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June 01, 2012

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”


“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by the American-born British poet T.S. Eliot, is one of the most famous poems of the 20th Century.

It was first published on June 1, 1915 by Poetry magazine, an influential Chicago-based journal read by literary luminaries and poetry buffs in both America and Europe.

Although critical reception of the poem was mixed, it launched Eliot’s career as a poet and gave him initial visibility that grew to worldwide fame with publication of his other early masterpieces of modernist verse: “Gerontion” (1920), “The Waste Land” (1922) and “The Hollow Men” (1925).

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was included in Eliot’s first book of collected verse, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917).

It remains one of his most best-known poems and contains several passages found in many books of quotations.

One of those oft-quoted passages comes from the beginning of the poem:

       “Let us go then, you and I,
       When the evening is spread out against the sky
       Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

In literal terms, an evening spread out like an anaesthetized patient makes no sense.

But, like much of the verse Eliot wrote, it evokes an image that works memorably as poetry.

As the poem proceeds, it becomes apparent that the character speaking is an old man who seems disillusioned, lonely, bored and unhappy.

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” he says in one of the poem’s most famous lines. (Sometimes misquoted as “I have have measured out my life in coffee spoons.”)

Other passages express the old man’s haunting feeling that life and love have passed him by and that he may have let them pass, by settling into a humdrum existence.

In another oft-quoted part of the poem he says:

       “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?

The poem ends, gloomily, with these final famous lines:

       “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.”

Eliot’s poetic trip inside an old man’s mind in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was not based on his personal experience.

He was only 22 years old when he began composing the poem in 1920 and only 26 when it was first published.

I suspect that, in part, the poem reflects the sense of dread many young people feel when they realize they might reach old age without having pursued their dreams, without ever having found true love, without escaping the sometimes soul-crushing limitations imposed by society and the need to make a living.

As Eliot reached middle age and beyond, his work became less gloomy.

His even wrote comedic plays and a book of whimsical poems about cats titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (the basis for the hit Broadway musical Cats).

Eliot’s last well-known poem, published in 1959, suggests that, after an unhappy first marriage, he found happiness with his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher.

It’s a romantic, almost sappy bit of verse titled “A Dedication to My Wife” that has become a popular wedding poem.

Apparently, Esmé helped Eliot escape the lonely fate of his character J. Alfred Prufrock.

When they wed in 1957, she was 32. He was 68.

To which I say: good for you, old man.

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Further reading: about and by T.S. Eliot…

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