is being comforted by his addiction of drinking. Many people would call him an alcoholic, but this is all he knew to turn to. When Terence drinks he is happy again and feels that all of his problems have faded away. I believe that trials and tribulations make a person stronger. We cannot judge Terence and call him an alcoholic because we may have not gone through and experienced his troubles.

  14. I definitely agree with the idea that poetry, art, and music can help us become “toughened up” for what life will throw at us. Any piece of information that can relate to a persons’ feelings can somehow help alleviate the anguish that they may be feeling. By realizing that there are other people out there faced with the same problems as us, we can learn to deal with those problems. Seeing that someone can get through something similar helps us realize that it is not impossible to overcome these issues. In this case, the poet is trying to make us think emotionally that art should make us tougher so that life doesn’t hurt so much. Additionally, the poet introduces ways that people cope with their sadness (drinking in this instance). He is very sympathetic to those who “just want to drink” to forget how they really feel. Each person has a way of coping with sadness/depression/ and things like that, some of us may find relief by reading, drawing, listening to music, etc. In my opinion, Terrence is definitely being cynical and rationalizing his own depression, since he points out that life shows us both joy and sorrow! To Terrence, sorrow seems to exceed the joy in his life. He points out that a person can build up an immunity to feelings, just like the king built it up to poison, and in this way learn to deal with difficult times better than those who aren’t used to them.

  15. I agree that music, art, etc. are a way to help you understand and cope with life. It might toughen you up, it might not. That all depends on the individual. I believe that music is a way people enter another dimension of peace and love, helps them get through the daily grind of harsh society. I think there is a much deeper meaning to both art and music that cannot be explained by mortal man. Now Terrence seemed to drown himself in alcohol to rid himself of his tough reality, which people do even in our times so you cant blame him too much.

  16. In this poem it seems to me that Terence is a glutton for sadness. He views the world from a very dark, pessimistic perspective leading him to drinking himself happy. The phrase “running away from your problems” seems more than appropriate and the justification for his indulgence is callousing himself. I sympathize with Terence because I think he has been dealt a bad hand in life, but is non-willing to change his status quo.

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