No poet in memory has ever had quite so spectacular a debut as the young T. S. Eliot when his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was first published in Poetry magazine in 1915, thanks in large part to the good offices of another relatively young American poet, Ezra Pound. As with any other event of great moment in its particular field, hindsight may give an unfair advantage. Certainly the great world did not come to a standstill to witness let alone pay homage to the event of the poem’s publication. Nevertheless, for those who were avid supporters of the revolution in the arts then taking place, the publication of “Prufrock” signaled a turning point in the art of writing American poetry from which there would henceforth be no turning back. While it would be wrong to give either Eliot or his poem too much of the credit for creating a revolution in the art of poetry writing, the fact remains that readers of today do have the advantage of hindsight, so they come to “Prufrock” as a poem whose reputation precedes it—a remarkable feat considering that the work of literature in question is not some ancient text by Homer or Aeschylus, or even a venerable classic from the time of Dante Alighieri or William Shakespeare, but was first composed less than a century ago, when its creator was barely 23.
However, the poem strikes readers as being as fresh and new today as it was when Pound first encountered it, because, among its many other features, “Prufrock” remains a classic example of literary modernism, a work from that period in literary history that prided itself on its capacity for never repeating the same act twice. “Make it new,” Pound’s poetic rule of thumb became the rallying cry for an age of virtually ceaseless exploration, innovation, and experimentation in both the themes and the methods of poetry writing, and it casts some light on the quality of Eliot’s achievement that Pound would famously remark that, with “Prufrock,” Eliot had made himself modern all on his own.
From the title itself to the ominously cryptic ending, in which an anonymous “we” drowns in sea of human voices, the poetry of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” continues to challenge readers’ expectations both of what constitutes poetry and what constitutes meaning. Does this “we,” for example, truly drown in a sea of human voices, or does it drown in some other sort of sea because those voices have awakened it, and if so, from what, and what, then, is that other sea? And why the editorial “we,” anyhow, when it is clear that Prufrock has been speaking till that moment of and for himself? But has he been? The poem opens, after all, with that invitation to “you and I,” a definite “we” again, no doubt, but not one that can be easily identified. Rather, the further the poem proceeds, the more it seems as if Prufrock is speaking to no one but himself, since one of the points that he continually stresses is that no one will listen to him in any case, no matter what he says or does.
Those are just a few of the problems that the poem poses for readers to this day, and yet its enduring reputation as a masterwork of 20th-century literature serves as a reminder that the work endures not because of its critical reputation, which is considerable, or because of its difficulties, which are equally so, but because of its great beauty as a work expressing what Eliot would later call a permanent human impulse. To give that permanent human impulse a body, Eliot would argue, is the function of poetry. Prufrock is just such a body.
How so young and comparatively isolated a poet came to write one of the most famous poems of the early 20th century, itself one of the most productive periods of literary accomplishments and advances in English since the time of Shakespeare, remains something of a mystery. It is not atypical for a perfectly ordinary combination of experiences and opportunities to have an extraordinary result. In the case of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the primary shaping events seem to have been an unusually refined sensibility matched with a high, and highly educated, intelligence and an extremely dry wit. Eliot would later argue that one may never be certain what combination of perfectly everyday activities can nevertheless be altered, in the creative mind, into art, or into what he termed art emotions.
Since Eliot wrote the poem after having spent some time in BOSTON, Massachusetts, and environs as a student, first at Milton Academy and later at Harvard College, it is easy to associate the poem’s social milieu, as redolent of a drawing-room society as it is, with that New England city, renowned to this day for being a socially upright and closed community. (Although it may be that reference, in the opening stanza, to oyster shells that brings a seaside town like Boston to mind.) We know, for example, that while Eliot was not himself a proper Bostonian, having been born to an old New England family but in the comparative wilds of ST. LOUIS, Missouri, the Eliots were a prominent, upper-middle-class family. So Eliot knew a world of morning coats and of afternoon teas and polite conversation about the arts and all the other finer things in life, including well-behaved if not even aloof young women.
Eliot’s would have been a world, in other words, where matters of manners and decorum took precedence over more common human impulses, such as sexual desire, perhaps, not to mention something as simple as the longing for the natural ease of human interaction without the constraints of social proprieties. The young Eliot would himself have inhabited a world where the longing to let one’s hair, and guard, down in formal social settings was very likely frowned on.
The reader must be careful, however, not to associate the poet’s own life too much with the material of the poem. This is particularly true in Eliot’s case, for he spent much critical ink arguing for a separation between the person and the poem. In the case of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is fair to assume that Eliot is dealing with a relatively commonplace theme, and that is, again, the conflicts that are created when natural human impulses for dialogue and community are frustrated by rigid social norms. Where Eliot’s treatment of this thematic commonplace is lifted to a new level of poetic expression, thus making it a modernist achievement, is found in his approaching such a serious, and potentially pretentious, theme from an angle so aslant that the social criticism, real or implied, is obscured by the absurdity of Prufrock’s predicament, and for that Eliot has his education in the literary traditions of continental Europe, rather than just those of Britain and America, to thank.
The young Eliot knew that world of real Boston tea parties, to be sure, but, thanks to the traditions of a liberal education in which he had been taught and to a mother who had an abiding interest in Italian Renaissance culture, he also knew the world that had produced a literary classic such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, from which the epigraph to “Prufrock” would be taken, as well as the world of the other foreign ingredient in this tale of what both nurture and influence can produce in the way of a literary achievement. That would be his near contemporaries, the French symbolist poets, in particular Jules Laforgue, for whom language and learning were as likely to be intellectual toys as meaningful tools. If Eliot had come to know his Dante largely through formal education, he came to know Laforgue and the French symbolist movement in general from a 1908 encounter with a book by Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature.
“Prufrock” the work and Prufrock the personage represent the end of an era and an order, the period from the Revolutionary War to the beginnings of World War I during which Americans, with few exceptions, and those being the very rich and privileged, were by and large isolated from their literary and cultural roots in Europe and glad of it. Eliot implicitly underscores this shift back to a more Eurocentric worldview on the part of young, educated Americans by using a late medieval Italian poet, Dante, to create the atmosphere for the poem’s tone and mood, and by then turning to contemporary French poets, and French thinking in general, to find a more expansive range of poetic language and a fractured and thereby freed poetical grammar in and by which to convey that tone and mood.
Indeed, though he had been experimenting with poetry writing throughout his undergraduate years, Eliot, recently graduated from Harvard, was spending his first year abroad in Paris during the fall of 1910 and well into 1911 when he wrote “Prufrock.” For any young, privileged American of his time and his class, immersion not so much in Europe as in the so-called City of Light, with its Latinate, Roman Catholic roots so alien to Eliot’s Anglo-American, Protestant background and upbringing, and with the French capital’s equally suspect reputation among Americans as a libertine city of sexual and social license also alien to Eliot’s Puritan moral bearings, was a rite of passage not to be ignored or dismissed. Nor should it be forgotten that Paris was also a major cultural mecca for young Americans seeking to overcome the somewhat unpolished rawness of the American experience with a good dose of the sort of sophistication and learning that only the Old World could provide.
This was a particularly exciting time to be in Paris. The social and political ferment for which the French have always been renowned had overflowed into the aesthetic and philosophical realms. On the latter front, Eliot attended lectures at the Sorbonne, studying the work of the French philosopher Henr i Ber gson and the conservative political and spiritual thinking of Charles Maurras. He also struck up a friendship with a young Frenchman, Jules Verdenal, to whom he would subsequently dedicate his first volume of poetry, Prufrock and Other Observations, the title of the volume serving readers notice that this would be a poetry not of personal expression but of impression and reaction. The frenetic literary life of the French capital would also provide the incentive, the catalyst for experimentation and change. We are encouraged to think of literary modernism as a time in which literature, but particularly poetry, renewed itself. But despite the innovative work of Eliot’s American precursors such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, poetry had first renewed itself not in America or even Britain but in France during the latter half of the 19th century.
Eliot was already quite familiar with the work of French poets Arthur Rimbaud, CHARLES BAUDELAIRE, and Jules Laforgue, thanks again in large part to Symons’s landmark study in English on these French symbolist poets. Their new kind of poetry, for the French, focused on the city and on the plight of the intellect, the will, and the spirit of modern city-dwellers, young, sophisticated, and well-educated but nevertheless overwhelmed by impersonal public and social demands in conflict with personal confusions and general chaos—individuals awash in a sea of contending private emotions and desires in a world of bureaucrats and paradox. Uniquely and together, these French poets, far more than either their English or American counterparts, had fashioned a poetic tool that, without sacrificing any poet’s first concerns, which are for language and uncensored self-expression, could comment nevertheless on a culture gone awry. Whatever else may have drawn the young Eliot to the composition of poetry in the first place, he found his mentors in these poets, Laforgue primarily, who seemed, for all their foreignness otherwise, to share his eye for finding the famished soul in the midst of life’s increasingly materialist feast.
Is it any wonder, then, that Eliot dishes up, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem that is like nothing that had ever come before it in English? It is as if the freedom that he was experiencing in Paris combined with the liberating spirit of the times, inasmuch as poetic expression was concerned, and the result was a poem that expressed a yearning for freedom and liberation in the language and settings of all the traditional social and cultural constraints to which Eliot, scion of an old, established, and prominent New England family, had become accustomed.
In conceptualizing “Prufrock,” in other words, Eliot is able to play on his special knowledge as the insider to use the techniques of an outside culture, the French, to criticize the inside culture.
A part of the great irony of the poem is that its speaker, J. Alfred Prufrock, is also an insider whose crisis is created by the fact that he feels like an outsider within his own small if not in fact tight social circle, an individual burdened with an immense social discomfort and riddled with both a fear of failure and a reluctance to upset the apple cart of his own sense of alienation. This doubling effect, precarious though it may be, is used to immense advantage by Eliot throughout the poem, which so perfectly matches topic and technique, for example, that it seems more a poetic exercise than a poetic statement, putting the reader continuously on guard but off his or her game, as it were.
The Title and Epigraph
So pervasive are Eliot’s techniques and reputation by now that readers nowadays fail to realize how startling it might have been to an English-language reader of the time to come across a serious poem by an American poet with a title as silly-sounding as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and an epigraph in a foreign language, its source unidentified, yet one that turns out to be from the pages of the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Inferno— that is, from the depths of hell itself. This literary classic would hardly have been an unknown commodity in academic circles, but given its Italianate, papist leanings, it would hardly have been thought of as mainstream, popular literature. For Eliot to cite it without any other species of textual citation was therefore either a daring or a thoughtless act— unless the very act of leaving his readers in the dark as to the epigraph’s source served the purposes of the direction and the purpose of the original poetry to come.
To appreciate any Eliot poem, at least from the early periods of his career, readers need to understand Eliot’s most transparent literary technique, and that is his ability to mix up the most serious with the most frivolous elements without either warning or much indication as to which is which. For now, however, it is important to observe in that particular mixing of the absurd (Prufrock’s name), with the ominous (an epigraph from a poem about hall) that only someone who knew intimately the life and lifestyle that was about to be portrayed in the poem could so thoroughly and simultaneously both echo and betray that world’s values.
This dilemma is established as early as the poem’s title and epigraph. Readers regarding the title of the poem for the first time undoubtedly come up against a series of expectations that are no sooner set in motion than dashed. Whatever the idea of a love song may be in the most general terms, no one is likely to be thrilled at hearing that it is the love song of a man named J. Alfred Prufrock. Indeed, such a name reads more like something found on a calling card than in the title of an composition as intimate as a love song. Lovers, after all, do not refer to each other by their legal or formal names, unless it is out of some species of skewed affection, nor is a man who goes by a moniker as presumptuous as J. Alfred, with its profound hints of stuffed-shirtedness, likely to give the automatic impression that he should be either the subject or the originator of a love song.
Whatever readers may make of all these troubling matters (even if it is only at that unconscious, subliminal level where Eliot the critic will later say the poem does its real work on us), they have been thrown off guard and invariably puzzled as to what sort of a love song they should be prepared to find as the poem begins. A comic turn or parody? Pretentious nonsense?
Yet, before the poem begins, that strange—in the sense that it is literally foreign—epigraph intervenes. To learn that it is a passage from Dante’s Inferno works against the apparent air of a frivolity that has been established by the poem’s contradictory title. The epigraph also poses a puzzle until its source is identified and its words are translated from Italian into English, and this should be taken as the poet’s (not the speaker, a crucial distinction as far as the dramatic monologue is concerned) warning to the reader to be wary. All is not as it seems.
Once translated, the epigraph may seem enlightening, but even that is only at first glance. Specifically, the words are spoken to Dante, who has made himself the protagonist of his own poem, by a man named Guido da Montefeltro, who is being punished in the Eighth Circle of the Inferno, or pretty deep down in hell, for having given false counsel. These sinners are among the fraudulent in Dante’s scheme of things infernal, and for having abused the gift of human speech to deceive and, so, abused the good faith of others, these particular sinners, Guido among them, are imprisoned forever in tongues of fire, emblematic of speech, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Encountering and recognizing him, Dante wants to hear Guido’s story of how he came to be here among those damned eternally to hell, whereupon Guido, cautious about besmirching whatever good name he might still have among the living, tells Dante, “If I were to believe that I was speaking to anyone who would ever return to the world, this flame would cease to stir any further, but since no one ever returned alive from these depths, if what I hear is true, then without fear of infamy I respond to you.”
Before jumping to conclusions, the reader should be warned that this is a highly textured passage in its original context alone. A quick take on the epigraph, once it has been deciphered, could lead the unwary reader to conclude that the poetry to come that the epigraph is ostensibly introducing should be read in the context of someone who imagines himself to be in hell, or at least a hellish situation. Such a conclusion, while it may have possibilities, would be hasty nevertheless. For one thing, the passage for Dante’s purposes alone is full of dramatic ironies—the speaker, Guido da Montefeltro, is a liar, after all, surrounded in hell by other liars, not to mention the fact that hell’s master, Satan, is called the father of lies. Yet with incredulity, Guido imagines that what he has heard is “true.” Who is he kidding—himself or Dante? For another thing, Guido has figured wrong in Dante’s case. Ironically, the person to whom Guido then proceeds, without fear of infamy, to tell the tale of his treachery turns out, in the fiction Dante has created, to be not only someone who will return to the world of the living but who is also a poet who will then write, in the Divine Comedy, an account of all that he has seen and heard, including, of course, this confession of Guido’s that has been given in the strictest confidence.
Once put into such a complex context of the compounded ironies of the deceiver deceived, the Eliot epigraph from Dante obscures rather than clarifies the coming poetry’s tone or meaning, unless, that is, the reader puts the significance of the epigraph into the broadest possible context. In that zone of reference, the reader is encouraged to recognize two primary principles of human communication: that to be able to understand someone, one must know the language that the other is speaking, either literally (Dante’s Italian) or virtually (class defines language as well, after all), and that one speaks most freely when, like poor Guido da Montefeltro, he feels that he is in the presence of a kindred spirit, another damned soul like himself.
The title and the epigraph to “Prufrock” both have prepared the reader for anticipating a struggle with meaning that will require rethinking interpretive processes of suspicion as well as discovery, because they have also prepared the reader to keep an open mind. In that sense, the opening verses, with their invitation to accompany the speaker on some not yet defined act of discovery, seem quite appropriate, and therefore it is not unusual for commentators to imagine that the “you” who is being addressed is the reader, which would be all well and good except that the poem is a dramatic monologue.
The Dramatic Monologue
Eliot carefully constructs the poem to keep all of its elements working at arm’s length both from him, the poet, and from its readers by using for the poem’s ostensible form the dramatic monologue. As a literary genre, the dramatic monologue had already been put to great and effective use by the English poet Robert Browning within decades of the time that Eliot was writing. Eliot’s is only “ostensibly” a dramatic monologue, however, because Eliot takes liberties and plays games even with the relatively uncomplicated rules governing the structure of the dramatic monologue. Such a poem should have a speaker who is clearly identified as someone other than the poet; here, the Eliot poem fulfills the requirement (as the use of the first-person pronoun “I” implies, unless J. Alfred Prufrock is to be regarded as an alias for Eliot, which is an absurd proposition). The second most critical requirement— that there is an audience within the poem who is also clearly identified—is paid an ironic lip service by Eliot.
With Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” an example of a well-constructed dramatic monologue, a single reading will readily reveal that the speaker is the duke of Ferrara and that the audience is an otherwise unidentified emissary from a count who is apparently trying to arrange a marriage between his daughter and the duke. With “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” however, Eliot only appears to honor this second requirement of the dramatic monologue as well, inasmuch as, in the first stanza, he has his speaker, Prufrock, invite an anonymous “you” to accompany him on a speculative visit involving an “overwhelming question of insidious intent”—but that seems to be the end of it.
As already noted, some take the “you” being addressed to be the reader. In keeping with the requirements of the dramatic monologue, however, the “you” is supposed to be someone to whom Prufrock is actually speaking in a dramatic context, so how can “you” be the reader, one might well ask. Other critical speculation has gone as far as to suggest that that personage is none other than Jean Verdenal, the young Frenchman to whom the volume (but not the poem) was subsequently dedicated and who had died in combat during World War I at Gallipoli. Others yet have speculated that the “you” is Prufrock’s alter ego, the person he would like to be but feels incapable of ever becoming. The only valid conclusion seems to be the conclusion that the text itself inspires, and that is that the “you” can be anyone and therefore is very likely no one—certainly no one in particular. Unlike in the example taken from Browning’s poem, in which all the duke’s remarks are addressed to and, so, governed by his relationship with the count’s emissary, turning readers of the poem into eavesdroppers, a further problem is that this “you” introduced early in “Prufrock” virtually disappears as an effective presence from the scene, or at least from Prufrock’s ken of reference, so that ultimately he or she barely even exists any longer as any sort of controlling factor in the direction that Prufrock’s musings take.
There is one final requirement for the dramatic monologue. In keeping with the idea of its being dramatic poetry, the dramatic monologue is supposed to sound like speech in the act of being uttered. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the abrupt shifts and unexpected turns in Prufrock’s monologue knows that, for all the beauty of the language as it rolls off the tongue, while it may be a model of speech’s natural rhythms, it is not in any way a consecutively coherent commentary. Indeed, it goes out of its way to insist that it is no use to regard it in terms of the logic of a natural language that we have ever heard or encountered before.
Those are the more rudimentary elements of the dramatic monologue. When it comes to the real issue of presenting a speaker whose predicament both engages the reader’s attention and keeps the reader’s interest, however, Eliot again breaks all the rules, such as they are. Instead of an engaging characterization, Prufrock comes through as an unsympathetic character whose main claim to fame, and to his making demands on our attention and interest, is that he is seeking sympathy or lamenting his ability to obtain it. There we have the doubling effect again. One half of the equation—Prufrock is unlikable—cancels the other—Prufrock wants to be liked—leaving readers with the withering sense of a universal naught that seems to have Prufrock in its vague and paradoxically vacant grip.
The charm of a poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is found in its radically altering the traditional focus of poetic composition away from theme, what the poet “means,” and toward gesture, what the speaker is meaning to say, and why. In the truest sense of the word charm, by which is meant the fascination that the poetry continues to hold over readers, from the novice to the most expert and sophisticated, “Prufrock” is charming. But Prufrock himself is not. That that speaker is imaginary makes for a reading experience that is as rich and strange as Prufrock is, as a personage, boring and bland. Indeed, a large part of Eliot’s achievement in the poem is that he makes his readers not only listen to but struggle to understand a man who is telling them that he is so insignificant in his own social circles as to be hardly noticeable, and it is in this very tension, the gap between what the reader is being told and who is telling it so that the language of the poem seems both to separate from and to create reality, that “Prufrock” both finds and defines its distinctively modernist qualities. So, then, the critical principle that has been established thus far, and by which a reading of the poem will now proceed, can be stated as follows: To understand “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the reader must understand the speaker, J. Alfred Prufrock—not what he is saying so much as why he is saying it—and from that angle the poem can be most profitably approached.
Prufrock’s dilemma is not that he is trapped but that he thinks that he knows that he is trapped, and it is that awful knowledge on his part, be it right or wrong, that then controls the confused thoughts and feelings that emerge through his monologue. This dilemma is what philosophers called an epistemological one—an intellectual problem, in which there are conflicts in dealing both what is known and how it has come to be known. If readers cannot easily make sense out of what Prufrock is saying, it is because he cannot make sense of it himself.
As has already been pointed out, Eliot magnifies this kind of a dilemma, for both Prufrock and the reader, by casting the poem as a dramatic monologue. Someone besides Prufrock—that vague and mysterious “you”—has been fixed in the reader’s mind as a key to the solution to Prufrock’s problem, yet the identity of “you” is never clearly established, itself an ironic twist whose effects are impossible to calculate. And yet, too, that “come hither” opening—“ Let us go, then, . . .”—allows the poem to sound rather like a traditional love song, and maybe that is its purpose. There cannot be a love song, after all, without someone or something to love. Aside from the fact that Prufrock’s particular brand of love song will quickly prove to be more a lament for his incapacity or lack of opportunity to love, that opening pitch of his to go to where the evening is spread out against the sky sounds appealing, even alluring enough—until it leads the reader right into the surprise of the disjunctive image that then comes. The invitation does not set the scene of a pleasant summer night but of a patient who has been etherized and is lying on a table, ready for surgery.
So many shocks to the reader’s sensibilities in such quick order cannot be easily overcome, and as any reader of the poem knows, there is no getting back on track from that point on. The reader moves more and more deeply into bewilderment and confusion as the first stanza continues with a sort of relentless onslaught of data that promise much but deliver nothing, so that by its conclusion, any notions of whether this is a love song or questions as to whom the speaker is addressing have been forsaken, not for lack of interest but because they seem to be irrelevant.
Something of real significance has been accomplished nevertheless; the reader knows that he or she is not here to be educated but to listen—as Dante must listen to Guido da Montefeltro. As the reader listens, he or she will begin to hear what needs to be heard, and that, rather than the reader’s assumptions and suspicions, is what will bring him or her, finally, to an understanding of who Prufrock is—or, rather who he thinks he is, that being, ironically, a man to whom no one has ever listened and to whom no one has ever paid any real attention. So, then, the women coming and going while they talk of the great Renaissance Italian artist Michelangelo— or is he the handsome young immigrant gardener?—are women whose main fault is that they are not talking about, let alone to, our hero, J. Alfred Prufrock. He does not tell his putative listener as much, of course, for the simple fact that he is not aware of a listener.
Here Eliot utilizes the dramatic monologue to its best advantage, allowing for dramatic irony whereby Eliot enables his readers to see things that Prufrock cannot see about himself but that he nevertheless reveals as he continues his love song, which turns out to be, rather than a dramatic monologue, a monologue about himself. In that manner, the reader can imagine that everything that Prufrock is saying, including his observations of both the landscapes and the people around him, is true, but only from his point of view and only inasmuch as it reveals his state of mind, a state of mind that revolves primarily, perhaps even exclusively around himself.
The notorious yellow fog that encircles the house in stanza three suddenly makes perfect sense if the reader sees it as an emblem of how trapped Prufrock is (a device that Eliot would later call an objective correlative). The yellow fog is, no doubt, a typical urban blight of the times caused by the burning of coal with a high sulfur content. But the yellow fog in its lurid haziness is also a detail that comes in startling juxtaposition to the drawing room scenes that Prufrock has otherwise been evoking. Seen that way, the yellow fog calls to mind again that doubleness, those outside in, inside out dislocations and combinations that drive the poem forward. They both mimic and illustrate Prufrock’s own sense of being trapped within a body, within his formal clothing, within the formal settings, and within the closed society in which he lives and which, like the fog, envelops him.
What provides him his point of reference also reminds him of how limited his horizons are, so that the evening sky can be figuratively interrupted by its resemblance to a recumbent and nearly lifeless body, and the fog can, catlike, both circumscribe and constrain Prufrock’s connections to a world beyond his narrowly defined social environment. The fog, then, represents the hopelessness of a limited vision, a vision limited by fixed ways of thinking and feeling, so that the more he might squirm or might conspire to escape the enclosed social space within which he feels himself trapped, “pinned and wriggling” under both imagined and real evaluative gazes, the more he becomes exposed.
Eventually, Prufrock clearly becomes someone who thinks of himself only as he imagines others think of him. Is he getting thin? Is his hair getting thin? Does his tie look all right? This corrosive self-consciousness would be bearable, the reader/ listener is led to imagine, except that Prufrock wishes not so much to break out as to connect with and affect this social order that circumscribes and dictates his behavior, embodied for him in the behavior of women who seem to judge him but otherwise ignore him. He has noticed the hair on their arms, a rather animal and somewhat sexual if not erotic detail, but he cannot imagine any one of them deigning to speak to him even if he were to claim that he was Lazarus risen from the dead and capable of telling them the most startling truths.
Lazarus is a figure from the Gospels, the man whom Jesus raised from the dead, and Prufrock also thinks of himself in other biblical terms—as John the Baptist, whose head was brought in on a platter at the behest of Salome after she danced the dance of the seven veils for Herod Antipas—as well as in literary terms, for example, as the speaker of Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century love poem, “To His Coy Mistress.” The biblical and literary allusions, besides giving the reader insights into the fact that Prufrock is widely read, suggest further how paralyzed Prufrock’s imagination has become, for he uses the allusions only to further excoriate and castigate himself. He is, by his own admission, not Hamlet, only some officious fool. Even were he Lazarus, he imagines, one of the women would put him in his place, so he comes by starts and stops to try to recognize and accept that place for what it is, to admit that he is not the star of the show, but a lesser character, taking up space, willing to be used, to be ignored, and not to be missed.
The man who cannot decide whether to disturb the universe or eat a peach, who sees either action of equal duration and importance, is not likely to stay fixed on any one thought or conclusion for very long, however. The poetry’s constant vacillation between the ridiculous and the sublime, the high minded and high sounding and the vulgar and the lowlife, a vacillation that the attentive reader experiences from the poem’s title onward, follows through all the way to the end of the poem. Prufrock, inflating and deflating his ego and expectations in virtually every other line, cannot finally arrive at any satisfactory conclusion without betraying the very real qualities of social and emotional—and imaginative—paralysis that Eliot has created with the poetry.
Toward the end of his monologue, whose dramatic quality is that it is not dramatic at all, Prufrock is left imagining mermaids who do not like him, parting his hair behind, dressing more casually so that he can walk along the seashore—anything but taking his own present circumstances in hand for what they are and accepting them, particularly if they prove to be (as they apparently already have proved to be) incapable of being changed. So too, the man who, little more than a voice, begins by disgorging all his pent-up frustrations and confusions on everyone and no one, thereby disburdening himself of what amounts to nothing more than petty complaints and frivolous dislikes, winds up being drowned by or in, of all things, human voices.
It is easy to get so lost in the work as to lose sight of the worker, the maker, the poet who gives us the poem. For its point must finally be Eliot’s, not Prufrock’s, since Prufrock’s point cannot be Eliot’s. What then is Eliot’s point?
Prufrock knows, or appears to think that he knows, that he does not have the strength necessary to force the moment to the sort of crisis that will free him, and he thinks that he knows why he does not have that strength—that he is a lesser, not a greater man. Even that, however, is a sort of self-congratulatory self-dramatization on Prufrock’s part, for his vision, like anyone’s, is limited by what he has seen and by what he can see. In that sense, Eliot the poet has succeeded in making his characterization of Prufrock seem to be as real as the rest of us, and that is an incredible achievement in and of itself. The poet, however, is not limited by his vision, since he contains it and has created Prufrock for the sake of seeing what is real but must otherwise remain invisible.
To divide the creation from its creator, Eliot would argue from early in his literary critical career, is a necessary action if the reader is to benefit from the creation, and this rule is especially true in Eliot’s case in general and in the case of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in particular. The temptation to identify the poet with the poem is a powerful one. Eliot certainly understood that, and a poem on the order of Prufrock begs the question. In many respects Eliot’s life, or at least his background, appears to be duplicated or at least reflected in the poem, and these resemblances, casual though they may be, appear to extend well beyond matters of social class and ethnic and regional associations. Eliot, too, was often described by friends and acquaintances alike as diffident, stiff, and formal to a fault and more aware of proper manners and of keeping one’s distance socially than could easily be regarded as typical even for someone of an uppermiddle- class background. Just how much the poet’s personality, let alone personal detail, is reflected in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is open to endless speculation, of course.
That it would be fair to regard Prufrock as Eliot’s alter ego would be risky critical business at best, nevertheless. For just one outstanding discrepancy, Eliot was a very young man when he composed “Prufrock,” while it seems obvious from those elements of self-description that emerge from Prufrock’s monologue and from his tone of worldweariness that Prufrock is approaching if not in fact in his early middle age.
Any poet writes out of what he knows, but that is the end of it. Readers tend to think of the creative mind as one that is endlessly inventing; in common parlance, we speak of someone as having “a wild imagination,” as if those two words form a necessary conjunction. Most of the time, however, the imagination functions not to invent but to transmute what is already there in the experience of the artist into something that, as art, becomes a part of universal experience, still recognized as coming from the artist’s general experience but no more his or hers otherwise than it is mine or yours. Surely that was the case with Eliot, according to his critical pronouncements from as early as the time of the 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” It stands to reason that his character Prufrock would move among well-heeled individuals in the formal settings of the drawing-room culture that flourished among the venerable old families of America at the end of the 19th century, not because that was a special culture, although it may appear so to a typical reader of today, but because that was the world that the young Eliot knew.
But to conclude, then, that there is some sort of autobiographical connection between Eliot and the speaker of his poem would be to miss the point that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is, after all, a poem, intended not to record the poet’s life but to explore the poet’s observations. Those observations, if truly regarded as the products of the poetic imagination, must inevitably involve not only people unique to Prufrock’s—and Eliot’s— time and place and class, but all of us. Nor it is merely playing with words or coining a coy phrase to talk of a poetic imagination. The oppositions and startling juxtapositions and unsettling dislocations and disjunctions that the poetry of “Prufrock” creates throughout serve a purpose that is neither journalistic (making the poem autobiography, for example) or psychological (making the poem a case study) but rather aesthetic in nature. That is to say, they are intended not to inform or to persuade but to engage the reader in the processes of creation and thereby force the reader to make sense not of the social or personal or psychological but of the delicate balances among perception, experience, and language that form, for the most part, what is generally called reality. That may seem to be an immense, almost impossible task for the poet to take upon himself, let alone credit to a work of literature, but that is what Eliot the poet is out to achieve and that is what certainly makes this particular poem one of the earliest masterworks of literary modernism, as Ezra Pound so astutely observed it to be.
If Eliot is correct and poetry deals with permanent human impulses, “Prufrock’s” is a basic, perhaps even essential human conflict between the desire to be noticed, which makes one dependent on what other people think, and the desire to be self-defining and self-directed, which requires one not to care what people think. Most manage to separate the requirements of maintaining group dynamics from the sense of one’s own self-worth, but Prufrock appears to be incapable of resolving the conflict, and so his dilemma is created. That does not make “Prufrock” the poem nothing more than a psychological study, however. Prufrock the person is not even a characterization; rather, he is a verbal construct, a creature made up of words, as Hamlet once said, and thus far less substantial than even a phantom of smoke and air.
Without diminishing the more or less full-bodied individual who nevertheless emerges from the words, their tone and color and mood, it is not difficult to imagine that, rather than any truly living being, Prufrock represents, embodies, the masculine principle, self-centered and vain, awash in a sea of feminine reserve that is itself closeted and yet somehow inviting, certainly alluring. Whether Prufrock is a man obsessed by women or by their apparent lack of interest in him, or he is a person dissatisfied with his station in life or with the life that fate has dealt with, or he is an individual uncertain of his sexual identity or simply a lonely person craving only a sympathetic ear, his importance as a literary creation rests on what his condition reveals of the human condition. Prufrock is that not-untypical human creature at odds with both himself and his social and physical environment who is struggling nevertheless to find an accommodating reality or even just an accommodating point of view whereby he might be at peace with himself and at ease in the world.
The reader who can see in Prufrock, for all the apparent idiosyncrasies of class and the times that he might display, not the hero, as he tells us he is not, but still the agon, suffering the social and moral ills of the ordinary man, can find in him as well the uniquely modernist nature of Eliot’s particular creation, a poem that focuses, for all the startling breaks with the past that his new kind of poetry might require and result in, the typical life led by a typical person in the real world, where nature is only a reflection of inner turmoils and the unspoken tells more than words ever can. Whatever else they may hope to find there, readers are ultimately drawn to Eliot, to the poem, for what Prufrock’s plight may tell them of their own inner conflicts and turmoils, and of their own incessant effort to find the words to express those truly shaping forces. Primarily his is the desire to be accepted not for what but for who he is, but he appears weak and indecisive because he knows that he is unable to reconcile that dilemma himself. Only others can, so he winds up imagining that his only hope is to get away from everyone else. At the poem’s end, Prufrock may be thinking of committing suicide by drowning himself, but it is the sound of the voices of other humans, creatures like himself, that awakens him from his self-centered reverie. There are worse awakenings than his.
No one likes to be a specimen, his nerves displayed for all the world to see, and Prufrock knows that. But Eliot, by having made his creation a specimen of what it is to be alive and to be human, exposes his readers to the very sorts of lessons that only great art can teach—enduring lessons in the human heart. What, however, distinguishes Eliot’s treatment of those tried and true lessons that have been grist for the literary mill since time immemorial is that Eliot, taking a page from his mentor Laforgue, requires his readers to engage their heads, their minds, rather than their own hearts in deciphering the depths of mixed hopes and despair, frustration and encouragement, that, though only the heart can truly plumb them, nevertheless all too often fall on deaf ears, exactly as Prufrock is certain that his complaints, his lament, may do. Thus, while Prufrock the speaker may sound sentimental or seem to sentimentalize his condition from time to time, “Prufrock” the poem, by sending such a variety of mixed verbal and social signals to readers as have been enumerated here, neither sounds sentimental nor sentimentalizes Prufrock’s condition or his social milieu.
Although this desentimentalized approach may often strike the unprepared reader as sounding instead cold or dispassionate, it is nevertheless in keeping with the modernism that Eliot, with poems such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” helped usher in as a literary movement that, ironically enough, saved overt expressions of sentimentality as a literary mode by removing from them their patina of a romantic excessiveness. It bears repeating that Eliot accomplishes that feat by deflecting his readers’ attention from the poet to his speaker, putting all the sentiment, such as it is, into the mouth of a figure as unromantic and, dare we say, insignificant as Prufrock, thereby depersonalizing those very sentiments. This methodology is in keeping with the poetics that Eliot would shortly delineate in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and the curious reader would do well to consult the entry on that essay.
The novice reader, daunted by the apparent complexities of the poetry, would do well also to approach “Prufrock” not as thematic poetry intended to state some specific meaning or to expose an otherwise abstract truth, but as a character study whose carefully contrived and manipulated nuances reveal not simply the nature of the speaker but the social coordinates of the world in which he resides. A person who has to “prepare a face” for his encounters with others in his social environment and who ineffectually imagines escaping from it is, after all, uncomfortable not just with all those other people but with being inside his own skin, from which there is no escape. It is through this careful examination and exposure of a single human being that Eliot introduces not some preconceived thematic considerations or universal truths to his readers so much as the means humans devise to cope as social beings. Such means become a constant theme in Eliot, albeit a necessarily unstated one.
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