Quote of the Day: from ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’
‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’. T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.
This is one of my favourite quotations for a few reasons. I identify with it, and also not at all. The idea of measuring a life is interesting; it allows you to question how you yourself measure your own life. Is it ironic? Is it poignant? Does it convey the meaninglessness of existence? The idea that a simple line of a poem such as this can draw such questions is a wonderful one, to me. Of course, there is an aesthetically pleasing element to the quote. ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.’ It sounds literary, odd, opaque. To a coffee-drinking modernism-reading student such as myself, it can simply be a romantic statement that makes us feel as though we know something about T.S. Eliot, that he shared our lust for caffeinated beverages. There is also something about the line in relation to the poem as a whole. The poem is a ‘Love Song’. A love song that incorporates lines such as ‘Like a patient etherised upon a table’, ‘The muttering retreats/Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels’ and ‘I know the voices dying with a dying fall’. The poem even ends with the words ‘and we drown’. Interesting choices of words, T.S., for a love song.
The lines preceding ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ speak of immense regularity of routine: ‘For I have known them all already, known them all – / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons’. This routine is further ingrained in the word ‘measure’. To measure out ones life entirely with coffee spoons. This is a highly abstract idea, as it invokes the notion that life is something tangible, to be measured. However, there is a converse irony that mists the statement. To attempt to measure life, of all things, with something as trivial as a coffee spoon could be a foolish ideal of how life is and how it is supposed to be distributed out in some sort of resolute way. There is an expectation of society, especially high society, that is reminiscent of a lot of Modernist literature, not just T.S. Eliot’s work. This aspect of society is measured, collected, poised and graceful. Affairs go under the radar, marriage is painted onto people’s faces and actions and religion are hidden behind to class oneself higher than others. This could be a careful mockery of the measured lives presented by most people, the projection of the life they have manufactured for the eyes of others. It suggests that perhaps our dear Thomas Sterns doesn’t care as much as he ‘should’, that he is rejecting notions of existence as portrayed by others.
Although, there is another aspect to why I like it. Coffee. If there is one thing I do every day without fail, it is drink coffee. There is a certain amount of romanticism that I have associated with it: getting up with the rising sun and sitting outside with a coffee, a cigarette, a book, listening to the early morning sounds that don’t usually include people. Coffee is a big part of my day-to-day life, so reading it within a poem that I love gives a sense of comfort, a sense that I am not alone in my love of something so trivial, perhaps, of coffee.
It’s difficult to walk down a street today without stumbling upon a coffee shop; there are late night cafés, pubs, restaurants, Waitrose, machines in libraries, shops, student accommodation. Coffee wakes us up, it warms us, it allows us a £2.50 divergence from the day, a conversation out of the cold.
T.S. Eliot is one of my favourite poets, and Prufrock is definitely my favourite poem of his. I’d definitely recommend reading it: he had a wonderful skill of weaving words around his pages. When I found the quotation, I felt that my nostalgia and sentimentality for coffee was reaffirmed. I felt that I could read poetry and understand it better, as it is okay for every understanding of poetry to be different.
I’ll leave you with this question: ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’