A conversation with friends last night about memorable coffee experiences made me think of Prufrock: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” J. Alfred Prufrock is the archetypal tragic modern: the small man whose woes are the greater for being small. Neurotic, unromantic, entangled in social minutiae - one can imagine him being played by Paul Giamatti or Steve Buscemi. In his “Love Song,” women pass him by and mermaids don't sing for him. The poem itself, 131 lines of it, is an exposition of his unfitness for poetry. Yet somehow it manages to be one of the greatest poems of the last century; another conundrum for the mind grappling with greatness. It's awfully long - testament to Prufrock's ironic egotism - so I'll just post a couple of extracts, picking up the thread a good way through.
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?
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.