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Archive for the ‘A.E. Housman’ Category

Today’s guest poster is the unlikeliest of elves, a man who does not move quietly in the world, a man not especially given to silliness although I have on occasion coerced him into performing a dance called the Shorty George with silly pointed fingers. This is not a person I ever imagined creeping around a burned-out bar in Rockville, Maryland to tape up a poem he loves, so shiver me timbers and color me surprised.

 

My brother Donny has always loved words, so it’s not a surprise that he loves A.E. Housman’s “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff.” The poem is from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and it’s as fun to recite as any other poem in the collection. George Orwell wrote, “these were the poems which I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy.” (Below I’ve included a video of some of the many men who’ve recorded themselves reciting this poem—might be easier to listen to than read.)

 

In spite of all the drinking in the poem, the message is sobering, and I suspect that the advice in the poem attracts Donny as much as the tuneful lines:

 

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.

 

This round’s on Donny! Thank you!

Terence, this is stupid stuff

by A.E. Housman

 

“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 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.

 

 

 

Here is my entry. I posted it on the boarded-up door to Hank Dietles, the oldest bar in Montgomery County. There was a fire there about two years ago and it hasn’t reopened because they haven’t been able to make all the repairs.

 

I first read this poem in high school English at [Georgetown] Prep, just two blocks from Dietles. I always liked it because it presents a good life lesson in a very clever way. If the proprietors of Dietles had read this poem before the fire, they would surely be open by now. Also, the beer references in the poem fit with the Dietles experience.

 

Enjoy!

*

[Please note: the man in the video is not my brother Donny.]

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First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes

First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes

 

So We’ll Go No More a Roving

By Lord Byron (George Gordon)

 

So, we’ll go no more a roving

So late into the night,

Though the heart be still as loving,

And the moon be still as bright.

 

For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself have rest.

 

Though the night was made for loving,

And the day returns too soon,

Yet we’ll go no more a roving

By the light of the moon.

 

Image 4

 

 

With Rue My Heart is Laden

By A.E. Housman

 

WITH rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

 

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

 

Image

 

More views:

Image 3   Image 1

 

 

A few days after the Boston bombing, the line With rue my heart is laden climbed out of my mental attic and presented itself in the living room.  The phrase needed no introduction—I had memorized it years earlier—but I did question its judgment in showing up at that moment.  With rue my heart is laden is much too sentimental and wistful to address the maiming and killing of innocent people.  Then it occurred to me that the reason I associated this poem with the bombing was not the opening line but the image of lightfoot lads leaping across a brook.  Or rather, not leaping over the brook.

 

It was the loss of limbs, you see, that brought the poem to mind.

 

As soon as I made that connection, another line presented itself:  So no more we’ll go a roving. I should explain that for a long time (maybe even right up to the minute I copied the poem to use for this post) I thought Byron’s poem was “So No More We’ll Go a Rowing.”  I pictured the long-armed rowers sitting morose by the banks of a brook that the lightfoot lads couldn’t leap across. In my age-addled brain, I wondered if the two lines were, if not in the same poem, at least written by the same poet.

 

Easy to see why I conflated the two poems.  Even though they were written eighty years apart, the poems share a diction, structure and tone.  Both are brief, musical, have the same rhyme scheme and a similar meter, or close enough, anyway.

 

But more to the point, both poems express a longing for a golden past full of  beautiful young people and lighthearted spirits.  Boys rove and leap in a place no longer accessible.  Byron’s randy paradise is lost to age or exhaustion, and even though the words “rest” and “pause” allow for an eventual revival of roving, yet no more we’ll go sounds like Byron’s permanently traded in the Axe for Bengay.  Death has taken Housman’s pastoral dream, and so for both poets, carefree youthful days are irrevocable.

 

For that reason I couldn’t leave the poems in places frequented by teenagers, not during this season of proms and graduations.  It’s enough that kids have to see the smashed cars displayed on high school lawns, that they have to listen to the valedictorian get all carpe diem because my fellow classmates, it’s all gone in a flash, enough that they have to comfort parents snorfling about what happened to my baby girl.  They don’t need more reminders of lost youth and death that these two elegies would bring. Neither poem, I realized as I was thinking about where to poem-elf them, is a young person’s poem.

 

So I abandoned my first associations with the poems and decided to lighten the tone. I left the poems on a shelf at T.J. Maxx among the anti-aging products.  Because when it comes to the face, Faulkner’s wrong:  the past is definitely past, despite an 80 billion dollar skincare industry, despite the exclamations of old friends who insist you look as young as ever.  You don’t.  Your youthful skin is across brooks too broad for leaping and it’s decaying by the second in a field where roses fade. And while yoga, Kegel exercises or a salsa dancing class may give you back some of your youthful ju-ju, it’s just not the same ju-ju that sent you out on a Thursday night a-roving till the sun returned too soon.  I sound unsympathetic but I struggle with aging as much as anyone, and I’ll probably head back to T.J. Maxx to buy one of those wrinkle creams.

 

It all reminds me of a comment an acquaintance made years ago in a do-it-yourself yoga class in a friend’s basement.  We were inverted in downward-facing dog, and after a few minutes, this woman sighed and said, “I used to have the cutest heart-shaped ass.”  With a twist of my head I could see that she employed the past tense appropriately.

 

Lord Byron (1788-1824) and his longer poems made my life miserable in a college Romantic poetry class.  His life is bigger than I can cover in a paragraph, and anyway nearly everyone knows about his club foot, his sexual exploits, his death from fever in the war for Greek independence.  He wrote “So No More We’ll Go A Roving” when he was 29 in a letter written from Italy where he had gone to escape his scandals in England. Described by one of his former lovers as “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” I don’t think he ever stopped roving in his brief time on earth.

 

By contrast A.E. Housman (1859-1936) lived a quiet life.  He was born the oldest of seven children in rural England.  He went to Oxford but failed his final exams because he was distracted by his unrequited love for his classmate.  Still he earned  renown as a classics scholar, and after ten years spent in the patent office in London, he became a Latin professor at Cambridge.  He only published two volumes of poetry in his life.  The first, A Shropshire Lad, from which this poem is taken, was a series of 63 poems written after the death of his friend.  The book became popular during WWI.

 

Both poems found popularity with musicians.  Here’s Joan Baez’s version of Byron’s poem, and here’s one of the many versions of With Rue My Heart is Laden.

 

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That's the Jefferson Memorial in the background

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

by A.E. Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

I visited my mother three days after Easter with a plan to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin and in Kenwood, a neighborhood in Maryland that for two weeks every year is one of the most magical places on earth. As a child I thought it was a fairyland.  We would get out of the car and walk under a tent of pink trees that covered the width of the street. We kicked up thick layers of pale velvety blossoms and threw the petals at each other like confetti.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything so lovely.  This April I was sure I would see the cherry blossoms again—I would arrive only two days past the peak.  Alas, the trees in Kenwood were green with a only a hint of pink, and those at the Tidal Basin, where I posted this poem, had all but lost their delicate coloring.  I wasn’t completely disappointed in the outing, though, because the sight of my 84-year old mother enjoying herself in a Tidal Basin paddle boat was a treat in itself.

I love this little poem but it’s always confused me.  All that math!  Turns out my confusion sprang from a misapprehension of Housman’s age.  I thought that he was three score year and ten, or less poetically, 70.  And 70 minus 20 is 50, the additional years he says he has to enjoy the blossoms.  Was he assuming that he’d live to be 120?  No, but I was.  Thanks to a little internet research, I now understand that threescore year and ten is a biblical reference to the average lifetime.  So Housman has just passed 20 and is thinking of the 50 years he has left before he dies at 70 and never sees cherry blossoms again.  I guess this shows that you don’t have to fully understand a poem to enjoy it—understanding can come over time.  And also that math can make me a complete idiot.

Housman actually lived to be 76, so he got in six more springs with the cherry blossoms than he had anticipated.

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