It only struck me today, almost half a century on from reading this line in T.S Elliot’s 1915 poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, that there is more than one way to measure with coffee spoons.
I had always assumed that it referred to measurement by length. Spoons from the coffee drunk during the day, laid end to end in a surreal contemplative performance of the emptiness of routine.
Probably three of them.
The parameters of a small and narrow domestic life. Probably lonely. Personal coffee spoons. Laid end to end in a journey to nowhere very much.
At the time I first read the poem, 1971, measuring quantity with coffee spoons wasn’t an activity that allowed comparisons to be made. Coffee was measured in a very limited and regular way.
One spoon of Nescafe instant.
Never any variations. An iron law. Always the same.
In the 50’s it had been one spoon of Camp Coffee (which – being an evil chicory beverage the colour and consistency of Worcester sauce – was neither coffee nor, indeed, camp).
Measuring by quantity implies real coffee. Lovingly spooned into a cafetiere by someone middle class imagining themselves to be an artisan, carefully curating depth, colour, aroma; an activity salvaged from pointlessness by becoming a ritual of superficial class mobility.
Not that that journey has been far.
And why coffee spoons not teaspoons? Teaspoons would be more prosaic, everyday, common – especially in 1915. The word also sounds too short and sharp, like a hammer hitting a nail. Tea! Too definite. No room to breathe or contemplate. A clipped clink that is just too precise. A “just get on with it” sound. The word coffee sounds like someone slowly smoking; inhaling and exhaling with a whiff and a rasp, staring at the smoke coiling lazily towards a stained sepia ceiling.
It also has two syllables.
Prufrock, though, was measuring his life in small domestic measures during the First World War; in which other men’s lives were measured in yards of No Man’s Land, the length of a coil of barbed wire, the number of paces in a forced march to the front, the slow dying fall of a flare in the night, the inches of sludge drowning duckboards at the bottom of a trench, the last choking breaths after a gas attack.
And so, to the shell shocked silence of peace.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;