"And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God's ways to man" - a ride out to Wicken Fen, beer, Jesus, a poem by A. E. Housman and a connected thought about Heidegger . . .

Beer and Jesus at the Wicken Fen Cafe
The poems of A. E. Housman are hugely important to me. Indeed, since being introduced to them whilst at school, I have come to share particularly Houseman's love of nature, his admiration for the human Jesus and for the poetry and the thoroughgoing naturalism of the Roman poet Lucretius. But I don't reference Housman's poems much in my Sunday addresses because to many people in a formal religious setting - even one as open as that in which I minister - they appear too fatalistic and melancholy. However, from my own point of view I have always found his fatalism and melancholy - caused by his rejection of Christianity and its metaphysics in the 1870s - creatively provocative and his poems were key in encouraging me to think through what might be the positive consequences of such a rejection. Readers of this blog will know I feel that a way to work through this rejection can begin to be discerned in Heidegger’s thinking. It's a way that leads to a more optimistic, joyful and still religious (even Christian) stance towards the world than was (or could be) held by Housman. (I'd particularly recommend in connection with this general thought Julian Young's Heidegger's Later Philosophy.)

But, although Housman's actual words don't often figure in my public utterances, they often fly into my imagination. On Tuesday 18th, I took a spin on the Pashley Guv'nor on a regular ride of mine out to Wicken Fen. It was a lovely, sunny day and, given it's my day off, certainly one not to be wasted indoors. Arriving at the cafe I bought a local beer (Boathouse Bitter) and drank it along with the cheese and ham sandwiches I'd brought with me. I'd also brought with me a favourite book called The Gospel of Jesus” by an American Unitarian biblical scholar called Clayton R. Bowen published in 1916 - a reading of the Gospels that, naturally, comes down on the side of Jesus' humanity. The combination of blue skies, sun, good beer, good food and the human Jesus was a heady mix which brought to my mind one of Housman's poems from A Shropshire Lad. I'll leave you to make of it what you will but here's a link to an annotated version at the Housman Society web page that may help you get the most out of it. I also add below the poem a few pictures from the ride.

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now.
To hear such tunes as killed the cow!
Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad!
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad!"

Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
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:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.

Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

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.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
- I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

The River Cam from Stourbidge Common
Stourbridge Common
Rode leading from Burwell to the Lodes Way
Cock-up bridge over Burwell Lode
Burwell Lode
Burwell Lode
Pollarded trees by Burwell Lode
Looking west across Bakers Fen from the Lodes Way
Looking east across to Burwell Lode
From the Lodes Way looking east towards Burwell
Reach Lode
Reach Lode
Looking south-west along the Lodes Way from the bridge over Reach Lode
Swaffham Bulbeck Lode
Swaffham Bulbeck Lode