November 2, 2010


I wrote in an earlier blog (9/26/10) that to have value, literature needs to be relevant to one’s life. Even so, I confess that years ago, I had the audacity to teach T. S. Elliot’s, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to 17 year-olds. As the subject of growing old is so far from young minds, I wonder that I wasn’t drummed from the classroom with a barrage of flying paper airplanes in hot pursuit. But I did dare and no one seemed damaged by it. There were smirks of course. As I was in my 30s, my students must have imagined the poem’s apology applied to me. It didn’t of course. In my 30s, I was young though old enough to see the bend in the road clearer than my students.

I confess the poem has more meaning with each passing year. I hope it does to those who were required to study it, most of whom are graying now.

                               I grow old… I grow old…

                               I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

                               Shall I part my hair behind?  Do I dare to each a peach?

As the poem suggests, style is less important as one grows older. Today, I shall wear my trousers rolled or torn or spotted with dirt from my garden if I chose. What’s more I do dare to eat a peach. I have no fear of dribbling its juice and making a fool of myself; and if my hair is not thick as it once was, well, one makes good use of a hat.

What I want to confess is that I got the poem wrong. I see it now that I am old.  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock isn’t about the indignities of aging but about the FEAR of aging. Eliot was 29 when he wrote his poem. I should have thought of that. I should have told my students.

Did I betray them by not mentioning the author’s age? Is it too late to offer one more lesson? Youth fears age; the old take comfort in it. That’s what the young Eliot didn’t know. I wonder how he felt about his poem when he turned 77. Did he really doubt the mermaids would sing to him, or did this Poet Laureate and winner of a Nobel Prize feel certain they would? I think he knew the latter was true.

Neither he nor I nor anyone with a sense of wonder needs fear growing old. There is joy in every stage and if we were lucky enough to be forced to read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when we were 17, we may find more joy when we read again once our hair has turned grey.

Yes, I know I contradict my earlier blog. Life’s is full of contradictions. I should have taught my students that too.