A. E. Housman on Politics

Probably British poet A.E. Housman (pictured above) did not have politics, per se, in mind when he wrote one of his more famous poems, # LXII from A Shropshire Lad, a poem known also by its first line, “Terence, this is stupid stuff:” So the title of this post can fairly be accused of misleading.

Nonetheless, stanza three of the poem (as I was reminded by a colleague today) does potentially prepare one for getting ready–to the extent one is able to do so–for less than ideal outcomes, including those produced by politics, which is allegedly “the art of the possible” but often seems more like “the craft of the craven.”

At any rate, if you’re disappointed in what politics is producing these days, perhaps you’ll take some indirect, highly measured solace from the lines in question:

“Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.”

“Train for ill and not for good” does have a sour smack to it, but some sweetness derives from knowing–or believing–that “the world has still much good” and that, every so often, a friend will friend you–and not just on facebook. (And here some people thought that facebook was the source of “friend” as a verb; apparently Housman got there before digital social-networking did.)

Would political scientists regard the rhetoric of Housman’s stanza as an example of Realpolitik? I do not know.

The stanza, by the way, is quoted from The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman (New York: Owl Books/Henry Holt, 1965), pp. 89-90.


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