Sunday, August 17, 2008

Do I Dare to Eat a Peach?

I can't imagine a more daunting task than that of the high school English teacher introducing hormone-ravaged teens to the great poets. For some reason, though, T.S. Eliot spoke to me in those youthful days and, over the years, bits from this poem would drift up to the surface of my mind. I would nod and acknowledge the beauty of the words...I shall wear my trousers the room the women come and go...the yellow fog that rubs its back...the eyes that fix you in a formulated I dare disturb the universe...measured out my life with coffee spoons.

That's how poetry works for me--the isolated phrases mean something, and perhaps that something shifts and changes as I move through life--but I really have no idea of the meaning of the whole. Or perhaps I do, but that, too, might change for me from moment to moment, year to year--a hundred visions and revisions (as Eliot says).

Long ago in a high school English class, the teacher passed out copies of a sonnet I had written for an assignment. The class read it and then the teacher asked me what I had meant. I was too young and too shy to put my thoughts into words--especially in front of my too-critical peers, but that moment has come back to me again and again over the years. You know how it is, you wake up in the night thinking about what you should have said. I suppose what I wanted to tell that teacher was that poetry is so intensely private, both to the writer and to the reader, that it should mean whatever that person thinks that it means. There is certainly no "right" or "wrong" interpretation, only meaning colored by personal experience.

That eternal discussion of the meaning of literature is what made my English majoring days so uncomfortable. People who love to read probably should choose some other major, as I learned. Once I switched to something more practical I was able to enjoy reading once again.

Since I hadn't read the whole Eliot poem in many years, I looked it up and read it once again. Here, you can read it, too.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. T.S. Eliot (1888–1965). Prufrock and Other Observations. 1917.

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.

*According to Wikipedia, one translation from the Princeton Dante Project is:

"If I thought my answer were given
to anyone who would ever return to the world,
this flame would stand still without moving any further.
But since never from this abyss
has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true,
without fear of infamy I answer you


Sylvia K said...

I've always been a T.S. Eliot fan, but it's been a long time since I've read this one. What a lovely reminder! And I was always shy about reading things that I wrote then and now as well. Maybe that's why I enjoy blogging, I can put stuff out there, bare my heart, soul, but not have to face an audience. Funny, I didn't think of that when I was doing theater, but then it wasn't my stuff that I was performing either.

clairz said...

Sylvia, I was hoping that kindred souls would post comments on this one--thank you. Back in high school, I figured that I was the only one who felt this way.

Margie's Musings said...

Sylvia, When I was in high school, back in the dark ages, we had to memorize all the soliloquies from Macbeth. That was a job.