I observe: “Our sentimental friend the moon!
Or possibly (fantastic, I confess)
It may be Prester John’s balloon
Or an old battered lantern hung aloft
To light poor travellers to their distress.”
She then: “How you digress!”
(This blog respects copyright. To read the rest of the poem, try your local library, or elsewhere on the internet – or, if you really like it, buy it.)
We’ve been worrying at a theme the last few weeks, I feel, from Hardy’s respectable Burgher, to the portentous musings of the narrator of Browning’s A Toccata of Galuppi, and that theme is this: men who aren’t as clever as they think they we are (which is most of us , apparently). This time it is the sophomoric gallant young man of T S Eliot’s poem, who peppers his conversation with erudite references and philosophical musings, but is rather cack-handed in his wooing of the girl.
Things start reasonably well for our hero, with the moon, always a good accompaniment to a romantic stroll. Blather about ancient legends and weary travellers, less so. Prester John is a medieval legend, a Christian King in a far away kingdom, whom Europeans dreamed would come and aid them in their struggle with the Arabs and Ottomans. His is an interesting legend – did it originate with the Nestorian Mongols, perhaps, or the Ethiopians, or perhaps the Christians of India? – but what he has to do with the moon or romance is not clear, nor how he could have acquired himself a balloon. The gallant’s musings are both pretentious and childish, and this is reflected in the way very simple rhymes (moon, balloon) vie with more latinate ones (distress, digress). The images he muses on evoke wonder and protection, but by no means can he embody these things. He seems to be getting away with it, however.
Things take a more dangerous turn when the conversation turns to music. There is really only one rule when it comes to enjoying good music: shut the hell up. Our gallant doesn’t know this rule and, rather like the Englishman of A Toccata of Gallupi, attempts to explain the music in words. Instead he insults his date, recovering only by turning the insult back on himself. The gallant’s final gambit is along the lines of “you’re a funny lot, you women,” betraying his frustration somewhat. But his date is tolerant. Maybe he is not wholly doomed, and he might get the girl in the end, though he won’t set her heart alight.
Is there a serious point behind all this? Eliot is having fun with this young hapless wooer, but is his struggle to say anything worth hearing symptomatic of a wider malaise? Does the gallant really think he, or the whole lot of us are vacant? In that case it is no wonder he cannot summon the strength of character to woo a lady. Young men like him – we moderns in general, Eliot may imply – are a sorry lot, dithering Prufrocks, hollow men, the gutless, newspaper reading letzen Menschen that Nietzsche prophesied. Here, as with an Evelyn Waugh novel, however, the pessimism about modern man is all in the background, with the satirical to the fore, as we laugh or cringe at the gallants hapless pursuit of his girl.
I have another couple of Eliot poems to blog about over the coming weeks, but so as not to wear him out, I’ll alternate them with posts on poems on related themes by other poets. Next post we’ll look at an altogether more successful kind of wooing, by, I suspect, an altogether more accomplished wooer.