Sunday, February 25, 2007


"The Mermaid" by Pre-Raphaelite Painter J. W. Waterhouse

"I have heard the mermaids singing each to each.
I do not think 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 by the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us and we drown"
("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot)

In his column today in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Garrison Keillor begins with this observation: "February is the season of small sorrows when everyone feels middle-aged even if you are 16."
I do agree with that. But his ramblings today also included comments about "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", and those I do not agree with. How he got from the subject of February to the subject of T. S. Eliot is a stretch. One solution to February's woes, says Keillor, is to lunch with convivial companions, but Keillor doesn't think Eliot would have been a convivial lunch partner. He thinks even worse of one of my favorite poems of all time, calling it "a small, dark mope-fest of a poem."

"This poem pretty much killed off the pleasure of poetry for millions of people who got dragged through it in high school," says Keillor. From there he goes on to talk about Republicans and Democrats. I'm sure that Eliot would have written scathing poems about the modern political scene.
I pretty much agree with everything Keillor says, but to malign Prufrock! Perhaps Mr. Keillor's high school English teacher didn't analyze the poem well. Perhaps college students understand the poem better because they are more experienced.
But the poem is beautiful without analysis, as shown by the mermaid lines above. For years, I had great chunks of it memorized, including the beginning lines (or anyway, what I consider the beginning lines, because the first six lines are in Italian
"Let us go then, you and I, while the evening is laid against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
Let us go through through certain-half deserted streets
The muttering retreats
Of one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells.
Streets that follow with 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"
Such images Eliot creates:
"The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle over 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"
Thank you, Mr. Keillor, for re-introducing me to this poem. I am once again struck by lines like these:
"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."
"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."
"The eyes that fix you with a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways"
"Time for you and time for me
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
and for a hundred visions and revisions."
Now, in my maturity, I understand this poem even better, for I have had to prepare a face to meet all the faces I have met. I, too, have measured out my life with coffee spoons. I have been fixed and formulated by others' first impressions, never to redeem myself. And how can I explain the butt-ends of my days and ways and make sense of them to anyone, let alone myself?
I have made hundreds of wrong decisions and even worse, have made no decision at all, just let things ride. I have asked myself "Do I dare, do I dare?" and dared not. I have created, and while I have not murdered in the literal sense, I have murdered my own dreams and others' spirits. I have not had "the strength to force a moment to its crisis."
When I was in college I could not have truthfully said, "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker/And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker." Now, I have. Now I truly understand when Prufrock laments his thinning hair and his scrawny legs, and really hear the pathos in these lines: "I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to each a peach?"
I am surprised Mr. Keillor dislikes this poem. He seems to be a mopey, depressed sort. Even a favorite of his soliloquies, an ode to spring, has a dark side. I think he'd be up for a mope-fest.
I think I'll take some time now to re-analyze this poem, and memorize chunks of it again. They say that mind games and memorizing improves the aging mind. I'm going to give it a whirl.
Keiller calls Prufrock a small poem. It decidedly is not. It is a giant of a poem. Neither is it short, which is why I have not reprinted it here. It can be found by googling the title of the poem. One site is:

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