10 June 2014

‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons ... a cup of coffee in Lichfield on Saturday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

–TS Eliot, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

The thunderstorm that woke me early on Saturday before dawn and the heavy rains that continued for the rest of the morning put paid to my plans for anything other than a short walk in the countryside near the Hedgehog in Lichfield.

I stepped out a few times in the rain, but spent much of the morning sitting inside reading the morning newspapers and drinking far too many cups of coffee.

I also found myself reflecting on those lines by TS Eliot, first published in 1915, where a frustrated Prufrock wonders whether he has wasted too many mornings, afternoons and evening so that he can ask whether he has “measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

Coffee spoons are pretty small, and life should be as large as possible. If I measured out my life with a coffee spoon it would take a long and tedious amount of time and effort.

This is a monologue from a frustrated and unfulfilled middle-aged man. By evaluating his life with this one-line judgment, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” Prufrock is commenting on the futility of life. He has existed in his current state for far too long, measuring out his life with spoonfuls of coffee, with nothing to show for it.

Prufrock laments his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and his lack of spiritual progress. Now his hair is thinning, his arms and legs are skinny and he draws his coat around his chin, showing his age and how decrepit he has become. He feels a sense of decay, and is aware of his own mortality

If his life can be measured in coffee spoons, then he has done little else to provide a unit of measure; he has spent much of his time simply being social. Prufrock has come to realise his life is pointless and boring. Perhaps he thinks he is impressing whoever is addressed in this poem. But he is really condemning himself, for he merely lives from one cup of coffee or one coffee morning to the next, with nothing interesting in between.

This pathetic man spends his whole life terrified yet distracted and irritated by petty things. He is indecisive about his feelings towards women and towards life, embarrassed by conversation and social contact.

But Prufrock asks questions that offer the essence of this poem:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare’ and ‘Do I dare’ …
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Sitting around on Saturday morning with cups of coffee, and stepping out into the rain, I might have been tempted to think my day was being measured with coffee spoons ... and by drops of rain.

But no, it was a beautiful and blessed morning, and I took the opportunities that were available to enjoy the company I was in, to enjoy the opportunities for those short walks in the countryside in the rain, to enjoy the present as a present ... and to continue to hope to dare to disturb the universe when it comes to more than petty things.

The rain comes down on the vines in the courtyard at the Hedgehog in Lichfield on Saturday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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