Here’s one for the English majors

Last night when reading Mitch Steele’s book IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, I came across this excerpt from a poem by British poet A. E. Housman which Steele used as a chapter epigraph. I recognized two lines, which will be familiar to many of my readers:

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.

Spot the familiar lines? I’ll explain just in case. The quote “Malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man” is referenced frequently in beer culture. It appears on T-shirts and in books, and is quoted endlessly on websites dealing with homebrewing and craft beer.

It’s one of those quotes we use to validate our passion, to reclaim some respect in a world that doesn’t always understand our love of beer and occasionally confuses us with the common alcoholic. With such quotes, we seek to remind the world that many drinkers are also great thinkers: from poets (Housman) to politicians (another famous quote is uncertainly attributed to Benjamin Franklin) to philosophers (ditto, Plato).

The Housman quote has always caught my eye because of the reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Milton wrote to – in his own words – “justify the ways of God to men”, something Housman appears to claim beer can do even better. I’m not Milton’s biggest fan, but I’ve read and enjoyed Paradise Lost and was always impressed that Housman seemed to echo one of my beliefs: that a good beer is a work of art as inspiring and enlightening as the world’s great stories. But I never read the rest of Housman’s poem until today.

So imagine my surprise when I read the last two lines above: “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink / For fellows whom it hurts to think.”

Wait, what? Did Housman just say that ale is for guys who can’t think?

I was shocked and confused. I felt unfairly ridiculed and indignant. Was Housman calling beer drinkers morons? Was the malt/Milton quip actually intended as a mordant satire of the self-professed mental acuity of beer drinkers Housman saw as deluded, stupid oafs? Worse still, had beer lovers around the world been bandying this quote around proudly but out of context, little realizing that if Housman were still alive he’d be laughing at us behind his awe-inspiring mustache?

Beer guys aren’t smart? Preposterous! I mean, we all know someone who fits the Hank Hill profile: a canned-lager guzzler of simple tastes, few words and fewer thoughts. But that’s just a guy who drinks beer. A beer guy is a different breed of cat entirely. Beer guys are typically nerds of a unique variety: walking encyclopedias of zythological wisdom, holding databases worth of information in their heads about beer styles, hop profiles, and personal tasting notes collected over years of self-study. Many of the smartest and most educated people I know are beer guys, and are also brilliant in other unrelated professional/creative fields. And that’s not even counting the many scientifically-minded beer writers I don’t know personally, but who have amazed me with complex descriptions of brewing chemistry and biology in terms far beyond the comprehension of my degree in English literature and classical studies.

Which brings me back to Housman, and the fact that if there’s one beer-related skill I learned in college (let’s qualify that with in class) it’s how to analyze a poem about beer. If I wanted to understand what Housman was trying to say, I needed to read the poem in its entirety. It’s entitled “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” and the complete text of it is here. It’s from a collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad, and I’ll spare you the chore of getting through a full analysis of the poem. I’ve written enough of those for one life.

The gist of it is that some drinking buddies complain to their poet friend that the poems he recites are depressing, and they’d rather have him sing a dancing song to cheer them up. The poet replies that if they want cheer, they need look no further than the beer in their cups. But he cautions his friends that the joy gained by drinking is false and temporary, and once the buzz is past, the harsh realities of life remain. Poetry, he says, should be somber, to inure oneself against these harsh realities.

The poet doesn’t have anything against beer or the people who drink it; in fact, he’s a lover of it himself. He calls it “livelier than the Muse”, and better than Milton at showing humanity a fleeting glimpse of the divine. The “fellows whom it hurts to think” are all of us – beer guys, wine guys, even guys who don’t drink. He’s not saying we’re stupid and it hurts our brains to think, but that we are human and it hurts our souls to think about the world’s imperfections.

And so my short-lived indignation on behalf of my fellow beer nerds proved unnecessary. Far from making fun of us, Housman offers a poignant, if somewhat sobering, message on the role of alcohol and art in our lives. All things considered, it’s a pro-beer message, though with a warning that beer offers only a temporary distraction from reality (but what else can we ask for from the sensory pleasures of food, drink or entertainment?).

But in context, the quote isn’t quite the joyous celebration of beer’s awesome power that I thought it was, and I bet I’m not the only one surprised. It’s a valuable lesson in the importance of learning the context of anyone’s words before we go around quoting them.

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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

4 responses to “Here’s one for the English majors”

  1. grotusque says :

    This is pretty much awesome. Well done, sir.

  2. Ebony says :

    Wow, this article was very interesting, and insightful for me, being that I stumble upon this website looking for guidance for the poem, “Terence, this is stupid stuff”. I’ve reread this poem several times, and have been conflicted over the central idea of the poem. Reading this article has opened my eyes to clarity and some knowledge about beer that I did not possess prior. It’s only unfortunate that I am not legally able to drink, because obviously I am missing out of true bliss.

    • Shawn says :

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the analysis.

      As for your not being able to drink, I assume it’s because you aren’t yet of legal age in the place where you live? If so, please know that you’re not missing out on “true” bliss (and I think Housman would agree) but it can be enjoyable enough when done responsibly and legally.

      Thanks for reading.

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