Terence, this is stupid stuff
by A.E. Housman
Stanza 2 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
- Now, in this new stanza, it's Terence's turn. He shoots back at his complaining friend by reminding him that poetry isn't that great for dancing. He suggests that there are "brisker" (quicker, more exciting) "pipes" (that's a kind of musical instrument, like a flute). Basically he's telling his buddy that he's barking up the wrong tree. He's a poet, and dance music isn't his business.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
- Instead of a poem, he suggests… beer. That's the stuff that really makes you dance. It's as good as any piping for getting you on your feet.
- Terence doesn't name beer directly, though. Instead he makes two allusions to the English beer-making industry. The first one relates to the hop-yards, which were the fields where they grew hops, the plant that gives beer its distinctive flavor. The second allusion is to a town, Burton-on-Trent, which was famous for its beer in Housman's day.
- In these lines, Terence is keeping up the teasing tone of his friend, playing along with the bar theme that the other guy started. He's going to defend his poems, but first he'll have some fun.
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
- A "peer" is a member of the English aristocracy. In Housman's time, they were also the ones with enough money to start a big business like a brewery. In these lines Terence is basically saying that a rich English brewer can make you feel "livelier" than the Muse (the ancient Greek spirit of poetic inspiration).
- We think Terence is doing two things here. On the one hand, he's teasing both his friend and the reader by overturning our expectations. In a poem (especially by someone as well-educated as Housman), we might expect to hear a lot about muses and beauty and grand ideas. We probably don't expect to hear much about beer. We certainly wouldn't expect to hear that beer is better than the Muse.
- At the same time, under the cover of making a joke, he's gently reintroducing the big themes of poetry, like inspiration and tradition. He's also some of the techniques his friend was just making fun of, like alliteration (livelier liquor). The mood is jokey and fun, but there's a lot going on here.
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
- Here's another joke at poetry's expense. Terence tells us that malt (that just means beer in this case) does a better job of explaining God's actions to humans than John Milton could. Here he's making a kind of daring allusion to one of the most famous poems in the history of English literature, Milton's Paradise Lost.
- In the opening section of his great epic poem, Milton promises to "justifie the wayes of God to men." That's about the biggest fish a poet could fry. So when Terence says that towering achievement in poetic history is worth less than a mug of beer, he sure sounds like he's taking the other guys side. We'll see about that, though…
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
- Terence keeps reeling his drinking buddy in. He's definitely speaking the other guy's language. Line 23 is all short words, like in the first stanza. We don't hear anything about Milton or the Muse. All he says is that beer (or "ale") is awesome. It's as if Homer Simpson was writing this poem.
- Then, slowly but surely, Terence starts to fight back by tagging on another line to complete the sentence. Thanks to enjambment, it looked like he was just saying that beer is great. Turns out there's more. Beer is great, "For fellows whom it hurts to think." Put it all together, and these lines mean: "Beer is great… if you're an idiot." Clearly Terence and poetry are going to get the last word here, even if it takes a while.
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
- Terence keeps up his long, teasing ode to beer in these lines. He recommends changing your perspective on the world by looking into a beer mug, which he calls "the pewter pot" (pewter is a metal that they used to make dishes out of). Of course, this is a figurative way of saying that getting drunk can help you see the world in a different (and wrong) way.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.
- Now, Terence is willing to admit that it feels good ("'tis pleasant") to get drunk, at least at first. But when it's over, when "'tis past," then it's a bummer.
- The problem ("the mischief") is that being drunk doesn't last. Eventually you'll sober up again. Of course we here at Shmoop don't support getting drunk at all… but you get his point, right? Beer, in this poem, is partly a symbol for any temporary pleasure, anything that feels good for a minute but leaves you right back where you started (or worse). Think of the last time you watched TV all day. It feels good while you're doing it, but pretty gross after, right?
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
- Terence doesn't want you to think that he isn't one of the guys. So he tells a drinking story. Sure, he says, I've been to big parties, like the fair at Ludlow (a town in Shropshire, where Terence lives). He's even gotten so drunk he couldn't remember where he left his tie (that must have been a big problem for Victorian guys).
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
- The drinking story continues. On this trip to Ludlow fair, Terence had a bunch to drink. He "carried […] home" lots of beer ("pints and quarts")—presumably in his belly.
- In fact, he got so drunk that he didn't make it more than "half-way home, or near."
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
- While he was drunk, the world looked pretty good to Terence, and he felt good about himself. He thought he was a "sterling lad" (that basically means an excellent, high quality young man).
- Again, the focus here is on temporary pleasure. He's not trying to pretend those good feelings aren't there for a moment. Just that they don't last.
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
- Terence's drinking story rolls on. Coming home from Ludlow fair, he was so drunk that he laid down in the mud, and slept happily until he woke up again.
- The way Terence describes the mud is important. He calls it "lovely muck." There's not a lot that's less lovely than muck, and the two terms put together are almost an oxymoron. Putting it like that is a subtle way to remind us how drinking messes up your sense of reality, and makes you think that even ugly, gross things are beautiful.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
- Finally it all comes crashing down. Terence wakes up, sober again, looking at the morning sky. It turns out that the "tale" he told himself while drunk, about the world being a happy place (33) was "all a lie." Things don't look so great the next day.
- "Heigho" is an old-fashioned exclamation, something like "A-ha." As far as we know, it's got nothing to do with the song the dwarves sing in Snow White, although it's kind of fun to imagine Grumpy or Doc reciting this poem.
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
- Now that the alcohol has worn off (and the hangover has probably set in), Terence realizes that the world isn't really any different. It's still the same old disappointing place. (In this context, the word "yet" means "still.")
- Just as importantly, he's the same as he ever was ("I was I"). A night of drinking hasn't changed reality at all. The only change is that the "lovely muck" (35) got his stuff wet.
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.
- Terence can't think of anything to do but get up and keep doing what he's been doing. He does a great job of sounding tired and cynical in these lines. Life is a "game," but not a fun one, just an endless, boring repetition.
- Even though Terence sounds worn-out here, the poem also keeps up its balanced, light sound. Notice the alliteration in both of these lines: "nothing now" and "But begin." Housman is subtly reminding us that, even if drinking can't really help with our problems, poetry might be able to.