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Sea songs and waking dreams

A regular complaint of friends about work is that they do not know what they are doing. How are we to know what we are doing, except by experience? It seems a waste that generation after generation goes on learning things anew when so many of the lessons have been learnt so many times before. Yet, these things can only be discovered by effort, perhaps through books – the aggregated experience of many – but effort and experience nonetheless. Orhan Pamuk: “Once upon a time there was a young prince who dedicated his whole life to discovering who he was and what he discovered was his whole life.”

This is the subject of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. A poem that captures the pretentious uncertainty of modern man, lurching forward with certainty, holding back with self-restraining fear: “Oh do not ask what is it? / Let us go and make our visit.”

Through Prufrock, Eliot grapples with western man’s place in the world. Eliot’s frame is literary, granted, but his is a beautiful elucidation of the by turns grandeur and pretension, by turns humility and terror with which we orient ourselves in our jobs, our families, our countries: “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.” That progression of thought – that petty hauteur, born out of fear, out of strength, out of need – is balanced deftly in lines as these: “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 out my coat, and snicker, / and in short, I was afraid.”

Perhaps his message is a simple one, though his poem is certainly not: man’s path is a wandering and uncertain one to tread,  do not linger long in dream – press on: “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.”

The Editors

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