Terence, this is stupid stuff
by A.E. Housman
Well, actually we have two speakers in this poem, although they definitely don't get equal time on the mic. The first speaker is the guy who's got a beef with his poet friend Terence. He's sick of hearing sad poems all the time. He wants something that fits the occasion better, that helps him have a good time. We don't learn much about this guy (not even his name), but we can tell from the way he talks that he's cheerful, with a good sense of humor. He gets in some really good jabs at Terence, parodying the style and the content of sad poems: "The cow, the old cow, she is dead;/ It sleeps well, the horned head" (7-8). Clearly this is a guy who doesn't have much time for fancy ways and big words. He likes his poems and his speeches simple, direct, and light-hearted.
Our second speaker, the main voice of the poem, is the poet Terence, who talks back to his buddy's complaints about sad poems. There's a lot we don't know about Terence, too, but we get a pretty good sense of his general character as the poem goes on. In a sense, he seems like a man who lives in two worlds, and can travel pretty well between them. On the one hand, he knows the language and the rhythm of the bar. He can joke back and forth with the guys, and he likes a drink as much as the next guy. As he puts it: "Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink/ For fellows whom it hurts to think" (23-24). Even in that last line, though, we can hear that he doesn't quite think of himself as being the same as these barflies, even if he's drinking with them. Maybe he even looks down on them a little.
You see, Terence is an educated guy he knows all about Milton and ancient kings. He quips that "malt does more than Milton can/ To justify God's ways to man" (21-22). Those lines are actually a great example of the power of Terence's double identity. He's part normal guy, part professor. Because of that, he can turn a jokey barroom argument into a meaningful defense of poetry—definitely not an easy task.