October 26, 2007

Poetry Friday: What's a spoonful of sugar when you can have a pinch of arsenic?

"When the meaning of a poem is obscure, it is due to one of three causes. Either the author through lack of skill has failed to express his meaning; or he has concealed it intentionally; or he has no meaning either to conceal or express. In none of these cases does he like to be asked about it. In the first case it makes him feel humiliated; in the second it makes him feel embarrassed; in the third it makes him feel found out. The real meaning of a poem is what it means to the reader." -- A. E. Housman

Dr. Howard Hardcastle, he of blessed memory, was my fabulously pithy, taciturn, sardonic English teacher who read this aloud to us one autumn day. I remember him asking us to discuss the poem, and the lengthy silence that followed, as thirty high school juniors thought as hard as they could as fast as they could. We never did quite 'get' it, and he had to spoon feed it to us, line by line. But reading it again... makes me thankful Dr. Hardcastle tried.

Terence, this is stupid stuff

"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.

-- A. E. Housman, from his book, A Shropshire Lad published in 1896

I am hugely melancholic by personality, so the request (possibly by Housman to himself) in this poem to, for goodness sakes, write something cheery! -- amuses me deeply. The request is met with Housman's snarky retort that there are alehouses for that "cheery" thing, and that once you sober up, life's pretty much the same. Housman then suggests his readers prepare for the worst in life -- hope for the best, but be educated and armed against the worst. And then comes my favorite part, where Housman illustrates his theory of being prepared for the worst by taking a bit of bitterness all the time, with the story of 'Mithridates.'

("Mithridates", which is historically spelled "Mithradates", was King Mithradates VI (the Great) of Pontus, in Asia Minor. He reigned for 57 years, from 120 to 63 BCE. The story of the poison comes from Pliny the Elder's Natural History, and is the story of how this king died. Betrayed by his son, he tried to commit suicide, but could not poison himself, so he ordered a mercenary to kill him.)

Maybe the moral of the story is that the world can't make you crazy if you're already mildly insane. And on that cheerfully gloomy note, you should indeed hie yourself over to see what else is cooking in the lighter corners of the poetry world. The party this week is at Literary Safari, which also has a cool feature on the Stephen & Lucy Hawking book. Check it out!


Sara said...

Seems like the perfect poem to recite at an English pub.

P.S. I ADORE your blog post title. And your moral? Make that into a button and wear it, sister!

"...the world can't make you crazy if you're already mildly insane."

Anonymous said...

What's a pinch full of arsenic if you can hire someone to off you?

Great post. Thanks!

Charlotte said...

We did this one in high school too!

divatobe said...

I want a mug with that title on it!!

I may use your Housman quote in my paper on voice/identity.

jama said...

Love the Housman quote. And being more than mildly insane, the poem offers me (a fellow melancholic) some solace :)!

Sarah Stevenson said...

I love A.E. Housman. "And malt does more than Milton can/To justify God's ways to man." - I've always liked that line. But then, I'm a cynic...

Saints and Spinners said...

I admit a fondness to poetry that incorporates beer.

Just a small pinch of ars'nic helps the crazy seem sane,
The crazy seem sa-yane, the crazy seem sane...

John Mutford said...

Me thinks me likes this Housman chap. (Though I have no idea why he's made me talk like this).

Kelly said...

Ummm...how much do I love this moral to the story: Maybe the moral of the story is that the world can't make you crazy if you're already mildly insane?

Let me count the ways...