Tuesday, September 26, 2006

T.S. Eliot was Born on this Date

What is it with birthday posts this week? I guess it's a counter-balance for the surfeit of recently-passed musicians featured over at the always-worth-a-visit There Stands the Glass.

T.S. Eliot has been my favorite poet since high school days, and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (complete text below) is the poem that saved my appreciation of poetry.

Even as a high school student, I could recognize that this poem is the straight stuff. The rhythm and rhyme, the literary allusion, the mood, the meaning, and even the subtle humor were something different from anything else I had ever read.

In college, I studied the poem again with Professor William Murphy, and he helped me appreciate the poem's elaborate structure, and further appreciate the rhythm.

As I've aged, I've found fresh enjoyment every time I read the poem. From the startling first three lines and their juxtaposition of romanticism and a near corpse, to the haunting closing lines ("We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/Till human voices wake us, and we drown"), the poem is simply fun to read out loud.

What does it mean? Ahh, the eternal question for great poetry. It portrays an insecure man afraid of his own mortality. It portrays a society that deadens, but does not quite kill, passion. It portrays a mystical world where birth and baptism are as fruitless as abortion. It portrays despair.

It is all of that, and beautiful. A great poem holds multitudes and layers. Its words reinforce themselves and they mean more together than their summation. Take a few minutes and read it aloud. I hope you find some of what I have found in it.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
. . . . .
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
. . . . .
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.


Blogger Xavier Onassis said...

I'm so shallow.

I can honestly say that there is not a single poem or poet that has ever "spoken to me".

I'm one of those rational, literal, scientific guys.

Whatever it was they were trying to say...seems to me they could have just gotten to the point using more precise language instead of trying to paint some vague linguistic picture and expect me to figure it out.

I have a huge library; but not a single volume of poetry. Just not my cup of tea.

9/26/2006 9:33 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

I've always thought there was something wrong with me because I can't stand poetry. As a female, I get strange looks when I tell people that, cause "girls like poetry and stuff". Not this girl!

9/27/2006 9:04 AM  
Anonymous JW said...

I usually end up confused, but I enjoy the read. But then again, I've got rythym.
Great poem, although detached. I thought he should have wrapped up with the refrain again. I dream about this lifestyle. Hanging out in "cafes" staring at the pretty women, twisting phrases and thought.
Afternoons, will be measured out with coffeespoons, and TS Elliot.

9/27/2006 9:24 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

Ever since I first read Prufrock, it has stayed with me.
I can't tell you how many times I've quoted:
"Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each."
So good. So very good.

9/27/2006 12:55 PM  
Blogger les said...

I've never been able to get into poetry, beyond the esteemed limerick. But, Dan, what you reprinted here...man, it's just too long to read. Color me philistine.

9/27/2006 2:57 PM  
Anonymous travelingal said...

I started thinking about poems that were special to me and one that came to mind was SnowBound by John Greenleaf Whittier. I grew up in Wisconsin and have been snowbound on several occasions. We read this poem when I was in Jr. High and I can still remember "feeling" the chill in the air and the warmth of the fireside as we read it.

Inspired by your post, I looked it up on the internet and will read it again tonite...

9/27/2006 6:25 PM  

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