Saturday, August 11, 2007


Most of my poetry is complete drivel - who else, I ask you, writes poems about subjects such as Painful Rectal Itch, the ideal shape of turds, and even painful inflammations in Delicate Places? - but that does not mean that I cannot appreciate the Real Thing when I see it.

My Esteemed Readers know that I enjoy the works of Ogden Nash, David McCord, Don Marquis, Walter de la Mare, and other luminaries of the poetic pantheon. Hell, I even like Hilaire Belloc, despite his (probably undeserved) reputation for being an anti-Semite. (Ezra Pound is another matter.)

Like a certain gentleman of my acquaintance, I enjoy Robert W. Service’s fine verse as well, although (unlike said gentleman) I cannot declaim entire lengthy epics while in a state of not so mild inebriation.

And then there is A. E. Housman.

Housman’s work tends to be on the dark side, but he has his moments of silliness. Witness Inhuman Henry, or Cruelty to Fabulous Animals:
Oh, would you know why Henry sleeps,
And why his mournful Mother weeps,
And why his weeping Mother mourns?
He was unkind to Unicorns.
Henry, who delights in tormenting the local unicorns (by setting his lion loose upon them, of course), ends up getting eaten by the lion: appropriate revenge for a “bloody-minded boy.”

Housman’s best-known work is a cycle of sixty-three poems, collectively known as A Shropshire Lad. Some of the individual poems are more or less familiar: When I was One-and-Twenty, for example. But my favorite is this one, the penultimate poem of the cycle, and not just because it makes me think of getting drunk and rolling in the mud on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

The point of this seems to be that Miserable Poetry is better for you than getting wasted. Instead of suffering a hangover the next day, you’re fortified - inoculated, if you will - against the miseries of everyday life. It might explain the popularity of Alanis Morrisette.

LXII. 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 hornèd 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.

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