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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Practical Cats and Poetic Tempo

The other day I gave myself a treat and reread one of my favourite volumes of poetry: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot.  I can’t remember when I first read this and I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it (certainly well into double figures by now) but it always gives me great pleasure to return to it.  As with all good poetry, I think it works best when read aloud so that you can enjoy the sounds of the language.

I would struggle to choose my absolute favourite from among these poems, but there are several I’m particularly fond of.  One of these is “The Old Gumbie Cat”.  I particularly like this one because of the masterful way that Eliot uses a mixture of two different meters to signal changes in pace within the poem.

By day, the Gumbie Cat likes to do nothing more than sit in warm sunny places and the stanzas which describe this (numbers 1, 3 and 5) are written in iambic octameter (i.e. each line has eight feet, each with two syllables and the stress on the second one).  The length of the lines and the even distribution of stressed syllables makes this quite a leisurely meter which well captures the general relaxation of the cat’s lifestyle:

I have a Gumbie cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;

Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.

All day she sits upon the stair…

In addition to the meter, the last line of each of these stanzas makes repeated use of the word “sits” to emphasise the laid-back nature  of the Gumbie Cat:

She sits and sits and sits and sits – and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat.

By contrast, the even numbered stanzas describe the Gumbie Cat’s rather more active night life.  At this point the meter switches to using mostly dactyls (feet with 3 syllables and the stress on the first one):

But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done,

Then the Gumbie Cat’s work is but hardly begun…

In these first two lines from stanza two, the very first syllable of the first line is unstressed as are the first two of the second line (which effectively complete the final dactyl from the previous line).  The combination of shorter lines (roughly twelve syllables instead of 16) and the dactylic stress pattern give a much greater sense of movement which reinforces the description of the Gumbie Cat’s nocturnal busyness.

Incidentally (and possibly the reason why I was particularly sensitive to the meters this time I was reading Old Possum), I was recently trying to get my head round Dactylic Hexameter, the meter used throughout Homer’s poetry (and apparently the most common meter in ancient Greek poetry – possibly due at least in part to the major influence Homer had on later poets).  In ancient Greek verse, the feet determine the length of syllables instead of the stress pattern (long/short rather than stressed/unstressed) but the shape of the feet is essentially the same.  As the name suggests, dactylic hexameter consists of six feet per line.  Most of the feet are dactyls but some are spondees (two syllables, both long / stressed); in particular the final foot is always a spondee.  I cobbled together a line of dactylic hexameter (in English) which demonstrates the meter and describes the feet:

This is a dactyl and this is a spondee; here is another.

Apart from the final foot, which is always a spondee, there is more-or-less complete flexibility about which feet are dactyls and which are spondees, which allows for quite considerable variation of the rhythm within the confines of dactylic hexameter.  I’m not sure whether it’s required to have at least one dactyl in the line or whether a line consisting solely of spondees would be allowed.  So far the most spondees I’ve seen in a single line of Homer is 5 (which happens as early as Iliad 1:3).