10 March 2015

Mithridates, he died old


I don’t remember in whose class exactly I first read the poetry of A.E. Housman, but I am looking now at the text that Henry Taylor assigned in the course Modern Poetry, and many of the poems by Housman are dotted and so I assume that mark means that they were assigned and that I must have read them, because I did read them all though I learned a few.
            I’m looking specifically at the poem “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff,” one of the poems I certainly learned. Terence, I believe, is the poet, and his friends berate him for the dolorous, depressing views of life expressed in his poetry: “It gives a chap a belly-ache” they moan! Pipe us a tune to dance to, Terence, and cease singing these dismal bits of poetry that are so sad that they even killed the cow to whom you first chanted them!
            But Terence responds: If is good cheer you want, friends, there are sources more appropriate than poetry, and liquor seems to Terence the most effective antidote to depression and despair.
            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.
Inebriated beyond consciousness, fallen drunk along the road, the world appears pleasant and hospitable until, alas, he awakens from his drunken stupor and realizes that the tale was all a lie: “The world, it was the old world yet,/I was I, my things were wet . . .” And so will begin another day. Some years later Samuel Beckett will have Pozzo pronounce something similar: “But¾but behind this veil of gentleness and peace night is charging and will burst upon us pop! Like that! just when we least expect it. That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.”
            Terence advises his friends that though the world has much good, it possesses, in fact, much less good than ill, and that they would do well to live their life expecting and preparing for that ill rather than hoping for and awaiting the good. Of his poetry he cautions his friends, that “Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale/Is not so brisk a brew as ale . . . If the smack is sour, The better for the embittered hour.” We toughen ourselves with small doses of the bitter that we be not destroyed by it when it inevitably assails us! There was a king in the East, Terence says, who knew how easy it was to poison the food upon which the king would feast, and so each day with each meal the king would add a small portion of “all that springs to birth/From the many-venomed earth.” And as “they” added arsenic to his meat and strychnine to his cup, his would-be assassins sat aghast at the failure of their poisons to effect any harm at all. Indeed, they “shook to see him drink it up.” The king had made himself immune to the poisons by imbibing a bit of them every day. “I will tell the tale I’m told,” Terence says, “Mithridates, he died old.”
            I was sitting in my spin class this morning and Kathy was yelling at me to increase my pace by five RPMs and to raise my Watts by twenty percent, and was saying something about the lessons of adversity and pain, and I, weary and out of breath, spun my legs as fast (or as slow) as I could manage, and all I could think to say was that Mithridates, he died old. I pedaled harder, but only hard enough to inure me to the embitterment I would face outside. You see, I read the news today, oh boy!

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