Friday, November 13, 2009

Excerpt of Eliot

I've posted the entire poem of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot at least thrice here over the years - most recently as part of my National Poetry Month posts, but today, as I sit here in Brigantine, New Jersey in the midst of a nor'easter of grand scale, watching the mists blow through the scrub on the dunes and seeing the white waves cresting and crashing off in the distance, I was reminded of the poem yet again. I got to thinking about the final stanzas of the poem and the lines that Stephen Colbert quoted to Elizabeth Alexander shortly after President Obama's inauguration: "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me."

The final set of stanzas begins with references to Prince Hamlet, and, as many of you already know, I saw a production of Hamlet only last week on Broadway. So many personal associations to this bit of the poem have had me reading and re-reading it this morning, pondering all the while. As for the Hamlet references, Eliot (or rather his poem's speaker, Prufrock) disclaims a starring role. How sad, to cast oneself as a walk-on or minor player when the play is one's own life. It reminds me of a quote from a movie in which Jude Law (who played Hamlet in the production I saw) was a character: The Holiday, of which I am fond. I particularly like the character of Iris, who is played by Kate Winslet, and her interaction with Arthur Abbott, played spectacularly well by Eli Wallach. During a conversation between the two of them, troubled-in-love Iris comes to this realization: "You're supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god's sake!" (Or leading man. J. Alfred Prufrock never managed to sort that bit out, poor guy.)

Here, the final section of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot (who is, my brother informs me based on recent genealogical research (we jointly work on our family tree) our eighth cousin, thrice removed). You can read the poem in its entirety (with much fuller analysis) in my post from April:

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.

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