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In June 1969, George Starbuck published the following double-dactyl in The Atlantic:

SAID

J. Alfred Prufrock to
Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,
“What ever happened to
Senlin? Ought-nine.”

“One with the passion for
Orientalia?”
“Rather.” “Lost track of him.”
“Pity.” “Design.”

"Prufrock" would be the weltschmerzing character in T. S. Eliot's titular poem. "Mauberly" would be the similar character in Ezra Pound's titular poem. "Senlin" appears to be a recurring character in the work of Conrad Aiken derivative of these.


I'm trying to understand the allusions in this poem. Is Prufrock's question to Mauberly supposed to suggest Senlin disappeared? What is "Ought-nine" (if it's a year, I can't see how since Aiken seems to be known for work decades after 1909)? Is Senlin supposed to be passionate for "Orientalia"? (And what work might that be in?—I didn't catch it in e.g. "Morning Song of Senlin")? And losing track of him—I suppose that's an implication Senlin is a bad enough character he should be forgotten?


(Note: I am encouraged to include a tag for the author, but the obvious tag name "george-starbuck" doesn't yet exist, and I cannot create it. Much obliged if one is created and added to this post on my behalf.)

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Senlin is a mythical figure from Conrad Aiken's long 1925 poem Senlin: A Biography (of which Morning Song of Senlin is just one section). Senlin appears mysteriously out of nowhere at the beginning and vanishes just as mysteriously into nowhere at the end. This would explain the dialog:

“Lost track of him.”
“Pity.” “Design.”

There is one section of the poem that deals with Senlin's interest in ancient Egypt, which might be the inspiration for "the passion for Orientalia".

And finally, for the "ought-nine", I only have a guess. Maybe Prufrock and Mauberly went to college together, and Senlin was with them, in the class of '09 (well before their poems were published). Asking "whatever happened to ..." is stereotypically something that old college classmates do when they get together. This scenario doesn't actually make much sense in the scheme of things, but it is funny, which is probably more important in this context.

Evidence from the poem for these assertions is given below.

The last section of Aiken's poem, where Senlin vanishes mysteriously, reads:

Senlin stood before us in the sunlight,
And laughed, and walked away.
Did no one see him leaving the doors of the city,
Looking behind him, as if he wished to stay?
Has no one, in the forests of the evening,
Heard the sad horn of Senlin slowly blown?
For somewhere, in the worlds-in-worlds about us,
He changes still, unfriended and alone.
Is he the star on which we walk at daybreak,
The light that blinds our eyes?
'Senlin!' we cry. 'Senlin!' again . . . no answer:
Only the soulless brilliance of blue skies.

Yet we would say, this was no man at all,
But a dream we dreamed, and vividly recall;
And we are mad to walk in wind and rain.
Hoping to find, somewhere, that dream again.

And "the passion for Orientalia" could be referring to section I:6 of the poem, which begins:

Rustling among his odds and ends of knowledge
Suddenly, to his wonder, Senlin finds
How Cleopatra and Senebtisi
Were dug by many hands from ancient tombs.
Cloth after scented cloth the sage unwinds:
Delicious to see our futile modern sunlight
Dance like a harlot among these Dogs and Dooms!

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