Terence, this is stupid stuff
Some poets don't have to write a lot to blow our minds. Take A.E. Housman for example. He only published two books of poetry in his life, but they've made him a favorite of poetry lovers for over a century. His first book, A Shropshire Lad, (1896) was a collection of 63 poems. As a whole, these poems painted a kind of sad but beautiful picture about a rural corner of England and a poet named "Terence" (he's the Shropshire lad, natch). Terence's Shropshire might have been out of the way, but it sure wasn't quiet—the poems are full of war and death and suicide and tragic young love. That's a lot to bite off in a little book, but Housman didn't think that poetry should hide away from the tough stuff.
That's where "Terence, this is stupid stuff" comes in. It's the second to last poem in the book, and in many ways, it reads like a defense of Terence's (and Housman's) poetry, telling us why we need sad poems about dark subjects. Basically, Terence thinks we should read dark poems like the ones in Shropshire lad because they reflect and prepare us for the hard stuff in life. It must have worked, too, because Housman's poems have always had tons of fans.
It's not just the sadness in his poems that made Housman famous, though. His readers loved (heck, still do love) his depictions of the English countryside, of nature, of youth and beauty. All of those themes connect Housman to Romanticism, which was already winding down in the Victorian Era, when Housman wrote A Shropshire Lad.
Housman was definitely into all the stuff that the famous Romantic poets were into, like natural scenes, and especially nostalgic memories of past experiences in the outdoors. At the same time, he was writing at a time when England had turned into a huge, industrial empire—that was the reality of England in the Victorian age. English boys were fighting and dying in places most English people had never heard of, and life on the farm was losing out to dirty work in the city. You can see why people would want to look back on simpler times and simpler places. A lot of the poems in A Shropshire Lad deal directly with war and conflict and dying young, but they do it in a way that's comforting, too.
That's Housman's whole scene—he doesn't try to trick us into thinking the world is better than it is, but he also lets us see the beauty that's all around us. He shows us the rich life that exists in our memories and in the natural world. That's the kind of thing readers could get into then, and still can now. Maybe that's why A Shropshire Lad has never been out of print—people today are just as hungry for Terence's words, for the "stuff [he] bring[s] for sale" (49). Try it out—we bet you'll find the same spark we do in these great old poems.
Why Should I Care?
Okay, time for us to put our cards on the table. (Ha! As if we were ever shy about telling you what we think!) We here at Shmoop think poetry matters, darn it! Not just because it's pretty (although it is). And not just because you have to know about it for school (although you do). We love poetry (and we read it and write about it until our eyes hurt) because we think it can make all of our lives better. It can help us see the world more clearly. It can capture a feeling we've felt many times, but could never put into words. It can soothe our hearts when they feel bruised and thrill us when we're happy.
If you're with us on this, even a little bit, you have to read A.E. Housman. Here's a guy who really thought that poetry mattered. Sure, his thoughts ran a little dark, and his poems don't hide the hurt in life. But he thought poetry could help with that. It wasn't just a way to pass the time, or have a little fun. It was one of the keys to living a better life, to surviving all the crud the world can throw at you. In "Terence, this is stupid stuff," Housman is brutally honest about how hard life can be, but he also promises us that poems can help. Basically, he tells us in the poem that reading sad poetry can be like getting vaccinated—it can prepare your body and mind for trouble to come.
For believing in all that, Housman gets our official Poetry Makes The World a Better Place Award (we have got to come up with a better name for that thing). Seriously, if you're a believer in the power of poetry, or just want to hear from someone who is, you have to check out "Terence, this is stupid stuff." Because actually, it's about as far from stupid stuff as you can get.