Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Poetry - Peach Question

Okay, poetry folks.  You all know the moment in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" where he asks "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

What the heck is that about?  I've always wondered.  People nod knowingly, and I just don't get it.

What's daring about eating a peach?


  1. Here's how I discuss the peach in class, though students sometimes have alternative interpretations: Peaches were rare in England then, and probably expensive and unusual fruit. There is also a sexual element a peach (think of Georgia O'Keefe's paintings).

  2. If you read Richard Russo's novel Straight Man, you'll see a lovely use of that line as a metaphor for sex, first, but then the wider question is "Do I dare to experience this sensual pleasure?" The answer is kind of amusing.

  3. Yes, I think it's sex. Cf Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti, where fruit-eating is a barely-concealed metaphor for sex; but also think about children's diets, at the time this poem was written (and just before) -- fruit was seen as a danger to children, a wild pleasure that children shouldn't be allowed to indulge in. (Probably half because it actually was dangerous to consume, given the state of sanitation at the time, and half because of the mores about any sort of pleasure being dangerous.)

  4. I know nothing about the poem, but my first thought was how messy eating a juicy dripping peach can be. Do I dare make a mess? (Probably not the correct meaning, but a thought.)

  5. I think others above have thought about this more thoroughly, and more recently, than I, but my off-the-top-of-the-head answer, without going back to the poem (so maybe somebody else's explanation from when I studied it in great detail in a college how-to-be-an-English-major seminar, or maybe my own interpretation, never voiced -- or, hence, tested/challenged -- until now) is that the point is that eating a peach *isn't* daring; he's just neurotically hesitant about everything.

    Especially given the title (and the connection to Rossetti, which rings true to me*) the possibility of a sexual allusion makes sense to me, and probably could even work alongside the idea that he's neurotically hesitant.

    *I agree that there's lots of 19th-century forbidden-fruit imagery. Besides the obvious Biblical echoes, I think there's an association with other sins, including covetousness (and theft) and greed -- children (and, perhaps more significant, young men) seem to be forever getting in trouble for stealing fruit, and/or getting sick after gorging themselves on too much, or too early (apparently either can give one the runs, or at least an upset stomach). I think it's easy for us to forget that fruit was the/a major source of sweetness for many humans for most of history, probably further into the industrialized era than we realize. And most humans do have a built-in attraction to sweet things. But I can think of several 19th-century texts where a layer of sexual allusion seems to be present, too (for instance, this discussion is making me think back on some scenes in _The Lamplighter_ from a new perspective. I'm pretty sure there's some fruit/orchard stuff somewhere in _Little Women_, too -- though "Transcendental Wild Oats" offers some connections between fruit and asceticism that were also current, in the form of Graham diets and such).

  6. If you look at nineteenth-century texts, there's all kinds of health-related anxiety about consuming raw or unripe fruit (e.g., Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, the poster child for nineteenth-century health anxiety, believes that apples are only "wholesome" if they're baked). Like delagar mentions, it was probably genuinely dangerous prior to modern sanitation, but I also suspect that fruit got blamed for all sorts of illnesses that we'd now blame on something else. (Zachary Taylor's death was blamed on cherries; most of us nowadays would be more suspicious of the milk or water he consumed with them.)

    And, yeah, the sex / sensuality thing too.

  7. Oh God, I'd forgotten Mr. Woodhouse and the apples.

    I love Mr. Woodhouse to death. He's so adorable.

  8. We were taught it was indigestion. But we were also taught that everything is either about sex or death, so it's probably the sex thing.

  9. I can tell I'm not a literature person because I had NO thought of sex until reading this thread and I love and reread my complete Eliot regularly. It never seemed odd to me, though - I have three options, all linked to the frailty and cautiousness of Prufrock - it's a poem to me about someone who has always been 'middle-aged' - cautious, bounded, observing and overthinking, on the edge not in the middle, and so the peach was either going to be embarrassing/messy, risky to dentition (skin stuck around fragile teeth or under dentures, or unexpectedly catching the stone as one bites, which can be scarily uncomfortable for those of us who worry about teeth, which is perhaps a particularly English preoccupation and one which lingers even into our age of excellent anaesthetic and antibiotics - I worry like this every time I bite into an apple, and I KNOW it's a worry learnt from my mother and her mother, entirely tooth-related), or thirdly a gastric concern (ripe peaches can cause sudden-onset diarrhea). So the phrase summed up beautifully the worry about one's inadequate body, about risk of embarrassment or pain, about overthinking a simple sensual pleasure

    So obviously about sex, except that since I dropped literature studies aged about 16 I didn't ever 'have' to overtly push things to the sex-or-death limits, and actually as a reader and fan, Prufrock worrying over a PEACH is much more touching, more precisely characterising and capturing a state of youth-past, than if it was about sex because sex is quite a big, complicated, life-changing thing which seems WORTH worrying over, whereas even a chronic worrier like me can see that the peach is a small pleasure not objectively worth the concern. It's a beautiful, poignant, thought-provoking line if it's an actual peach, whereas if it's about sex in any way more direct than the usual faint arm-wave towards some kind of generic forbidden fruit allegory we're almost forced to see, then actually it's not such good poetry (to me).

    Also, I thought the peach line was about these tiny worries, and the next lines "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each - I do not think they sing for me" were likening that tiny worry to the much bigger issue in which his self, his worrying and finicketyness, his situation and condition, marginalise him from the dangerous yet beautiful world of sex and relationships - thinking so carefully about lunch, and being on the outside of passion, as a constrasting yet similar pair. So if the peach is about sex, then the mermaids are just repeating that, whereas if it isn't, then the contrast made is thought-provoking and clever.

    But as I said, I'm just a reader, and even if I could ask Eliot I wouldn't want to because poems are not for me mostly about what the writer meant in the moment of writing, but about the way that just the right collection of words and allusions illuminate and fracture and scatter and remake the readers ideas and feelings like a kaleidoscope - making the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

    Sometimes a peach is just a peach?

    1. Apologies for misquotation: ...I do not think that they will sing to me" is I think correct