A life measured in coffee spoons

Recently, I’ve been getting stuck into the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

As I mentioned  some time ago, his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is one of my favourite works of poetry.  It’s also the part of Eliot’s work that I know best, having read it many times.  I own two printed copies, one with illustrations by Edward Gorey and the other (the standard Faber edition, I think) illustrated by Nicholas Bentley.  Both are fine sets of illustrations (and the two are quite different in style from each other), which complement the poems nicely.

I have also had a copy of Eliot’s Selected Poems (Faber, 1954) for a few years, although I don’t think I’ve read quite everything in there.  This anthology, which was put together by Eliot himself, contains many, though not all, of the poems from his earlier published volumes.  It includes The Wasteland, which is probably his most famous poem.

Quite recently, I picked up an electronic copy of Eliot’s Complete Poems, mostly to get hold of Four Quartets (probably his second most famous work, which I particularly wanted to read after having read about it).  I also got a couple of commentaries on his work, some of which is quite obscure and benefits from a bit of study to understand what it’s getting at (although it is perfectly possible to derive much enjoyment from it without picking up on all, or indeed any, of the references).

Although I’ve mostly been reading my new electronic anthology (with a view to reading all of Eliot’s published poetry before too long), I have been dipping into my dead tree editions as well, mainly for the sheer tactile pleasure of handling real books.  I discovered a couple of passages I had underlined in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, one of Eliot’s earlier poems (dating to around 1918, as I recall) and the source of the title of his first published anthology: Prufrock and Other Observations.  Evidently these underlined passages were the bits which most leapt out at me on my first reading of the poem, several years ago, and they are still amongst my favourite bits of it.

The first is a single line that I find particularly appealing:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

I’m not sure precisely what Eliot had in mind when he wrote that line but, as someone who drinks quite a lot of coffee (and rarely goes for as much as a whole day without at least one cup), I like the idea of somehow using coffee spoons (or rather, the cups of coffee that you make with their aid) as a measure of the passing of your life.

I have no idea how many cups of coffee I have actually consumed in my life.  Based on a rough estimate of 2 cups per day for the last 25 years (since I was about 11), and assuming 365 days per year (i.e. ignoring leap years etc.), it’s something like 18,250 cups.  It’s not uncommon for me to only have one cup in a day (although, as I said, I rarely miss a day entirely) and I have been known to have a lot more than two cups, so I suspect that’s probably a fairly low estimate and it would probably be safe enough to round it up to 20,000.  That’s something to ponder next time I’m lying awake at night.

Anyway, back to the poetry symposium…

The other passage is slightly longer, and is an explicit reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the play, not the character):

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…
Full of high sentence but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous —
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I would guess that the attendant lords in question are probably meant to represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who were such minor characters that Tom Stoppard felt inspired to redress the balance by rewriting the Hamlet story from their perspective in his excellent play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).  This passage is quite apt for someone who used to dream of being famous (and preferably also rich) but is now quite content to live in relative obscurity and does his best not to take himself too seriously.  Not, of course, that I have anyone in particular in mind with that description.

I have missed out a few lines from the middle of that second quote.  If you like the bit I’ve quoted (or even if you don’t), I’d recommend reading the whole of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  This particular passage comes from quite near the end, while the coffee spoon one is near the middle (my edition doesn’t give line numbers and I can’t be bothered to count them).

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