“I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
“Do I dare disturb the universe?”
Both lines above come from TS Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. In the 130 line poem Eliot explores Life from the depths of the ocean floor where one scrabbles out a living on ragged claws to the heights of the universe and the immensity of Life that resides in between.
Uhm. Okay. At least that is what I see and think when I read it.
Unfortunately <or fortunately> I am no literary expert and therefore do not have the ability to tear his writing apart evaluating what they call ‘literary allusion’ <… pulling from Donne, Dante, Shakespeare and Marvel to Chaucer, Hesiod and the Bible. A reader has to take these allusions on board to get the most out of his poems, though on the surface they are fairly accessible>.
Therefore. I can only tell you what I think after I read it. That must mean ‘what is on the surface’ is what I imagine the experts would suggest I am doing. So take what I share with a grain of salt.
Ok. I admit that TS Eliot poems tend to make me think — stark language steeped with cynicism and a hint of urgency driven by desperation, but always with an introspective look at Life.
I believe most of us have an ongoing thread of ‘am I being meaningful’ in Life. It is ongoing from the time we begin wondering what we will do in Life through the moment we step out of school and into the real world and continues as we do what we need to do day in and day out to survive and be the best we can within the circumstances we exist in.
But. I do tend to believe with age we begin to obsess a little more over the whole idea of ‘being meaningful.’
That is what the poem makes me think about. A man looking back on his Life, and at his life, and desperately assessing what could have been.
In my pea like brain the whole idea centers on adequacy.
Adequacy: Equal to what is required or expected but not exceeding it by much. Adequate is suitable to the case or occasion. Nothing to rave about but meets what is needed.
I purposefully chose adequate to share my thoughts because it suggests we have what it takes to do what we need to do in Life, yet, is adequate enough?
Most of us muddle through Life with small glimpses of something bigger. Maybe it is slightly beyond our grasp for some reason we cannot truly understand, but the glimpse remains etched in our minds in such a way we tend to come back to it again and again in our thoughts.
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 my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
Is this what we fear as we ponder our lives?
The arrival could be years away … but it can be seen mocking even from afar. I imagine the thought behind the mocking is found within us in that I was afraid I was not good enough, did enough or been enough of what I could have been. The thought I wasn’t adequate to be anything more than what I was.
There is a self-consciousness with constant introspection and anxiety about mortality and fragility of ‘doing something’ in life.
The poem digs deep into a self reflected desperation, which I don’t see as all consuming, but rather a moment of deep thought. A thought so deep that Life begins to become overcome with feelings of self-consciousness and regret and echoes of a hundred indecisions and a hundred visions and revisions.
The hundreds bombarding you in that one moment.
Luckily we tend to shed these moments well and move on. When we don’t we tend to be haunted.
Are we haunted by the Life led?
Or by the Life which we never led?
Regardless we are haunted. This kind of soul searching for meaning is often simply seeking a richer association with Life than simply scrabbling with ragged claws. And in that search and introspection of adequacy we often seem to dare to peek at unimaginable heights. The heights which we are uncertain we are adequate enough to not only explore but to survive and prosper.
Which leads to my favorite part of the poem.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate,
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
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.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Do I dare to walk among the disdain I expect from the people who talk of Michelangelo?
Am I good enough to accept that I will have my time just as you have yours?
Am I only adequate to use ragged claws to survive the day to day depths of life?
Am I adequate enough to actually dare to do, and be, more .. to actually disturb the universe?
And then there is the immensity of Life that resides somewhere in between.
I tend to believe while we do not dwell on these types of questions most of us ask them of ourselves at one time or another.
Ok. I will admit. It is poems like this that one ponders whether they have made a mark in the world.
Have they done something meaningful or maybe more importantly … ‘am I meaningful.’ And I don’t mean to people <because someone always cares about you> … I mean meaningful to something bigger … Life.
It is only the arrogant who say ‘yes I have.’
The majority of us just wonder.
And there is a discomfort in not knowing.
Discomfort in not knowing if you have not only been adequate or whether you would have been adequate doing more.
Discomfort in not really knowing how ‘big’ we could be.
Discomfort in the belief that our ‘adequate’ made us little.
Discomfort in not really knowing if you could have been better … done better … and made a better difference.
In the end. I gotta tell ya. Having a tombstone read “he dared disturb the universe” would be quite a legacy.
To close. A thought from Marianne Williamson which seems to tie well with the poem.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
Dare to disturb the universe.
To read the entire poem.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – T.S. Eliot: http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/eliot02.html