Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Dirt

This is a brilliant poem. I read it a good while ago, back in those mist-enwrapped undergraduate days - though didn't study it.

I rediscovered it, today (in, of all places, Zbigniew Herbert: Selected Poems. Who'd've thought, eh?) and it reminded me of the following lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
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 ...

Both poems are interested in the dirt. Indeed Herbert has Fortinbras proclaim:
Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
Human clay. That's what it's about. The messy, maleable imperfection as opposed to the wrought, brittle ideal.

Eliot's Prufrock is rather less assertive. He has measured out his life in coffee spoons - has shied away, he supposes, from the real business of life. And pities himself as a result:
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.
Prufrock's rejection of the Hamlet mantle is horrified, self-deprecating. He has never acted, has never been a protagonist, a prophet an instigator. He has not been up to it.

But Fortinbras has it right:
[Hamlet] chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
It is harder to accept the human clay than to shatter the crystal notions.

Thus, while Prufrock's closing words are beautiful yet Romantic and self-deluding (as Eliot is of course well aware) –
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.
– Fortinbras' (also watery) are resolute, honest and have a beauty that rests in more than language alone:
It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

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