Your mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,
London has swept about you this score years
And bright ships left you this or that in fee:
Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you — lacking someone else.
You have been second always. Tragical?
No. You preferred it to the usual thing:
One dull man, dulling and uxorious,
One average mind — with one thought less, each year.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
You are a person of some interest, one comes to you
And takes strange gain away:
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion;
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale for two,
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else
That might prove useful and yet never proves,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
Idols and ambergris and rare inlays,
These are your riches, your great store; and yet
For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things,
Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff:
In the slow float of differing light and deep,
No! there is nothing! In the whole and all,
Nothing that’s quite your own.
Yet this is you.
I love Modernism because all of the change—the Second Industrial Revolution, urbanization, World War I, and World War II, Prohibition, the Great Depression—seems so universal in the Western world, and so obviously reflected in the literary world. Prose writers are very transparent about the changes; Virginia Woolf wrote in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” and Willa Cather wrote in the preface for Not Under Forty that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.” But the poets are much more subtle.
I spend a lot of time reading and teaching T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which in some ways is the perfect portrait of the Modern man (“Portrait d’Homme”?): feckless, indecisive, insecure. But Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” is an interesting opposite, with the Modern woman “our Sargasso Sea”: shoreless. The woman is sought by “great minds” but she’s alone—and not unhappy: “You preferred it to the usual thing:/One dull man, dulling and uxorious,/One average mind — with one thought less, each year.” To be sure, the speaker of the poem concludes that the Modern woman—the “femme” of the poem—still has “Nothing that’s quite your own.” But she seems to have some choice to avoid the “one dull man” and “one average mind.” And that’s a big change from earlier years—and an even bigger change from what the Modern man becomes.
Anyway. Read this poem and then check out “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Eliot and Pound were two of the most influential poets in all of the twentieth century, and their poems are worth your time today or any day—even despite their personal biases.