Tag Archives: analysis

‘Nothing will die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

When will the stream be aweary of flowing
Under my eye?
When will the wind be aweary of blowing
Over the sky?
When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?
When will the heart be aweary of beating?
And nature die?
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.

Nothing will die;
All things will change
Thro’ eternity.
‘Tis the world’s winter;
Autumn and summer
Are gone long ago;
Earth is dry to the centre,
But spring, a new comer,
A spring rich and strange,
Shall make the winds blow
Round and round,
Thro’ and thro’,
Here and there,
Till the air
And the ground
Shall be fill’d with life anew.

The world was never made;
It will change, but it will not fade.
So let the wind range;
For even and morn
Ever will be
Thro’ eternity.
Nothing was born;
Nothing will die;
All things will change.

This in an early poem by Tennyson, which appeared in his first book (Poems, chiefly lyrical) published in 1830. I like this poem, and the poem that will follow it tomorrow (the cheerfully titled, All things will die). I thought it was most appropriate to post them consecutively because they seem to go together. They present entirely contrasting perspectives on the world and on existence, and I think it is really interesting to compare the two.

In this first poem, Nothing will die, the speaker seemingly believes in a world that is in constant motion, constant change, always going “Round and round,/ Thro’ and thro’”. The world depicted is one where nature never tires of its cycles: “The stream flows,/ The wind blows,/ The cloud fleets,/ The heart beats,/ Nothing will die.” I love the way Tennyson uses this energetic rhythm here to reflect the rhythms of the natural world (I also love ‘fleet’ as a verb!) Life moves constantly through the seasons, always coming full circle to Spring, which fills it “with life anew”.

The defining statement in this poem, I think, is “The world was never made;/ It will change, but it will not fade.” This is a beautiful expression of the idea that if the world was never created/’born’ then it need not end; if something is born it must die, but if something simply exists, without being born or created, then it can be said to be eternal. Our notions of God (in most religions, I think) tell us that he is uncreated and can never die (i.e. he is eternal.) I like this idea of death not existing, but of it simply being a change, and part of a continual cycle.

I think that this poem could also be read as being a poem of denial – the voice of one so afraid of death that he tries to convince himself that ‘Nothing will die’. Read in this way, the rhythm of the poem seems feverish and frantic – a mantra to convince oneself of a fantasy. However, I don’t personally read it like that.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘As kingfishers catch fire’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

 

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This is an utterly fabulous poem, exquisite in its language and expression. When I first read this one, I remember being so taken by the deliciousness of the sound of it that I forgot to pay attention to what the words actually signified. I think this poem is really extraordinary; Hopkins uses language in such a unique and playful way, even coining new verbs of his own invention.

The opening line is just breathtaking. The image of kingfishers ‘catching fire’ is one that anybody who has ever seen a kingfisher’s plumage catch the sunlight can picture. Their feathers are of such a splendid vividness that in bright sunlight they would appear almost to “catch fire”. The dragonflies, in a similar fashion, “draw flame”. I took a photo of a dragonfly on a reed once in France, zooming right up close to it so that you could see every fleck of colour, and it is just startling the brightness of the colours; this sentence reminded me of that photo.

Moving on to the next line, this is just incredible. I love the “roundy” wells (there’s a new adjective coined by Hopkins) and the way he communicates the essence of a stone by saying that it “rings” as it tumbles over into the well. You see, the essence of the kingfisher is expressed as he “catches fire,” and the dragonfly’s as he “draw[s] flame”. The stone “rings” and then (I think this is my favourite part of the whole poem) “each hung bell’s/ Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name”; the bell expresses its essence as it gongs. This is the bell speaking its name, saying “What I do is me, for that I came”. I just adore this first half of the sonnet. Hopkins tells us that “Each mortal thing” does the same thing — the thing it was born to do, the thing it has come to this earth to do. And here we find the first new verb that Hopkins coined in this poem: “Selves” (in this poem, ‘to selve’ seems to mean to express and embody one’s essence).

In the second half of the poem, Hopkins goes further (“I say more”). He says that, in the same way as the kingfisher and the dragonfly, the stone and the bell have their essence to express, their purpose to fulfil, “the just man justices”. This is the second verb coined by the poet in this piece: ‘to justice’ means “to act in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – /Christ”. I think this is just a beautiful expression of God dwelling in every person; Christ “plays in ten thousand places” — he is everywhere. The phrase “lovely in limbs” I think refers to the fact that, according to Christianity, Christ was God made man. This gives hope to humanity, since God can live within us, “lovely in eyes not his”. God’s essence can find expression through “the features of men’s faces”.

I think this is an incredible poem, and that it can be appreciated whether or not you are of a Christian or spiritual bent. To me, it is perfectly crafted and its use of language is an example of real poetic genius.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Wordsworth’s Skates’ by Seamus Heaney

Star in the window.
Slate scrape.
Bird or branch?
Or the whet and scud of steel on placid ice?

Not the bootless runners lying toppled
In dust in a display case,
Their bindings perished,

But the reel of them on frozen Windermere
As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve
And left it scored.

I wanted to post a poem (rather belatedly I know) to pay tribute to the great poet Seamus Heaney, who sadly died very recently. When I heard on the news that Heaney had died I was shocked because he was not so old and because he was so well known, and such a ‘star’ in the poetry world (and there aren’t many of those). I also realised that he is probably the most famous English-langauge poet of recent times, and that, despite that, I have not read a huge amount of his work.

I have long admired his famous, Digging, which has been cited many times on the TV and in articles since his death. I studied his translation of Beowulf at school. However, there is not much else that I have read by Seamus Heaney, and I want to change that.

This poem, Wordsworth’s Skatesis from Heaney’s collection ‘District and Circle’, which I have owned for some time, but never got to grips with. I don’t know why. Anyway, I opened that book today and found this poem, and I instantly loved it. I remember visiting Dove Cottage myself in the Lake District when I was 17 and seeing Wordsworth’s skates on display in the museum there. The poem is such a clever, beautiful description of the poet’s response to seeing those skates.

I especially love the way Heaney uses the image of Wordsworth skating and equates it to the poet’s writing and his legacy. What remains of Wordsworth is not the tatty old skates, with “their bindings perished”, but rather his poetry, which is a far more heroic legacy. You can really see the poetic genius of Heaney in that final couple of lines, which I find just exquisite: “As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve/ And left it scored.” A great poet does “flash from the clutch of earth” — escapes death and the heavy pull of mortality when he creates immortal beauty in a poem. Heaney certainly has left the world of literature “scored” — forever marked — just as Wordsworth did.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘To the evening star’ by William Blake

Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.

 

In my little book of selected Blake, this is the first poem. It is from his ‘Poetical Sketches’. It is a poem to the evening star, which is described in the first line as a “fair-hair’d angel”. This star, that watches over the evening, is addressed as though it were God, or some great Being overlooking the world in its twilight.

For me, phrases like “thy bright torch of love” and “thy radiant crown” reinforce this sense of a deity; this is religious language. It is even the star, according to the poem, who “drawest the/ Blue curtains of the sky”, and brings the evening. Blake continues with his prayer-like language as he invokes the star, asking it to “Smile on our loves”, “scatter thy dew/ On every flower”, and “Let thy west wind sleep on/ The lake”. I love that line about the west wind.

But this star is of the evening, not the night, and “Soon, full soon,/Dost thou withdraw.” Once the star is no longer visible, and it is true night, the “wolf rages wide”, and the “lion glares”… and the speaker’s flock is in danger. Blake ends the poem with a final supplication: since the fleeces of the sheep are “cover’d with /Thy sacred dew”, he asks the star to “protect them with thine influence.”

I think this is just a beautiful poem. You can read it as a shepherd superstitiously supplicating the evening star to protect his sheep in the night, or also as a man asking God (or whatever means the Good [thank you, Auden]) to protect those he loves. I love the image of the wolves and lions being kept at bay by their knowledge that the star is watching them — by the fact that they can see it, bright in the sky, observing their actions. As soon as they do not think that they are being observed — as soon as total darkness falls — they go for the sheep. They become monsters. I think that some human being are like that too; we need to believe that our actions matter — that they are being witnessed, considered, even judged.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

“I know why the caged bird sings“ of Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The poem “I know why the caged bird sings” holds a special place in the creative work of the African-American poetess Maya Angelou. As a matter of fact, this is not just a poem, but a manifesto of a kind, which gave the name to the entire autobiographical book.

Born in the beginning of the ХХth century, Margaret Ann Johnson (this is her real name) made the long way from an oppressed and humiliated African-American kid to a person, who is able to speak on behalf of her compatriots, women, all oppressed ones. The poem “I know why the caged bird sings” represents an opposition of its kind of a free bird and a bird born in a cage, whose wings are cut off and feet are entangled.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing”, – the words of this stanza are filled, on one hand, with oppositions, on the other, with realization of hopeless overconfidence of a free bird, and of hopelessness of the second encaged. In both cases, the result is the same – a bird (as a person) – cannot possess the sky (the world). And each of them is richer in something: the encaged one – in a dream and song, the free one– in flight, but not in a dream about the flight.

One can realize deep senses put by the author into these lines only having learned more of the life and dreams of the African-American poetess. Really, the woman, who came through sexual violence and indifference of the relatives, menial works and prostitution in the youth, on the way to her dream, knows exactly, “why the caged bird sings”. They sing about their dream, but only few of them get chance to realize this dream. And they will have to stain every sinew for reaching the sky.

The final stanza reveals the secret of the song – this is the song about freedom. “The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom”. Is this dream really so unattainable? Bothe the poem and the author’s experience say yes and not. Yes, because it is challenging to achieve one`s freedom, but, if one sings about it, this is the first step from a cage. It is a stepping stone to comprehension free from inside. Not – because the society still holds prejudice against blacks, the poor and other vulnerable people. Both weak and strong perish without having ended a song, without having achieved freedom. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, her colleagues in struggle for civil rights were killed, having paid their price for the freedom of others. Or for a dream and sings of freedom?

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk

“Nothing gold can stay” by Robert Frost

One of the most celebrated poets in the US, Robert Frost holds a unique position in American literature. He was awarded Pulitzer Prize four times – the result that no other man of letters has managed to achieve so far. It was partly due to his long and fruitful life (he died at the age of 88), but what actually mattered was his talent.

From a formal point of view, his poems follow the rules of metrical verse. What make them unique are the reflections concerning New England, its nature and all those things that unite people living there. However, the matter of uttermost importance for the author was philosophy, namely the essential and universal problems of human existence.

At first glance, “Nothing gold can stay” seems just another poem about autumnal nature. Yet even the rather common metaphor comparing fall to the decline of human life is not a chance one, it conveys a personal message. This message is connected with Frost’s own life.

During his long life the poet went through a series of losses: he lost his wife, whom he loved dearly, as well as his four children. Frost’s son decided to take his own life when the Second World War started. Being aware of these facts you become capable of feeling all the tragedy behind the words “Nothing gold can stay”.

The line “Nothing gold can stay” could be considered a response to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65.

“Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold this swift foot back,
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?”.

Robert Frost is universally accepted as America’s national poet and the world’s greatest poet of the 20th century. Why not any other talented poet (there were a lot of them in the previous century)? Why not any other man of letters who wrote about philosophical problems connected with the everyday life?

Time gives the answers to all these questions. The thorough research of Robert Frost’s poetry reveals a whole lot of new messages. Similar to Walt Whitman, he alluded to the Bible and to classic literature. Yet he named mowing and chopping wood among the things he loved to do, in addition to writing poems. He called his poetry a dream, creating the future. Neither contemplating nor prophesying, but creating.

And yet the author writes: “So Eden sank to grief”. This line is connected with his biography. His first marriage was not easy: initially, the woman he loved did not accept his marriage proposal (and this even led him to a suicide attempt), their first baby died. The woman with whom he fell in love with late in his life, refused to marry him, as she was married and loved her husband.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk

‘Spared’ by Wendy Cope

“That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love… ”
Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me,
Up there, two thousand feet above
A New York street. We’re safe and free,
A little while, to live and love,

Imagining what might have been –
The phone-call from the blazing tower,
A last farewell on the machine,
While someone sleeps another hour,

Or worse, perhaps, to say goodbye
And listen to each other’s pain,
Send helpless love across the sky,
Knowing we’ll never meet again,

Or jump together, hand in hand,
To certain death. Spared all of this
For now, how well I understand
That love is all, is all there is.
 

This poem by Wendy Cope is one that she apparently wrote as a response to the atrocities of 9/11. I think it is a really special, beautiful poem and meditation on an unspeakably tragic event.

The poem expresses great sadness, but it is also triumphant; the conclusion of the poet’s musings is that “love is all, is all there is.” I love the inclusion of the quote from Emily Dickinson, as it reminds us that this is not a new revelation, but that the truth that “love is all” is something we have always known. Faced with inhuman acts of violence, we cannot help but feel our sense of love reinforced, because it is our natural reaction to such happenings to feel compassion, and the think about our own loved ones.

I love the way that Cope emphasises the idea of the mortality of each one of us in this poem. In the first stanza she talks about being “safe and free” as a survivor (“It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me”), but then she undercuts this feeling of being “Spared” with phrases such as “a little while” and “for now”; we are all mortal, she reminds us.

What is important in this poem is the love that triumphs over an act of evil. There is a sense of fervent admiration for those who have died, and who continued to love until the end (the “last farewell on the machine” and the “sending helpless love across the sky”, and even those who “Jump together… To certain death”). I also think the poem delivers a strong sense of the desire to make the most of life, particularly with the image of somebody who “sleeps another hour” and so misses a message of love…

I think this is such a touching poem; I hope you enjoy it!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Echo’ by Christina Rossetti

Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.

O dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

This is such a hauntingly melancholy poem by Christina Rossetti. It is a beautiful expression of grief and longing to find a loved one again after they have died. My personal feeling is that this is about a dead child (perhaps it’s something about the “soft, rounded cheeks”), though it could be read with any departed loved-one in mind.

I love the repetition of “Come” in the first stanza (“Come to me”, “Come in”, “Come with”, “Come back”), and the rhyme scheme; all of this makes the poem so enchanting, almost like a self-sung lullaby. My favourite phrase in the whole poem, is “eyes as bright/ as sunlight on a stream”. It’s such a gorgeous image, and the sibilance really makes the words sparkle…

Notice that the speaker begs her departed love to “Come back in tears”. I think that she uses these words because she yearns for her child (or whoever it is!) to come back by any means, so long and she comes back. If the only way to keep her connection to her dead child is to be constantly grieving, or “in tears”, then so be it.

I love the description of Paradise, in the second stanza. Rossetti wrote a lot of religious poetry, and I think that an element of her faith almost always shines through all her poems. I just think that the image of the “slow door/ That opening, letting in, lets out no more” is incredibly stunning. What a wonderful image of Heaven. It is the dream of a place where nobody has to depart — nobody has to die.

In the final verse the poet repeats her “Come to me” and “come back”; she is happy that her loved one is in Paradise, but she still longs to be with them, and she cannot help calling for them. She begs them to return, “that I may live/ My very life again, though cold in death.” I think this is a very significant phrase because it shows us how much this person means to the poet — they are everything: “my very life”! She cannot live herself with this consuming grief. I love the way the poem ends on a nostalgic note: “As long ago, my love, so long ago”. The repetition in this final line is really effective, I think, because it delivers the sense that, though this death happened such a long time ago, the speaker continues to be troubled and consumed by it, and by the absence of the loved one.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot

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 etherized 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!]
Is it 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.

I became obsessed with T.S. Eliot during the year after I left school, and my fascination for his work has continued to grow since then. I remember the first time I read this poem. I was utterly enthralled, though it confused me. I read it over and over, and I’m sure I still don’t understand it entirely. It is a poem about procrastination, fear, the angst-ridden mentality of the modern man, and probably many other things too. Here I’m just going to express some of my thoughts about a poem that I really, really love.

Eliot’s poems are littered with literary references (in the same way that Prufrock begins with an extract from Dante’s Inferno, and goes on to reference Shakespeare, Marvell, and probably others which I’m not well-read enough to pick up on!) These references serve to amplify and support the notions expressed in his poems, though I think they also reflect the often fragmented nature of the modern mind (which Eliot reveals to us here through the voice of Prufrock in his monologue). In The Wasteland, Eliot’s most famous and enduring poem (which contains an enormous amount of untranslated literary references), he states that the modern man “know[s] only a heap of broken images”. I think this statement describes Prufrock perfectly, as his language is made up of reflections and repetitions of things he has heard or read before.

This poem is called a “Love Song”, and yet, from the very beginning, you notice that it is not quite conventional… Prufrock starts conventionally, by asking someone (who I presume is a woman) to go for a walk with him, but then he kills the romance by describing the evening as being “spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table”. This is not exactly a romantic description, and, for me, it sets us up for the feeling that runs through the poem that Prufrock is trapped; later on in the poem he describes himself as being like an insect “sprawling on a pin”, waiting to be inspected or dissected. Prufrock seems afraid, nervous and paranoid.

There is no romance in this ‘Love Song’; Prufrock takes his ‘date’ through “half-deserted streets”, past seedy “one-night cheap hotels”. He tells us that he has an “overwhelming question” to ask, but he keeps putting it off throughout the poem. He keeps procrastinating, but never dares to “force the moment to its crisis”. We never find out what his question is, though I think it’s a question he wants to ask the woman to whom the poem is addressed. Prufrock is so paranoid and fearful and self-conscious that he fears that the woman will reply, “That is not what I meant, at all./ That is not it, at all”. He is afraid that he has misinterpreted or misread the woman’s intentions or feelings or words, and so is afraid to ‘make a move’, as we say.

I love that way that Prufrock keeps telling himself, “There will be time”. He keeps repeating it to himself: “time yet for a hundred indecisions,/ For a hundred visions and revisions,/ Before the taking of toast and tea”. Prufrock is in denial about the passing of time, and he is wasting it on procrastination. As the mention of “the taking of toast and tea” suggests, Prufrock is very much caught up with the trivialities, conventions and material aspects of modern life. Through all his indecisions about asking the woman his “overwhelming question”, and all his wondering “Do I dare?” and turning back to “descend the stair”, he is concerned about his appearance and his clothes. He is worried about his “bald spot”, and the fact that people might notice how his “hair” and “arms and legs are thin.” He is painfully aware and afraid of the consequences that his decisions could provoke.

There seems to be a (falsely) world-weary attitude to his dilemma with the woman, as Prufrock says “I have known the eyes already, known them all”, and “I have known the arms already, known them all”. He is fixated on the individual body parts of women, like a shy person who won’t look at you directly, and he inspects them (in the way he does not want to be inspected, sprawled on a pin), noticing the “light brown hair” on their arms… In this part of the poem it seems to me that Prufrock is, very childishly, convincing himself not to ask the woman his “overwhelming question” because he knows exactly how it will go, and he has ‘seen it all before’. It’s like he’s trying to make us think that he’s been with hundreds of women, and that this woman will be just like the others (which is clearly not true, seeing how he is so afraid, and making such a fuss about asking her a question.)

Prufrock is so afraid to “force the moment to its crisis”, and ask the woman his question, because he is afraid that he has misread her, and that she will “turn toward the window” and say “That is not it, at all./ That is not what I meant, at all”. He has no self-confidence: he wonders what he could possibly say to her — what can he say about his life wandering through “narrow streets”, watching the “smoke that rises from the pipes/ Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves”? His life is so trivial, he feels, and “it is impossible to say just what I mean!”

Prufrock tells us that he is “not Prince Hamlet” — not the protagonist of a story — “nor was meant to be”. He is rather an “attendant lord”. He has only a minor part to play on the world’s stage. He will do to “swell a progress, start a scene or two”, but that’s all. He’s “an easy tool”, and “almost ridiculous –/ Almost, at times, the Fool.” Here we can see Prufrock’s poor opinion of himself, his lack of conviction.

As the poem draws to a close, it becomes clear that Prufrock has not, and will never, ask the woman his “overwhelming question”. Time has passed him by, through all his procrastination: “I grow old… I grow old…” And still, infuriatingly, he is only concerned with trivialities and his appearance: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?/ I will wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach”.

There is a real sense of loss at the end of the poem, as Prufrock states that he has “heard the mermaids singing, each to each”, but adds, “I do not think they will sing to me”. He acknowledges here that there is magic in the world — he has caught glimpses of it in the past — but it it is too late for him now; he is old, and there is no longer any hope that the mermaids will sing to him. There is no hope for the love he once wished to share with the woman he was afraid to ask his “overwhelming question”. Prufrock seems to acknowledge at the end of the poem that he has been living in denial, in a dream — “in the chambers of the sea,/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown”. He was living in a constant dream of an imagined, hypothetical tomorrow, but was never brave enough to take action, to “force the moment to its crisis”. This is what happens if we are forever putting off decisions, deluding ourselves that there will always “be time” for our hesitations and procrastinations. This kind of behaviour leads to a life lived in an imaginary dream world, until reality breaks though — until “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh