Sunday, May 17, 2015

That is not what I meant, at all

On Friday and Saturday I read (and am now rereading) a short book of poetry, The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot. Everyone already knows who Eliot is, and knows all about him, I suppose. I have only known his work through mention of it in essays and articles, and I've read the stray line here and there, but I don't believe I've ever read one of his poems before now (I've been slowly making my way through an old Norton anthology of poetry but have got no farther than Wordsworth). I picked up this book on Friday because I had a couple of hours to kill downtown before meeting Mighty Reader for a(n excellent) performance of "Othello." There's a used book store not far from the theater so I sought out something interesting in a small pocket-sized edition. Yes, those were my criteria: interesting and pocket-sized. I knew I'd buy a book of poetry, but my intended target was EBB's Sonnets from the Portuguese, of which I've been for some time looking for a decent pocket edition. No such book was on the shelf on Friday afternoon, so I considered some Ezra Pound (I'm reading his 1934 "textbook" The ABCs of Reading) but didn't like the selection, and then my eye was caught by the Eliot, and I bought it. Have I wasted enough time introducing this little post? I think I have.

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,
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.
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.


  1. My reading of Prufrock is not quite the same as yours. I don't think it's clear that he's an older man passing through a neighbourhood where he used to visit prostitutes; he expresses so much hesitation (and suggests that hesitation has always been a habit of his, "time yet for a hundred indecisions") that the rooms he's describing are possibly imaginary, and "I have known the arms already" -- staring at the erotic clash between white skin and "light brown hair" -- could mean only that he's seen them in his mind intensely. And he is so tightly clutched in his mood of self-conscious doubt that he wouldn't need to be old to worry about his hair "growing thin." If the reader wants to picture a "he" then "he" could just as well be an anxious middle-aged man who think he's detecting sinister undertones in ordinary streets (or even someone in his late twenties who thinks his life is over; he suspects some vital change evaded him when he was nineteen). He is numb and hysterical; he is operating at a high pitch of sensitivity and he is "etherized," "overwhelmed" by that same sensitivity; he doesn't know what to do with it except use it as worry-fodder. He is Modern; his mind is well-fed but unstructured (it circles him and circles him, it doesn't run firmly toward a purpose); he is a scavenging crab nibbling on cultural detritus, the Shakespeare, the mythic mermaids; this mental wealth is just nourishment for more anxiety, and whatever exposure he's had to taste, fashion, art, conversation, is food for the same end. The sea is traditionally (I'm thinking of other poets before him) associated with openness, freedom, adventure, dramatic experience, but to him it's "silent" and if he enters it he will be kept inert (in chambers and then drowned).

    1. Boy, do I not know how to read this. I guess I didn't realize when I opened the book that Eliot was a Modernist, so I wasn't prepared for the way he uses symbolism. I've finally looked up the Dante epigraph, which was informative. I suppose the Hamlet reference has to do with the speaker's hesitation to do anything particular, his state of being "etherized," etc. He's Polonius because he'll talk talk talk but not necessarily take meaningful action? I read that the original publisher wanted him to cut that stanza.

      Your comment is very helpful, a push in a good direction.

  2. He's pointing himself at Polonius in those lines, "cautious," "obtuse," but I think the idea of him being any kind of nameless "attendant lord" is important too. I read the two things existing simultaneously: he is Polonius and he is also a blot of nobodies. He is attached to the play in a number of ways: he is Polonius, he has something in common with Hamlet (so much so that the thought occurs to him -- I am Hamlet -- and he is so alarmed ("No!") that he denies it -- I will not be this named & titled thing, "Prince Hamlet," I will be the unnamed thing) and he will "drown" like Ophelia.

    1. This is a strange poem. The tone of it is so easy, so casual almost, that it seemed at first that Eliot was talking about commonplace things, saying just what he meant in a simple and straightforward manner. The images don't add up that way, of course. It's all broken up, a possibly dishonest explanation of possibly imaginary crimes, or reasons to feel guilt. All the smoke, the fog, the hazy atmosphere. An interpretive ballet performed behind a dirty window.