I can’t imagine that anyone would be as enamored of this poem as I am. I can’t remember the first time I was exposed to it, or if it held the same meaning for me then. It may have. I drank through lots of school, and tried AA through lots of school, and was sober through lots of school.
And I’m tickled to think of “unpacking” it. It’s by A.E. Houseman
‘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.
I’ve taken the fast eating of victuals and drinking of beer as a sign of good enough mental health.
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.
Not sure what to make of the cow, but it seems to me that the things Terence writes are painful to listen to, almost to the point of death.
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’
The writing is sad and insane, and the readers may keel over from it. The friend is asking for happier stuff.
Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
The writer says the point of the poetry was not to make the reader happy, and for happiness, other things work better than reading 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.
Alcohol will work better than poetry, even up to justifying God’s way 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.
I love the line about fellows whom it hurts to think. I’ll sometimes lovingly tell someone who says, ‘I have to think’ or ‘let me think’ not to hurt themselves. Drink in order to see the world as the world is not. But you have come down eventually.
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.
I’ve been drunk, and happy, till I woke up or came to, then I saw the tale was all a lie. I love the line ‘I was I, my things were wet.’ And then, what to do? To do it over.
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.
Learning to deal with difficulty will help us in life.
’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.
The poetry was written from hard experience, and it may help you when things are difficult.
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.
This king was allegedly unable to be killed or commit suicide by poison, since he was immune to it. The big things or the little things won’t destroy us if we deal with them a bit at a time.
I love this poem! I wish someone I knew in real life loved it too. But through the years it’s given me pleasure to read. It has many things that ring true to me, put in such a fanciful (for my time at least) story. Drinking often makes things appear to be better, though they’re not. My own drunkenness always got out of hand and made me sick. The aftermath left nothing but more of the same. It actually prevented me from developing life skills that would help me live rightly.
I was I, my things were wet.
I love that.