Two of my favorite writers, Leonard Cohen and A.E. Housman, were frequently called on to explain why so much of their work was characterized by heartbreak, sorrow, and sadness.
Leonard’s response to this query in a 2001 interview is representative:
Most of the songs that we love are sad songs, because we experience profound disappointment in our lives, all of us. And to hear it sung. – Well, that’s what this whole racket is about, isn’t it?1
Housman’s answer, which turns out to be congruent with Leonard’s, can be found in his poem, “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff,” from A Shropshire Lad. The poem’s sardonic and self-effacing style seems to aggressively ridicule the highfalutin seriousness of classic poetry – precisely the sort of literature that was Housman’s scholarly focus (Housman was one of the foremost classicists of his age, serving as Professor of Latin at University College London and at the University of Cambridge) – with plain language and homely metaphors.2 After a shift in point of view, however, those insults finally become the very agents which embolden and strengthen the poet against future attacks.
Ah, I feel better already.
Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff
by A.E. Housman
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 will 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 sprang 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,3 he died old.
- Angst & Aquavit by Brendan Bernhard. LA Weekly: September 26, 2001. [↩]
- The earthy, rustic metaphors include but are hardly limited to the sublime “But oh, good Lord, the verse you make, / It gives a chap the belly-ache” and the almost equally wonderful “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.” [↩]
- Housman’s Mithradates refers to King Mithradates VI of Pontus who ruled in Asia Minor from 120 to 63 BC. According to Pliny the Elder, Mithradates was a powerful leader who was victorious against several military campaigns, including one led by Pompey, sent by imperial Rome to to destroy him and his kingdom. One reason for the longevity enjoyed by Mithradates – and the key to Housman reference in the last line of the poem – was his immunity to poison that resulted from his practice of consuming small doses of these toxins every day. [↩]