Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Let us go then, you and I

I was in my senior year in high school - almost 60 years ago - when I first encountered the poetry of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), starting with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot's first published poem, published 50 years earlier in June 1915. How much or well I understood Prufrock at the time I can hardly recall. It was surely unlike any poem I had read or studied in English class before, and it must have seemed to me (parochial teenager that i then was) at first somewhat weird. But the poem's amazing use of language (and a poem is always about a special way of using language), the poem's hauntingly well chosen words - very old-aged sounding in someone still young then - have remained with me all these years. Many times, for no particular reason, I have readily recalled the poem's famous opening call to go nowhere: Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table. Or quoted the familiar: In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo. Or asked in jest in this season of the year: Do I dare to eat a peach? Or marked my birthday: I grow old ... O grow old.

It certainly says something about a powerful poem's way with words that it still resonates so much after so many non-poetic, very prosaic years.

I have returned to the awkward, isolated figure of Prufrock now and again as my own life circumstances seemed to suggest. Now, however, I can not only reread Prufrock at leisure, but I can also listen to the poet's voice via an old recording recycled on YouTube, and in so doing imagine my own voice struggling through what Eliot called "an expression of feeling of my own through this dim imaginary figure."

(Photo: Cover page of The Egoist Ltd's publication of Prufrock and Other Observations,1917.)

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