So everyone is likely already familiar with Mr Eliot, and I'm late for this train as usual. I had no real idea what I'd find in his poetry, and was pleasantly surprised to discover the marks of Shakespeare, Yeats, scripture, and maybe even Modernist novelists like Woolf. The poetry, the prosody, maybe I mean, is just wonderful as you all know. Eliot wrote very smooth poems, at least those in this collection are quite smooth, rolling along with one luxurious surprise after another. In general, that is, this smooth rolling along (maybe in the vein of Robert Browning's Italian-influenced verse? though I don't know of course, not really knowing poetry so much as only knowing those few poets I've read) is the shape of Eliot's poems but there are strange interruptions, shifts I don't understand into a different mode, a new tone toward the end. An example, maybe, from three-quarters of the way through "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
And would it have been worth it, after all,Why this sudden shift to "Hamlet?" Why is the narrator--who is clearly an older man passing through or thinking back upon a neighborhood he used to frequent to visit prostitutes--suddenly declaring himself to be an Osric (no: I see now it's Polonius) character? I don't know. The poem goes on to shift to sea images, to mermaids and crabs, and I don't for the life of me understand that shift either. I have read poems which function more or less the way many personal essays function, beginning in one vein with a particular image, and then moving in a surprising turn to a new vein, giving new meaning to the original image. See many of Johnson's essays, for example. See also the Elizabethan sonnet, by gosh. But I don't get what Eliot is doing here. It's a beautiful poem, but I don't understand the formal strategy, nor the ideas emphasized at the end. And a lot of the poems in this collection baffle me in the same way. But I'm reading them over again, because I quite like the writing and the bafflement is a pleasing sort of confusion.
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.