Riding Seaward on the Wave

Returning to sea poetry published during the Great War, but seemingly to have no connection to the conflict: Realised that I had previously overlooked the closing lines of T.S.Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J.Arthur Prufrock ‘ published initially in ‘Poetry’ magazine June 1915, and republished in ‘Prufrock and other Observations ‘ (1917- dedicated to Jean Verdenal , French poet and friend to Eliot who was killed in action at Gallipoli ).

The poem was written in 1911,whilst Eliot was in Munich. Famous for its portrayal of a male sliding into middle age.

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Found an interesting observation from George Orwell’s essay ‘Inside The Whale’, citing how E.M.Forster recalled that in 1917, he was heartened to read such work as ‘Prufrock which was ‘innocent of public spiritedness’ . The angst of a middle aged man realising that he was balding and that girls were no longer looking at him seemed to be a strange poem to want to have published in 1917. As well as being’ innocent of public spiritedness’, to appropriate E.M. Forster’s term, there is no attempt to use a poem to convey what Wilfred Owen would call ‘the pity of war’. ‘Prufrock’ emphasises mundane concerns when the mood of the time had shifted onto a war footing.

Yet Eliot also was displaying an indifference towards the Sea. There is a disconnection between the Mr. Prufrock and the mermaids who will not sing to him. And worth comparing with Lord Byron’s lavish lines in Canto IV verse ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’

” And I have loved thee, Ocean! and  joy
Of youthful sports was on they breast to be
Borne, like they bubbles, onwards, from a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers- they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror-’twas a pleasing fear “…….

Byron displayed a communion of all his senses with the sea, Mr. Prufrock is a polar opposite in being so detached and the poem is a remarkable example of understatement.

A little known connection between T.S.Eliot and ‘Great War at Sea Poetry ‘ appears in his collected letters. with a reference to ‘My War poem, for the $100 prize’.


Now while our heroes at sea

They pass’d a German warship,

The captain pac’d the quarterdeck
Parading in his corset
What ho! they cry’d, we’ll sink your ship!
And so they up and sink’d her.
But the cabin boy was sav’d alive
And bugger’d, in the sphincter.

Letter to Conrad Aitken, 30th September 1914
‘The Letters of T.S. Eliot’ Volume 1 1892-1922 1988
Volume 1: 1898-1922 / revised Edition, edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton

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