Nov. 29th, 2014

emgrasso: (raptors logo)
I know two snippets of the poetry of A. E. Housman off the top of my head:

And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.


I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

It turns out they are both from the same poem, "Terence, this is stupid stuff" published in A Shropshire Lad in 1896.

Housman died in 1936, and was born in 1859, so it can be said that he also "died old". And I'm pretty sure that I have read some of his other poetry, it is just these bits that are attached to his name in my memory. I'm not certain that I ever read the entire "Terence..." poem before this week. But I knew those lines, 118 years after they were written.

Not immortality on the scale of Homer or Shakespeare (or even Tennyson or Yeats if you go by the number of lines I know were theirs that I can pull out of my memory) but respectable none the less. Yeats and Tennyson get used in titles of things a lot, so there are a lot of snippets of their work floating around. I'm not sure I know any lines by the actual poet Terence.

Mithridates really did die old, too -- he lived from 134 to 63 BC and gave the Roman generals fits (they called him the secnd Hannibal). And he did not die a natural death of old age. Mithridates committed suicide at the age of 71 rather than be captured alive after a defeat in battle. Actually, he asked one of his soldiers to kill him with a sword because poison did not work against him.

Mithridates is famous for pioneering the "take small amounts of poison so you build up an immunity to it" technique. So he resonates through popular culture (including The Princess Bride) even if provincial modern Americans know nothing of his political and military achievements.

I've just started reading a book about Mithridates: The Poison King by Adrienne Mayor

I should probably look up some other poetry by Housman and see what else of his I am actually familiar with, without knowing that it is his.

For that matter, I should probably look up Terence, too -- there are probably quotes that I know are "from the Latin" that are actually his.

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