This is the first of two Valentine's Day 2012 poems. This piece of writing provides a quite personal perspective for the occasion and will, therefore, only appeal to a few of the internet's 2 billion users and its 280 million sites.-Ron Price, Tasmania ------------------------------------------------------- The love song of j. alfred prufrock
A poem which is often the first in a collection of T.S. Eliot's Collected or Selected Poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was conceived in 1910, completed in August 1911, the very month 'Abdu'l-Baha began His first Western tour. It was published in 1917 at the same time as 'Abdu'l-Baha was penning His Tablets of the Divine Plan. This work of Eliot could be seen in terms of a comparison and contrast with the Baha'i experience in the last century.
To put this idea a little differently, I could view my own life and the life of my religion and society in terms of the varied images and metaphors Eliot uses in his famous poem. The following essay plays with this poem of Eliot's, with my own Baha'i experience over some 60 years and with my understandings of life and society. -Ron Price with thanks to T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T.S. Eliot: Selected Poems, Faber and Faber, London, 1988(1954), pp.9-15.
The poem begins:
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question….. Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?' Let us go and make our visit.
There is intensity here, pathos, fragility, even a certain comic tone. At least that's how I read the poem. And while it has not been the experience of every Baha'i all the time, these opening lines capture, at least for me, some of the essence of what has happened to me in my life, in the Baha'i community beginning as a pre-youth in 1953. The poem has no narrative progression, no organized geography, but is characterized by a dramatic interior monologue in the mind of a single man.
I think the reason I identify with the poem so strongly after more than half a century in a religion with an important role to play in the unification of this planet, is that I find that T.S. Eliot is describing so much of the world I have had to deal with, first in Canada until 1971 and then in Australia until the present time, the 21st century.
I first came across the poetry of Eliot in 1962 in my final year of high school, right at the start of my pioneering life. Frankly, at the time, I found Eliot just about incomprehensible but, then, so had millions of others who had tried to decipher his poetry in the previous half-century. But now, in the early years of my retirement from teaching, after teaching and studying English literature occasionally in the last forty years and after some two decades of a serious study and writing of poetry, Eliot seems strangely, subtlely, curiously, complexly, relevant.
Let us go then, you and I, Eliot opens his poem and so I did, so we did, myself and the Baha'i community, at the start of what you might say was the second generation of pioneers in the context of the Plans. I was young, just eighteen 'when the evening was spread out against the sky.' Little did I know, then, as I know now, that the world around me was a patient etherized upon a table. Of course, the world was many things but it was also that etherized patient we find at the start of Eliot's poem. If I had read the Baha’ Writings more, then, if I had studied Eliot's poetry beyond The Waste Land in 1962, under the tutelage of a sensitive and imaginative teacher, I would have realized that the world I was entering in that springtime of my life in my late teens was asleep. Baha'u'llah had told me so in a passage from the Kitab-i-Aqdas, but I was busy just trying to make the academic grade and connect with the opposite sex.
Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Bob Dylan had arrived on the scene; we were going to outer space; the population was moving quickly toward four billion; TV was in its second decade of information dispensing and entertaining us to death; the sixties looked busy both then and in retrospect, but Baha'u'llah had told me, among other things, that the world was asleep. And Eliot's poem Prufrock reinforces this idea through the use of a subtle but quite graphic metaphor defining the world as a patient etherized upon a table.
Eliot wrote his poem as the old order on which Western civilization was based was about to collapse in the holocaust that was World War 1, as a great tempest was blowing through its soul and shaking it to its very foundations. That old order is still undergoing a process of collapse and a tempest is still blowing. Eliot's words still resonate a hundred years after they were first conceived. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Eliot describes both the committed and uncommitted mass of human beings that I have been trying to teach for as long as Moses was in the wilderness.
Prufrock is paralysed, the world is asleep, there is little movement toward the great transforming Revelation except by a discouragingly meagre few, and so we could see our lives as measured with coffee spoons, as if we had spit out all the butt-ends of our days and ways and as if we scuttled across the floors of silent seas. Eliot's depressing metaphors are useful to describe our experience. His metaphors reflect our experience, the experience Eliot is conveying to us in his poem. But this reflection is only partial, at the low end, the sad end, sometimes the realistic end. Thankfully that is not all. There is more to the meaning of life since 1917 than Eliot conveys in Prufrock.
The problem of communication between souls seems fraught with problems or, as Eliot writes in the poem, That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all. To teach someone one must penetrate their soap bubble, their subjective space. Eliot uses endless metaphorical language and I'm sure the meaning I find in Eliot's metaphors will not be found by everyone, maybe only by a few. That is part of the beauty of poetry. He writes in the last lines of this 130 line poem, Prufrock:
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.
Prufrock tastes of some visionary experience here in the world of his imagination, perhaps in his dreams. The futility of life seems, for the moment, to disappear. Something of life's activity wakes Prufrock, wakes this same mass of humanity I have been working with, planting the seeds of this new Revelation. He is confident about a great deal in life, symbolized by his white flannel trousers; he knows where he is going, at least temporarily, to walk upon the beach. He has been granted some intense sensory experience: I have heard the mermaids singing. But, for some reason, he does not think that they will sing to him. He has lost hope even though he sees them riding seaward on the waves. Perhaps he heard, for a few instants, 'Abdu'l-Baha penning His immortal Tablets of the Divine Plan. Perhaps this was the source of the mermaids singing.
J. Hillis Miller writes that "Prufrock's infirmity of will is not so much a moral deficiency as a consequence of his subjectivism." Eliot has put it thus:
And indeed there will be time …….. And time for all the works and days of hands Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred decisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo
David Spurr writes, in his analysis of this poem, that the poem's language conveys a disordered experience, expresses an imprecision and aimlessness, with speakers trapped inside their own excessive alertness. Their shy, cultivated and overly sensitive awareness seems to be part of the poem's very fragmentation and the world we have to deal with, certainly the one I've dealt with for nearly fifty years.
My experience has not been the same as Prufrock, but the poem speaks to me and to some of the struggle I have had all the way back to the 1950s. A great deal has happened in those last six decades, a great deal of conflict, confusion. In teaching the Cause I have often:
…………gone at dusk through narrow streets And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?….
………… ………..I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, ……….. I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker
There are so many lines I could include here. But I leave this exercise to the reader. Eliot may be worth re-examining, having a second look at, if you ever looked at him at all; he may be worth reading for the first time, if his words and lines have never crossed your eyes. He may just speak to you for the first time, a poet who for some was one of the twentieth century's greats.
married for 45 years, a teacher for 35, a writer and editor for 13 and a Baha'i for 53(in 2012)
This is the 2nd of my Valentine's Day 2012 poems. This piece of writing provides a quite personal perspective for the occasion, as did the first of my Valentine's Day pieces above. This prose-poem will only appeal to a few of the internet's 2 billion users at its 280 million sites. I trust some of the Baha'is enjoy this prose-poem's synchronicity.-Ron Price, Tasmania ------------------------------------------ GETTING IT OFF
In April 1937 Vivien Leigh, one of the most popular actresses of the 20th century, had been in a rapturous sexual relationship1 with Laurence Olivier for nearly two years. At the time both of them were married to someone else. Olivier was a major actor-interpreter of Shakespeare for his time. Leigh had just begun her acting career. In that same month, April 1937, the Baha’i teaching Plan opened. Leigh moved in with Olivier 8 weeks later. And so began one of the famous romances of the twentieth century. Leigh had the intuition, some time in May of 1937, after reading Gone With the Wind which had won the Pulitzer Prize that year, that she would play the part of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie Gone With the Wind. And so she did: on Christmas Day 1938 she was offered a contract for the part. And so began her life of Hollywood fame.
In 1932 Vivien Leigh had married. She was not yet 19. That year, the Greatest Holy Leaf, the sister of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, died. She was, it could be said, the last treasured remnant of the Heroic Age of the Baha’i Faith. Shoghi Effendi, who had himself married several weeks before the outset of that Plan, referred to this sister of Baha’u’llah as “the treasured Remnant of Baha’u’llah.”2 The Heroic Age had drawn to a close and, with 1932, its last remnant was laid to rest on Mt. Carmel. Nabil’s Dawnbreakers, the history of that Heroic Age, was also published that year. That great Heroic Age had, indeed, ‘gone with the wind,’ as the novel of 1936 by the same name put it. –Ron Price with appreciation to 1Michael Sauter, “Love Lives-Laurence Olivier & Vivien Leigh,” Internet Site, 2005; and 2Shoghi Effendi, Letter From Shoghi Effendi, July 17th 1932.
They had absolutely no idea that that holy enterprise had also got off. Uninterrupted prosecution yielded many an unimaginable blessing, and it entailed such very far-reaching consequences for our age, and our time, and our very destiny.
The 25th anniversary1 of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to America was not commemorated by these two famous lovers in 1937 as the Heroic Age inevitably slipped into history’s abyss, gone-with-the-wind: as that star-studded, historical cinema epic, the highest grossing film in the then history Hollywood with a record- breaking number of Academy Awards was about to translate the 1000 page Pulitzer Prize winning novel into the most expensive film then produced.2
The American Baha’is in that same month embarked on a sublime historic mission which would release the potentialities with which that enterprise had been so mysteriously endowed far into a future Golden Age which we would never see.
1 1912-1937 2 Gone With The Wind cost 4 million dollars to produce, a record-breaking sum. The use of so may “extras” was a significant cost.