Daily Book Excerpt: Poetry
The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair
At first I didn’t get just how sad Housman was. I am not sure how I missed it. I suppose because the verse itself is so perfect, the rhyme scheme immaculate … and there are funny lines, and the whole thing can come off as rather arch if you don’t pay attention. I wasn’t paying attention. Then, when I lived in Philadelphia, I was cast as Agnes in a production of Lanford Wilson’s wonderful one-act “Ludlow Fair” (excerpt here) and – first of all – Wilson gets the title of his play from one of Housman’s poems. The play itself takes place in Queens, New York – so to have it called “Ludlow Fair” is mysterious, never fully explained, and it just gets deeper and more interesting the more you look into it. When I was in that play, I needed to really understand what the hell I was talking about, so I looked into “Shropshire Lad” again, but this time I was doing so not to appreciate the poetry but to understand why the hell Lanford Wilson had called his play that, and why on earth my character would remember that poem almost line for line. There is no right answer. Wilson does not provide the answer. It’s like a poem itself, best when not taken too literally. But that was my re-introduction to Housman after reading him in a college poetry class, and I saw so much more there. I was learning how to read poetry, I guess. The rhyme scheme can lull you into thinking that what Housman is talking about is easy for him. But that was my mistake.
Now I know that Housman is one of the bleakest of poets, and was obsessed with death and suicide. One of those tragic Victorian homosexual poets – I will also love him forever because when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for doing OPENLY what everybody else was doing in PRIVATE, and most of his friends had abandoned him – Housman sent him some books in prison. Bless him.
Housman had an unrequited (mostly) love affair in his youth – and eventually that man left for India, where he eventually married. Housman was devastated. He didn’t start writing poetry for realz until he was 30 years old, very rare. He said later, “I did not begin to write poetry in earnest until the really emotional part of my life was over.”
Most of his poems do focus on youth – something he was also obsessed by. He did not like many of the contemporary poets of his day, and struggled to stay apart from them. His idols were William Blake and Shakespeare. Housman was attracted to madness, to mad flights of fancy – to a non-literal approach to things. Yeats loved Housman and it is not hard to see why.
Reading his stuff now I am truly baffled at my college-girl response to it as light, arch and rather funny verse. I guess I hadn’t had enough heartache of my own yet to perceive Housman’s eternal sadness.
Here is what is probably his most famous poem. Breathtaking.
LXII. Terence, this is stupid stuff
âTERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There canât be much amiss, âtis 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, âtis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship âtis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.â
Why, if âtis dancing you would be,
Thereâs 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 Godâs ways to man.
Ale, man, aleâs the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the worldâs not.
And faith, âtis pleasant till âtis past:
The mischief is that âtwill 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 Iâve 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
Luckâs a chance, but troubleâs sure,
Iâd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
âTis 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 soulâs 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 whiteâs their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
âI tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.