Reading this poem, I could not help but notice the progression it seemed to follow, beginning with adolescent lust and visits to “one-night cheap hotels” moving to a more sophisticated lifestyle with toast, tea, cakes, and the loss of the speaker’s hair then progressing to a period where the speaker becomes much more philosophical about his life experiences and feels misunderstood by repeating the lines “That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.” To conclude the poem, the speaker seems to become detached from reality, almost schizophrenic.
To summarize, the theme of this poem is the different periods of a person’s life. Starting with youth, then adulthood, then feeling out-of-touch with the next generation, finally ending up old and having given up on trying to relate to the younger generations.
The part of the poem which stuck out the most to me was the final four stanzas. The speaker is focusing on describing the sea and the “mermaids” therein. I do not fully understand what they are intended to represent. I am thinking they could represent death. They sing their sirens’ song to attract the old man to come closer to the sea in a hypnotic way. He cannot pull his eyes away from them “till human voices wake us, and we drown.” I would be interested if anyone else has any different interpretations for what Eliot is intending for the mermaids and sea to represent in the piece.