illustration of a woman holding a glass of wine and a man, Prufrock, standing opposite her

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by T. S. Eliot
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Comic Elements in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1870

It is a mistake to approach T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with the same seriousness as for The Waste Land. To enjoy this poem and get the most out of the verse, readers should have a wry sense of humor. Prufrock is an anxiety-filled, insecure, middle-aged bachelor who fears that his expressions of love will be rebuffed. First published in Poetry in 1915, and then collected in Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, Eliot used the traditional form of the dramatic monologue for the speaker, Prufrock, to express his romantic dilemma. The dramatic monologue is generally associated with nineteenth-century poets such as Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and is characterized by the voice of a single speaker who reveals something personal to the reader.

The memorable title of this poem may have been derived from an advertisement in Eliot's hometown. In The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, Hugh Kenner revealed that the "name of Prufrock-Littau, furniture wholesalers, appeared in advertisements in St. Louis, Missouri" at the beginning of this century. Although Eliot claimed that any approbation of the "now-famous German surname must have been 'quite unconscious,'" Kenner suggested that this is an early example of the "rich mischief" of Eliot's mind. By adding "J. Alfred" to the name, Eliot combines a sense of mysterious dignity to the ridiculousness of "Prufrock." Compound this with the title's claim that the work is a love song, and readers are on their way to appreciate the dry humor underlying this very famous work.

The poem opens with an epigram from Dante's Inferno in which Guido de Montefeltro, who is consumed in flames as punishment for giving false counsel, confesses his shame because he believes that it cannot be reported back on earth. In context, this excerpt is essentially Prufrock's assurance that he can confide in his reader without fear of shame for what he is about to disclose. And so the poem opens: "Let us go then, you and I," which is to say, "come along and hear my story because I can trust you." The speaker then entreats his reader to join him on an evening stroll, presumably through Boston (where there are "sawdust restaurants with oyster shells"), but not to ask "What is it?" just yet. Instead of just laying bare his quandary, the "overwhelming question," Prufrock says, "Let us go and make our visit"; he takes his reader along on a social call to reveal his inadequacies. As the poem progresses, however, it becomes apparent that the "you-and-I" format begins to collapse and Prufrock is merely talking to himself.

Prufrock first travels through the grunge of the city, filled with yellow fog and smoke (not unlike the industrial waste of Eliot's native St. Louis). Eliot imbues the scene with catlike characteristics, giving the evening a somewhat seductive feline tone: "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes"; "Licked its tongue"; "Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap" "Curled once about the house, and fell asleep." Prufrock next enters into a world of butlers and tea. Here, in an arena of vacuous social chatter, "the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo." This is the world of writer Henry James, in which proper etiquette and social grace must prevail. By opening the fourth stanza with "And indeed there will be time," Eliot echoes the memorable line "Had we but world enough and time," from Andrew Marvell's seduction poem, "To His Coy Mistress." Ironically, Prufrock does not feel compelled to seize the day. There is plenty of time for indecision as Prufrock pictures his mind racing through "a hundred visions and revisions" in the short span of time between the serving and "the taking of a toast and tea."

Prufrock repeats his conviction that "indeed there will be time" to wonder "'Do I dare?' and 'Do I dare?'"—that is, first, does he dare to make a declaration of love, and, if not, does he then dare to flee down the stairs after he rang the doorbell, knowing that the subject of his affections may spot the "bald spot in the middle" of his hair. Prufrock makes a desperate attempt to attire himself accordingly and not to overdo it with his "necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin." Yet, in his mind, Prufrock envisions his contemporaries commenting on his deteriorating appearance, imagining the remarks, "How his hair is growing thin!" and "But how his arms and legs are thin!" Balding and scrawny, the self-deprecating Prufrock again wonders, "Do I dare / disturb the universe?" In other words, does he dare to shake up the stasis of his social universe by expressing his love?

Prufrock falls into a state of melancholy by lamenting that his life may actually be nearly over: "For I have known them all already, known them all— / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." Far from living a life of adventure, Prufrock has played it safe, passing his days sipping coffee. He then attempts to lay himself bare: "And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall...." Picturing himself like an insect mounted in an entomologist's collection, Prufrock wonders where he would begin his story, to tell about "all the butt-ends" of his "days and ways."

After posing the rhetorical question "And how shall I begin?" Prufrock digresses in the five lines that are bracketed off from the rest of the poem by a series of dots. He reveals his walks in the working-class part of the city, where "lonely men in shirt-sleeves" are "leaning out of windows." Prufrock seems to fear becoming like those forlorn men, isolated from love and left to spend their evenings "watching the smoke that rises from the pipes." The dejected Prufrock then declares "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" as if to say that he would be better off as a carefree crustacean instead of the lovelorn man he has become.

When he returns to his monologue, Prufrock flirts with the notion of himself as a heroic character, but dismisses each comparison. First he invokes the image of the prophet John the Baptist who was murdered and his head brought in on a platter to Princess Salome who had requested his death. Prufrock laments that he has seen his "head [grown slightly bald] brought in on a platter," but acknowledges "I am no prophet." He has been slain at the behest of a woman, yet lacks the heroic quality of John the Baptist. In fact, he has seen the "moment of [his] greatness flicker" when "the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker"; the hopelessly intimidated Prufrock has been snubbed by arrogant servants at the homes of genteel society where he visits.

Next, once again drawing on imagery from Marvell's poem ("To have bitten off the matter with a smile, / To have squeezed the universe into a ball"), Prufrock envisions himself as Lazarus, who rose from the dead. He imagines himself returning to the social scene saying, "'I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all''" (presumably to tell them about his romantic affections for one in particular, perhaps even of a marriage proposal). Instead of being met with great enthusiasm, Prufrock pictures the woman he adores as "settling a pillow by her head" coolly saying, "That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all." In this scenario, she flatly rejects him, suggesting that he has misunderstood her social politeness for romantic interest. Prufrock again repeats her curt and cruel response in the next stanza to further underscore his horror at receiving such a social death sentence that leaves him looking foolish before his acquaintances.

Lastly, he acknowledges that he is "not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." Like Hamlet, Prufrock wrestles with a paradigm of indecision ("To be or not to be...."), but Prufrock lacks the ability to act. "Deferential, glad to be of use, / Politic, cautious, and meticulous," Prufrock is much more a Polonious than a Hamlet. Aging and silly, Prufrock is left only able to dream of romance.

Several of the most memorable lines in the poem follow this anti-heroic sequence. Prufrock muses: "I grow old ... I grow old ... /I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. / Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? /I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach."

With this he creates yet another ridiculous image of himself with his hair slicked to cover his bald spot, trousers cuffed in youthful fashion, considering the act of high daring of eating a peach in easily stained white slacks. The "Do I dare?" of romance is reduced to an act of ingesting a notoriously juicy piece of fruit. Prufrock is defeated in love by his own inaction.

As the poem draws to a close, Prufrock admits, "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each "I do not think that they will sing to me." These mythical sea creatures believed to coax sailors out to sea with their seductive songs sing to each other in Prufrock's world; they will not enchant him into action. He sees the mermaids at a distance "riding seaward on the waves / Combing the white hair of the waves blown back." Prufrock will never enter their world or the realm of love and romance in his own world.

In the last stanza of the poem, Prufrock lingers on the dream-like periphery of the sea of desire by "sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown." Even though Prufrock uses the pronoun "we"—as if he is referring to the reader who apparently accompanied him at the beginning of his narrative—he seems to have slipped into a dream-like state, waiting for the human voices of reality to alert him to the pitiful fact that he will be unable to sustain himself with his dreams.

When "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was first published, it was met with a wide range of criticism. In a 1916 assessment in Quarterly Review, English critic Arthur Waugh dismissed the poem as mere "cleverness." The author of an unsigned article in Literary Review denounced Prufrock as "neither witty nor amusing" and suggested that "Mr. Eliot could do finer work on traditional lines." In sharp contrast, American poet Ezra Pound praised Eliot's work and defended him against his critics' attacks. Since those initial reviews, Prufrock has baffled many critics who have sought to uncover some deep, dark meaning of "Prufrock." Biographer Peter Ackroyd reported that Eliot's own commentary was essentially limited to his remark, "I'm afraid that J. Alfred Prufrock didn't have much of a love life." This simple explanation should be taken seriously and the poem should be enjoyed.

Source: Marisa Pagnattaro, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Marisa Pagnattaro is a freelance writer and is the Book Review Editor and an Editorial Board Member of the Georgia Bar Journal. She is a teaching assistant at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is in part a satire. Its character is not the hero of romance but an antihero, one constrained by fear. He spends much of the poem contemplating what to him is to be a daring act, but is in fact only the effort to talk to women at a social event. The very name Prufrock is suggestive; the first syllable suggests the word “prude” without the final consonant, while a “frock” is a garment that would have been considered overly formal by young people of Eliot’s generation.

The urban setting for the poem is itself also the object of satire. The sunset at the beginning of the evening is not inspiring but instead is dormant, “like a patient etherized upon a table.” The streets through which the two will pass is full of cheap, sordid hotels and filthy restaurants. The twentieth century city is not a place of dreams.

The description of the social event suggests something shallow and superficial, where people show off their knowledge of art. The only details given are the women’s bare arms and long dresses, talk of Michelangelo and perhaps unnamed novels, and refreshments. Prufrock is vaguely aware of the contrast between the superficial, perhaps privileged world he is about to enter and the bleak, urban landscape outside: In the former, people have the leisure for superficial talk, while in the latter, “lonely men in shirtsleeves” are perhaps tired from work. Prufrock is too self-centered, too concerned with how he might impress the women he will see, to reflect on the desperation of the “muttering retreats”; the “yellow smoke” (clearly smog) might well be toxic to many, but to Prufrock it is vaguely something like a friendly cat.

Prufrock exaggerates his dilemma. He wishes to speak to women, he is vaguely attracted to them sexually, but he is afraid. This might be a “crisis” for a young man looking for a prom date, but Prufrock is old enough to have a bald spot in his hair and to fear growing “old.” Part of the poem’s irony comes from its allusions to the poetic and literary traditions that Eliot knows. The preface from Dante’s Inferno quotes a false counselor in Hell who will tell his crime only to those he thinks will keep it a secret. Prufrock, too, would not want his story known—he wants to create “a face to meet the faces that you meet”—but what he has to hide is trivial. A topic he might raise in conversation is an “overwhelming question.”

Prufrock momentarily compares himself to John the Baptist, the prophet who announces the good news of Christ’s coming and who is finally killed, with his head brought on a platter. Later, he compares himself to Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Christ. He also briefly thinks of Hamlet, whose “overwhelming question” involves taking the word of what seems to be his father’s ghost and avenging his murder by killing a king. Prufrock realizes that the best he can do in Shakespeare’s play is to be Polonius, who talks too much, annoys everyone, and is finally killed by accident when he is eavesdropping on Hamlet and his mother.

In the final lines of the poem, Prufrock is tempted to compare himself to Ulysses, since the mermaids “singing each to each” suggest the sirens Ulysses hears in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), but he quickly reflects that “I do not think that they will sing to me.”

Ezra Pound (essay date 1917)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1973

SOURCE: “Prufrock and Other Observations,” in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. 10, 1917, pp. 264-71.

[In the following essay, Pound reviews “Prufrock and Other Observations,” finding in it some of the best poetry of the time.]

Il n'y a de livres que ceux où un écrivain s'est raconté lui-même en racontant les moeurs de ses contemporains—leurs rêves, leurs vanités, leurs amours, et leurs folies.

—Remy de Gourmont

De Gourmont uses this sentence in writing of the incontestable superiority of Madame Bovary, L'Éducation Sentimentale and Bouvard et Pécuchet to Salammbo and La Tentation de St. Antoine. A casual thought convinces one that it is true for all prose. Is it true also for poetry? One may give latitude to the interpretation of rêves; the gross public would have the poet write little else, but De Gourmont keeps a proportion. The vision should have its place in due setting if we are to believe its reality.

The few poems which Mr. Eliot has given us maintain this proportion, as they maintain other proportions of art. After much contemporary work that is merely factitious, much that is good in intention but impotently unfinished and, incomplete, much whose flaws are due to sheer ignorance which a year's study or thought might have remedied, it is a comfort to come upon complete art, naive despite its intellectual subtlety, lacking all pretence.

It is quite safe to compare Mr. Eliot's work with anything written in French, English or American since the death of Jules Laforgue. The reader will find nothing better, and he will be extremely fortunate if he finds much half as good.

The necessity, or at least the advisability of comparing English or American work with French work is not readily granted by the usual English or American writer. If you suggest it, the Englishman answers that he has not thought about it—he does not see why he should bother himself about what goes on south of the channel; the American replies by stating that you are “no longer American”, and I have learned by long experience that this is the bitterest epithet in his vocabulary. The net result is that it is extremely difficult to read one's contemporaries. After a time one tires of “promise”.

I should like the reader to note how complete is Mr. Eliot's depiction of our contemporary condition. He has not confined himself to genre nor to society portraiture. His

lonely men in shirt-sleeves leaning out of windows

are as real as his ladies who

                                                  come and go
Talking of Michaelangelo.

His “one night cheap hotels” are as much “there” as are his

                    four wax candles in the darkened room,
Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet's tomb.

And, above all, there is no rhetoric, although there is Elizabethan reading in the background. Were I a French critic, skilled in their elaborate art of writing books about books, I should probably go to some length discussing Mr. Eliot's two sorts of metaphor: his wholly unrealizable, always apt, half ironic suggestion, and his precise realizable picture. It would be possible to point out his method of conveying a whole situation and half a character by three words of a quoted phrase; his constant aliveness, his mingling of very subtle observation with the unexpectedness of a backhanded cliché. It is, however, extremely dangerous to point out such devices. The method is Mr. Eliot's own, but as soon as one has reduced even a fragment of it to formula, someone else, not Mr. Eliot, someone else wholly lacking in his aptitudes, will at once try to make poetry by mimicking his external procedure. And this indefinite “someone” will, needless to say, make a botch of it.

For what the statement is worth, Mr. Eliot's work interests me more than that of any other poet now writing in English. The most interesting poems in Victorian English are Browning's Men and Women, or, if that statement is too absolute, let me contend that the form of these poems is the most vital form of that period of English, and that the poems written in that form are the least like each other in content. Antiquity gave us Ovid's Heroides and Theocritus' woman using magic. The form of Browning's Men and Women is more alive than the epistolary form of the Heroides. Browning included a certain amount of ratiocination and of purely intellectual comment, and in just that proportion he lost intensity. Since Browning there have been very few good poems of this sort. Mr. Eliot has made two notable additions to the list. And he has placed his people in contemporary settings, which is much more difficult than to render them with mediaeval romantic trappings. If it is permitted to make comparison with a different art, let me say that he has used contemporary detail very much as Velasquez used contemporary detail in Las Meninas; the cold gray-green tones of the Spanish painter have, it seems to me, an emotional value not unlike the emotional value of Mr. Eliot's rhythms, and of his vocabulary.

James Joyce has written the best novel of my decade, and perhaps the best criticism of it has come from a Belgian who said, “All this is as true of my country as of Ireland”. Eliot has a like ubiquity of application. Art does not avoid universals, it strikes at them all the harder in that it strikes through particulars. Eliot's work rests apart from that of the many new writers who have used the present freedoms to no advantage, who have gained no new precisions of language, and no variety in their cadence. His men in shirt-sleeves, and his society ladies, are not a local manifestation; they are the stuff of our modern world, and true of more countries than one. I would praise the work for its fine tone, its humanity, and its realism; for all good art is realism of one sort or another.

It is complained that Eliot is lacking in emotion. “La Figlia che Piange” is sufficient confutation to that rubbish.

If the reader wishes mastery of “regular form”, the Conversation Galante is sufficient to show that symmetrical form is within Mr. Eliot's grasp. You will hardly find such neatness save in France; such modern neatness, save in Laforgue.

De Gourmont's phrase to the contrary notwithstanding, the supreme test of a book is that we should feel some unusual intelligence working behind the words. By this test various other new books, that I have, or might have, beside me, go to pieces. The barrels of sham poetry that every decade and school and fashion produce, go to pieces. It is sometimes extremely difficult to find any other particular reason for their being so unsatisfactory. I have expressly written here not “intellect” but “intelligence.” There is no intelligence without emotion. The emotion may be anterior or concurrent. There may be emotion without much intelligence, but that does not concern us.

VERSIFICATION:

A conviction as to the rightness or wrongness of vers libre is no guarantee of a poet. I doubt if there is much use trying to classify the various kinds of vers libre, but there is an anarchy which may be vastly overdone; and there is a monotony of bad usage as tiresome as any typical eighteenth or nineteenth century flatness.

In a recent article Mr. Eliot contended, or seemed to contend, that good vers libre was little more than a skilful evasion of the better known English metres. His article was defective in that he omitted all consideration of metres depending on quantity, alliteration, etc.; in fact he wrote as if metres were measured by accent. This may have been tactful on his part, it may have brought his article nearer to the comprehension of his readers (that is, those of the New Statesman, in which the article appeared, people who are chiefly concerned with sociology of the “button” and “unit” variety). But he came nearer the fact when he wrote elsewhere: “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”

Alexandrine and other grammarians have made cubbyholes for various groupings of syllables; they have put names upon them, and have given various labels to “metres” consisting of combinations of these different groups. Thus it would be hard to escape contact with some group or other; only an encyclopedist could ever be half sure he had done so. The known categories would allow a fair liberty to the most conscientious traditionalist. The most fanatical vers-librist will escape them with difficulty. However, I do not think there is any crying need for verse with absolutely no rhythmical basis.

On the other hand, I do not believe that Chopin wrote to a metronome. There is undoubtedly a sense of music that takes count of the “shape” of the rhythm in a melody rather than of bar divisions, which came rather late in the history of written music and were certainly not the first or most important thing that musicians tried to record. The creation of such shapes is part of thematic invention. Some musicians have the faculty of invention, rhythmic, melodic. Likewise some poets.

Treatises full of musical notes and of long and short marks have never been convincingly useful. Find a man with thematic invention and all he can say is that he gets what the Celts call a “chune” in his head, and that the words “go into it,” or when they don't “go into it” they “stick out and worry him.”

You can not force a person to play a musical masterpiece correctly, even by having the notes correctly printed on the paper before him; neither can you force a person to feel the movement of poetry, be the metre “regular” or “irregular.” I have heard Mr. Yeats trying to read Burns, struggling in vain to fit the Birks o' Aberfeldy and Bonnie Alexander into the mournful keen of the Wind among the Reeds. Even in regular metres there are incompatible systems of music.

I have heard the best orchestral conductor in England read poems in free verse, poems in which the rhythm was so faint as to be almost imperceptible. He read them with the author's cadence, with flawless correctness. A distinguished statesman read from the same book, with the intonations of a legal document, paying no attention to the movement inherent in the words before him. I have heard a celebrated Dante scholar and mediaeval enthusiast read the sonnets of the Vita Nuova as if they were not only prose, but the ignominious prose of a man devoid of emotions: an utter castration.

The leader of orchestra said to me, “There is more for a musician in a few lines with something rough or uneven, such as Byron's

There be none of Beauty's daughters
                    With a magic like thee;

than in whole pages of regular poetry.”

Unless a man can put some thematic invention into vers libre, he would perhaps do well to stick to “regular” metres, which have certain chances of being musical from their form, and certain other chances of being musical through his failure in fitting the form. In vers libre his sole musical chance lies in invention.

Mr. Eliot is one of the very few who have brought in a personal rhythm, an identifiable quality of sound as well as of style. And at any rate, his book is the best thing in poetry since … (for the sake of peace I will leave that date to the imagination). I have read most of the poems many times; I last read the whole book at breakfast time and from flimsy and grimy proof-sheets: I believe these are “test conditions.” Confound it, the fellow can write—we may as well sit up and take notice.

Introduction

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” T. S. Eliot

The following entry presents criticism on Eliot's poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” See also The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Criticism (Volume 13), T. S. Eliot Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6.

Widely acclaimed as one of the world's greatest modern poets, Eliot has maintained an influence on literature some critics claim is unequaled by any other twentieth-century writer. While Eliot often is associated with the Symbolist-metaphysical tradition, his bold experiments with form, phrasing, and tone helped usher in the Modernist period in American and English letters. In fact, his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in its entirety for the first time in Eliot's first volume of poetry in 1917, often is credited by critics as being the first Modernist poem. Written as a dramatic monologue, “Prufrock” explores through the voice of its middle-class male persona a bleak and superficial world bereft of cultural depth and the fulfillment of personal relationships.

Major Themes

Several themes permeate “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that would later come to characterize both Modernist literature specifically and twentieth-century literature in general: particularly alienation and loneliness, the disintegration of culture in bourgeois society, and the fear of aging and mortality. Critics are divided as to Prufrock's main concern in the poem; some believe he is anxious about proposing marriage to a woman while others argue that he is troubled by the prospect of having his sexual advances turned down. Regardless, however, Prufrock's predicament is shaped by his own paralyzing fear of rejection and his depressed perception of the world as desolate and decaying. Much critical attention has been paid to the epigraph with which Eliot's poem begins. Taken from Dante's Divine Comedy, it reads, “If I thought my answer were to one who could ever return to the world, this flame would move no more; but since no one has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer you.” In Dante's work the lines are spoken by a lost soul; in “Prufrock” they are seen as representative of Prufrock's inability to ask, much less accept the answer to, his important question, and his dread that the woman to whom he asks the question would respond with, “‘That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all.’” Another of Eliot's—and Prufrock's—concerns in the poem is the matter of the shallow pretense of cultural refinement and understanding that he believes he witnesses around him. This is particularly evident in the repeated lines “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” and the fact that Prufrock is throughout the poem apprehensive about taking part in the middle-class tradition of “the taking of a toast and tea.” This is contrasted in the poem with the dingy world of “one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oystershells” through which Prufrock moves. Perhaps most important, though, is Prufrock's preoccupation with aging and death that recurs throughout the poem. He repeatedly expresses worry about what others will think of his aging body: “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair— / [They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’] / My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin— / [They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’]” He also is concerned about own ability to age with dignity: “I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. / Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” Ultimately, Prufrock is aware of the absurdity of existence despite his constant fears. He admits, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” and seems content with his role in life as an “attendant lord, one that will / To swell a progress, start a scene or two,” in short, to play a supporting role to the more dynamic men of the world, and even to be “At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.” With his reference to the Shakespearean Fool, however, Prufrock ironically suggests that, while he is not to be considered a heroic figure, he nonetheless possesses some wisdom and deserves respect. In the end, Prufrock fails to ask his question of the woman. Instead, he falls into a fantasy of mermaids that ends with imagery of drowning, suggesting that Prufrock has not solved any of his problems in his monologue but has rather become overwhelmed and incapacitated by his fears and insecurities as well as by his perception of the universe he inhabits as menacing and cruel.

Critical Reception

Because Prufrock's specific intent is unspoken, critics have read the poem on many different levels. For example, critics who interpret Prufrock's dilemma as revolving around whether or not he should propose marriage to a woman tend to take Eliot's tone and subject matter seriously and at face value. Those who read the poem on a more sexual level tend to find humor and irony in Prufrock's self-examination, particularly in such lines as “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” where Prufrock seems to wonder if he will have the energy to perform sexually after tea-time. M. L. Rosenthal has commented that, read in this way, “Prufrock” evidences “a strongly adolescent flavor,” asserting that the poem “positively sweats panic at the challenge of adult sexuality and of living up to one's ideal of what it is to be manly in any sort of heroic model.” Ann P. Brady has written that Eliot was aware of this, maintaining that the poem reflects Prufrock back “from the world in which he moves” in a “clinically hard” way, and that this contrast with romantic aspirations—the “juxtaposition of lyricism with the tone of satire”— creates the Modernist tension.

George Fortenberry (essay date Winter 1967)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1760

SOURCE: "Prufrock and the Fool Son," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. VIII, Winter, 1967, pp. 51-54.

[In the following essay, Fortenberry explores the influence of Jules Laforgue on "Prufrock" and considers the role of the fool.]

How much or how little the title of a poem means is, of course, left to the whim or decision of the poet. Upon occasion, however, a title will furnish the best clue to the meaning and significance of a poem. It is quite possible that the title, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," could furnish us with meaning we have not found before. This title has received very little attention considering the great attention which the poem itself has received. The following remarks focus upon the title of the poem, especially its use of the term "song."

In spite of the fact that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has fostered many articles, enough, in fact, to make it one of the best understood works in our language, the poem is not well read by—not well explained to—thousands of college freshmen each year who find it in the section of their readers devoted to the latest poetry to be anthologized. Often they are rather shocked to learn that the poem is vintage 1915, which, although a good year, seems long ago to a freshman. They are also shocked to learn that it has been in print longer than some Thomas Hardy and a great deal of Housman and Hopkins. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is no longer young. It is of such an age that coming to terms with it becomes very important.

Those who have long used the Brooks and Warren explanation of the Prufrock poem and are satisfied need go no further. It is a reasonable and sound explanation and one of the few attempts to deal with the whole poem by bringing some semblance of unity to it. Unfortunately for those who seek further than Brooks and Warren, most articles on the poem deal almost entirely with fragments, with single lines or single words, with Mermaids, rolled trousers, or gastric problems caused by peaches. This line-by-line approach is entirely natural because lines of the poem, especially those in the last section, seem to lack unity. Other essays are concerned with the sources of various lines in the poem. This approach is also a natural development which grew out of Eliot's own precedent of publishing notes on "The Wasteland." One of the best articles of this type, John C. Pope's "Prufrock and Raskalnikov," was provocative enough to merit a reply by Eliot in which he claimed the source for the Hamlet in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to be the work of Jules Laforgue, not Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, as Pope had contended.

Explanation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" should begin with attention to the work of Jules Laforgue where Eliot has directed us. Not only that, but attention should be given to Laforgue's Hamlet, a character not too much like Shakespeare's Hamlet. Critics have known for a long time of Laforgue's influence. They have not, however, paid much attention to his Hamlet in trying to interpret the poem.

To return to the title, we observe that Eliot's poem is about a love song. As we read, however, we are soon aware that this is not the regular boy-girl love song but is an attempt to communicate a message of importance to the world, a message Prufrock wants to deliver but has great difficulty expressing. In spite of the difficulty, the love song is finally sung. It is sung by the Fool, and it is within the Fool Song that we may find the comment that Prufrock wants to make, one which Eliot himself continued to make in later poetry. The song of the Fool begins in much the same way that any ditty of a Fool in Shakespearian or other seventeenth-century drama might begin. But this resemblance does not mean that Eliot got his Fool from these sources, even though no smaller Fool than Falstaff admits, "I am old, I am old." (2 Henry IV. II. iv. 294) Much more likely it is that Eliot got his Fool, along with his Hamlet, from the work of Jules Laforgue, for both "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Portrait of a Lady" are Laforguian poems. Eliot has indicated his indebtedness to Laforgue for his method. Tindall comments upon this method at length:

The essays of Jules Laforgue tell almost as much about him as his verse. Inflated at first with transcendental yearning, he was deflated, he says, by Darwin. Hence the inflation and deflation of the poet's metaphors and the painful joy of punctured sentiments. But in Hartman's theory of the unconscious Laforgue found peace and a literary method. It was the job of the poet, he felt, to follow the vagaries of the life force beyond limits, categories, and reason. "The wind of the unconscious blows where it will," he exclaims. "Let it blow." Meanwhile the poet's face assumed the expression of the fumiste and man about town.

Laforgue's fumiste should interest us as a key to the meaning of the Prufrock poem, for it is as fumiste, or Fool, that J. Alfred Prufrock makes his last attempt to communicate with the world. It is as Fool that Eliot has Prufrock show his own disenchantment with the modern world. In Eliot's poem Prufrock yearns to communicate with the world, and he makes at least two attempts before he gives up, resorting at last to the Fool Song. First, Prufrock is a man of society, one who is all-knowing and rather worn out with it all, or as Laforgue says in his criticism of Corbiere, who was adept at revealing only "mild waterfront sensuality," "He has known the Paris prostitute on his Paris holidays … and has known her also from the tropics to the pole." In spite of his all-knowing guise, Prufrock is not able to sing his love song to the world. He does not think the world would understand. The one he told his love song to would merely answer, "That is not what I meant at all./ That is not it, at all."

Prufrock does not come any nearer communicating with the world in the role of prophet than he did as a man of society. He is unable to sing his song as a prophet crying out a great truth to the world; even as one who has returned from the dead he would not be able to do it. By means of a quotation from Dante concerning Guido, and by using a reference to Lazarus, Eliot stresses the impossibility of communication and understanding between dead and living. In fact, the idea of communication with the dead is so strong in the poem that one is tempted to include Shakespeare's Hamlet here as one who has talked with the dead, sealing his own doom in the process. Prufrock, however, is not Prince Hamlet. The great void between dead and living holds a fascination for Eliot, a fascination well expressed in "Little Gidding" when he writes:

     And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
     They can tell you, being dead: the communication
     Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

At this point it is important to return to Laforgue and also to remember that Prufrock says, "Almost at times, the Fool." It is at this moment that the Fool Song begins with the plaintive lines, "I grow old, I grow old." The next eleven lines have perhaps called forth more questions and more speculation than any other part of the poem. They are lines which have added great difficulty to interpretation chiefly because they are made up of an inane ditty, the type a stage Fool would sing. Eliot here is following the theory he borrowed from Jules Laforgue. It is well known that Laforgue was fond of fools and clowns, and the last six lines of his "Apotheosis" show his method of ending a poem. He gives us a picture of a man who has contemplated the stars in the process of trying to find his role in the universe.

His family: a host of heavy blossoming globes, And on one, the earth, a yellow point, Paris, Where under a swinging lamp, a poor fool sits. A weak phenomenon in the universal order, Knowing himself the mirror of a single day, He thinks of all this, then composes a sonnet.

Laforgue has his Fool compose a sonnet after he has made the discovery that he is of little importance in the universe. Prufrock becomes convinced that he is of little more importance than something crawling along the sea bottom. His Fool Song of twelve lines very effectively ends the poem.

It is also interesting and perhaps significant that Eliot uses a Laforguian Hamlet. Laforgue had a very special feeling for Hamlet which led him to create his own modern version of the character. The translator of Laforgue's Selected Writings, William Jay Smith, observes that:

Max Beerbohm once said that he thought that the scene with Yorick's skull would have been more effective if Shakespeare had given us an example of how the fool once entertained the royal table.

and himself adds: "This Laforgue has done; for he has written, as he expressed it, à la Yorick, combining hero and fool." What Laforgue actually did was create a Hamlet who was a brother of Yorick. His "Hamlet or The Consequences of Filial Piety" depicts them as having the same gypsy mother. Even a hasty look at this work of Laforgue will show that Eliot was saturated not only with Laforgue's method, but also with some of his words.

There is a strong possibility that having failed to communicate with the world, Prufrock conveys his disillusionment as well as his love song and message through the song of the Fool. Whether it is Darwinian disillusionment does not matter much for an interpretation of the Prufrock poem. Eliot's "Till human voices wake us and we drown." may be the equivalent of his lines in later poems:

     And any action
     Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea throat.
                                or:
     We are born with the dead.
                                 or:
     In my beginning is my end.

In any event, and entirely aside from Eliot's philosophy, both Yorick and Hamlet would, I believe, be happy to know that they have a delightful half-brother named Prufrock.

Introduction

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"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" T. S. Eliot

(Full name Thomas Stearns Eliot; also wrote under the pseudonyms Charles Augustus Conybeare; Charles James Grimble, Reverend; Gus Krutzch; Muriel A. Schwartz; J. A. D. Spence; Helen B. Trundlett) American-born English poet, critic, essayist, dramatist, and editor.

The following entry presents criticism on Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915). See also The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Poetry Criticism, T. S. Eliot Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is considered one of Eliot's finest and most important works. With the help of Ezra Pound, the poem was accepted for publication in Poetry in 1915—four years, it is believed, after Eliot (1888–1965) completed it. Through this poem Eliot established himself as a modern voice in literature, creating profoundly innovative, erudite poetry which mixes classical references with industrial twentieth-century images. It is the first work among many which would earn him a place as one of the most important and revolutionary poets of the twentieth century.

Plot and Major Characters

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a lyrical, dramatic monologue of a middle-class male persona who inhabits a physically and spiritually bleak environment. The title of the poem is misleading since it is neither a love poem nor a song in the classical sense. Approximately 130 lines long, it follows the ramblings of J. Alfred Prufrock, the would-be suitor of an unnamed and nebulously developed woman. While Eliot provides little description of Prufrock's person, he does reveal a great deal about Prufrock's personality and state of mind.

Major Themes

Prufrock is full of self-doubts, with a pessimistic outlook on his future, as well as the future of society and the world. This pessimistic view renders him unable to declare his love to the unnamed woman. He describes himself as "almost ridiculous," "almost … the Fool." Although aware of the possibility of personal fulfillment, Prufrock is afraid to act, unable to claim for himself a more meaningful existence. The poem also contains numerous biting images of the industrial land-scape with its insidious "yellow fog," "narrow streets," "lonely men in shirt-sleeves," and "soot that falls from chimneys." "Prufrock" is also replete with classical references to such literary and historical figures as John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet and to the literary works of Hesiod, Andrew Marvell, Dante, and Jules Laforgue.

Critical Reception

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has sparked tremendous interest and dissension among literary scholars. It is considered by many to be one of the principal poems of this century, and is listed with The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943) as Eliot's best work. Often analyzed by line, incident or reference, the poem continues to confound scholars. Eliot pioneered an innovative and often fragmentary style centered upon modernity and the use of startling metaphors; Louis Untermeyer calls it "sensitive to the pitch of concealment." Critics such as Robert M. Seiller, Elizabeth Drew, George Williamson, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren all argue that Prufrock never articulates a question: he is too overwhelmed by modernity and the state of his existence to formulate it. J. Peter Dyson contends that Eliot utilizes a literary reference to Hamlet in which to indirectly frame Prufrock's question. In a separate but related inquiry, Bruce Hayman questions whether Prufrock is proposing marriage or making a sexual proposition to the woman in the poem. Critics agree that in the end Prufrock is too overwhelmed by the bleakness of his own life and his view of the urban landscape to take any action, so paralyzed is he with fear and uncertainty. Scholars have focused a great deal of energy on unraveling the meaning of the literary references with which Eliot peppers the poem. There is disagreement over the allusions to John the Baptist and Lazarus, and argument over which Hamlet reference he employs. Several scholars have marked Dostoevsky's influence on Eliot, although Eliot himself pointed out that Crime and Punishment was not available to him when he wrote this poem. Critics list among Eliot's influences Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, and Laforgue.

J. Peter Dyson (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: "Word Heard: Prufrock Asks His Question," in Yeats Eliot Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1978, pp. 33-5.

[In the following essay, Dyson contradicts Robert M. Seiler's arguments, stating that Eliot does pose a question in "Prufrock."]

An assumption seems to have grown up over the years that no precise meaning can be assigned to the "overwhelming question" in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." When Prufrock cries, "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" one is meant, apparently, to see the impossibility as referring, above all, to the formulation of the question. One can certainly agree with Balachandra Rajan, in his recent book, The Overwhelming Question, that "Prufrock" owes its effect as much to what is not in the poem as to what is, but Rajan's denial of the question's presence in the poem tends to diminish unnecessarily Eliot's accomplishment. Surely the "overwhelming question" is there in the poem, there in the way demanded by the methodology of the poem. One of the stranger aspects of the Prufrock "question" is the way in which critics, whether assuming the question to be present in the poem or not, have refrained from making clear what the question actually is and how it is present if, indeed, it is present.

It seems for a moment as if Robert M. Seiler, in his interesting article, "Prufrock and Hamlet," is about to elucidate the matter once and for all since he recognizes that the imaginative link between the two characters rests on their respective capacities to approach the great question. However, Seiler quickly allies himself with such predecessors as Elizabeth Drew, George Williamson, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, who posit Prufrock's inability to identify the question. "The fundamental difference between [Hamlet and Prufrock]," writes Seiler, "is a psychological one: Hamlet formulates his 'question' while Prufrock can only hint that he has one in the back of his mind."

The difficulty stems, apparently, from Prufrock's nebulous-ness of mind—that mind which wanders about and slithers through the digressions of the poem like the enigmatic fog-cat which is its metaphor. Prufrock's intelligence lacks the all-encompassing grip of Hamlet's, the argument goes; it cannot come to terms with the complexities of modern life in the way that Hamlet's was able to get the measure of the (lesser?) complexities of the Renaissance. It is precisely because he senses life to be so overwhelming that he finds it impossible to ask any relevant question—let alone expect an answer; Prufrock cannot, therefore, objectify or universalize his plight. The poem is reduced to a digressive exploration of an emotional state; the logical exploration of the "human condition" represented in Hamlet is not possible in the twentieth century. By accepting Seiler's premises, one is forced to accede to his conclusion that "Prufrock's inability to formulate any of Hamlet's questions or answers, according to T. S. Eliot, prevents him from being able to say, 'I suffer'."

Seiler seems to be about to grasp the central truth concerning Prufrock's relationship to his question when he writes, "In his 'To be or not to be' soliloquy (III, 1, 56-88), for example, Hamlet confronts the abyss with his typical rigorous self-analysis, and confesses his procrastination." But, in restricting the meaning of Hamlet to Hamlet, Seiler is led to restrict the meaning of "Prufrock" to Prufrock. To limit the vision of the poem to the vision of the protagonist is to miss the central poetic device of the poem and the climactic working-out of the Hamlet-Prufrock link. The reason Prufrock has no "To be or not to be" is simplicity itself; he has none because he uses Hamlet's.

To think of Prufrock as merely incapable of formulating the question is to expect Eliot to depart from the poetic presuppositions of the poem, which are that everything Prufrock aspires to appears in the poem as echo, including the "overwhelming question." One need only read the relevant line of "Prufrock" with the proper stress for the question to leap into focus. The line is, of course, the climactic line of the poem: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." If one stresses it, "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be," the meaning is, "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be [Prince Hamlet]." If, however, one uses the obvious alternative stress, the meaning of the line becomes simply, "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." The echo is immediate: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be or not to be, that is the question" [emphasis added].

Prufrock does, in effect, formulate his question, Hamlet's question—the question of the ages, Renaissance and twentieth-century—but he can do it only indirectly, by allusion. Characteristically, he poses it by answering it negatively and, by Eliot's brilliant manipulation of tenses, simultaneously in advance yet as part of the already vanished past. The questions within the poem modulate from the direct possibility of "Do I dare?" and "Shall I say?" through the dubious possibility of "How should I?" to the past impossibility of "Would it have been?" The allusive structure of the "Prufrock" climax means both that the reply to the question—"No?"—is given prior to the posing of the question and that the verb identifying Prufrock's reason for responding negatively—"am not meant"—assigns the initiative elsewhere. Hamlet's question, posing direct though opposite possibilities, is made, by Eliot's syntactical manipulation of the echo, to express the impotence of present impossibility. Prufrock's version of the Hamlet question then takes its place naturally in the sequence started by Prufrock's initial "do not ask 'What is it?'" as the technical and emotional climax of what Rajan has called "the outline of failure."

While it may be possible to argue about whether or nor Prufrock is conscious of the echo, it is not possible to wonder whether Eliot is. "Prufrock" remains a poem about the difficulties of realizing one's nebulous potentialities, but the framework retains a precision that serves to place Prufrock and his predicament not outside the formulations available to the English literary tradition, as critics such as Seiler would suggest, but emphatically within them.

Principal Works

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Prufrock, and Other Observations (poetry) 1917
Poems (poetry) 1919
The Waste Land (poem) 1922
Fragment of a Prologue (play) 1926
Journey of the Magi (poetry) 1927
Fragment of the Agon (play) 1927
A Song for Simeon (poetry) 1928
Animula (poetry) 1929
Ash-Wednesday (poetry) 1930
Marina (poetry) 1930
Sweeny Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama (play) 1932
The Rock (play) 1934
Murder in the Cathedral (play) 1935
Collected Poems, 1909–1935 (poetry) 1936
The Family Reunion (play) 1939
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (poetry) 1939
East Coker (poetry) 1940
The Dry Salvages (poetry) 1941
Four Quartets (poetry) 1943
The Cocktail Party (play) 1950
The Confidential Clerk (play) 1954
The Elder Statesman (play) 1959
Collected Poems, 1909–1962 (poetry) 1963
Growltiger's Last Stand and Other Poems (poetry) 1987

∗First published in Criterion, October, 1922.

†Later adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber as the Broadway musical CATS.

Understanding "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1815

T.S. Eliot is one of the best known poets in the twentieth century. And yet, when "The Waste Land," which is Eliot's longest, his most difficult, and certainly his most controversial poem, was first published in the year 1922, T.S. Eliot was comparatively unknown, despite a volume of poetry he had written entitled Prufrock and Other Observations, which appeared in 1917, and which contained, among other poems, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."...

Eliot's poems certainly are complex poems; they're never simple ones, and Eliot himself justified their complexity by arguing that the poet, who is to serve as the interpreter and critic of a complex age, must write complex poetry; and certainly, I think, we would all agree that our age is a complex age. Eliot's constant use of allusions in his poems is based upon his theory that the poet of today should write as if all the poets of the past were looking over his shoulder. The modern poet, then, must be conscious of the tradition which he has inherited, and he must carry on that tradition himself. "The Waste Land" is a cluttered mass of altered quotations: Eliot alters these quotations deliberately in order to suggest the loss of the vitality of the traditions of the past: poetic, moral, aesthetic, religious, social. It is the debasement of that tradition which has brought about the spiritual and the intellectual sterility of the modern age. And it is this wasteland of the twentieth century, this intellectual, spiritual, moral, aesthetic sterility which is the theme of the poem.

Allusion-jammed, though Eliot's poetry is, and dealing with complex emotions and complex ideas as he does, the language of his poems is still concrete; the images which he uses are fresh; they are striking and never completely decorative. And so, for instance, in the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" the evening is described as being spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. This image is fresh and striking; it is a most unusual kind of image, and the image is also functional: that image describes the passivity of the evening as Prufrock sees it. Of course, everything in the poem is seen through Prufrock's eyes. The image also describes something of the half-dead condition of Prufrock himself, who is helpless, finally, as is a patient who is etherized upon a table. Or take the description of the yellow fog as if it were a cat. That description is a striking, vivid image, describing the slow settling of the fog over the city, and it suggests possibly also Prufrock's renunciation of his decision to disturb his universe of dilettante ladies by bringing a breath of real life to them. "The fog," we are told, "curled once about the house, and fell asleep." And so, too, in the course of the poem, Prufrock allows his decision to fall asleep. The cat image, here, also suggests sex. This is another desire of Prufrock which ends finally in inertia. Prufrock's failure in love is synonomous, you see, with the whole failure of society; his hopeless isolation is synonymous with the isolation of each trimmer from his fellow trimmers in Eliot's "Waste Land."...

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" concerns one of Eliot's Wastelanders. Prufrock is a member of the decadent aristocracy, just as Sweeney, in "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," is representative of Eliot's proletariats in the Prufrock volume of poetry. The various characters that Eliot depicts in this, his first volume of poetry, are almost below the level, really, of animals and human beings. These characters seem to feel no real passions and they have no real thoughts; they are machines without the gas or oil that keeps a machine going. They run on momentum without a genuine spark of life within them. Prufrock himself is something of an exception, but not much of a one.

Prufrock lives in a world in which art and music have become the idle conversation of dilettante women, who are spiritually, sexually, and intellectually dead, who spend their lives in an eternal round of afternoon tea parties, who may talk of art because it is expected that the class to which they belong should know something about it, but for whom the meaning and the vitality of art have long since been drained in the cycle of their teacups. Prufrock is one of this group. Prufrock is a dilettante like "the women who come and go—talking of Michaelangelo." Prufrock, we come to see, is as fastidious about his dress as they are, is as spiritually, sexually, and intellectually dead as they are. Like them, Prufrock has measured out his life "in coffee spoons," and his life has been as empty, as meaningless as theirs has been.

Prufrock is a trimmer. I trust that many of you, at least, know that trimmers were those souls in Dante's Inferno who were condemned to the vestibule of hell because they had never really lived, although they were supposedly alive; but they never really did enough evil to be sentenced to hell, and they never did enough good while they were alive to get to purgatory to start their way up to heaven. The Trimmers were lifeless, spiritless, mindless people....

Eliot uses Dante's trimmers in order to characterize the twentieth century. For Eliot, the vast majority of men and women of the twentieth century are trimmers: they are intellectually and spiritually dead, afraid of life, afraid of living, afraid of facing either good or evil and of experiencing really either, afraid of taking sides either for or against God, living in a sterile land; breeding spiritually and intellectually sterile children, slaves to the machine and conventions of the age, fearful of speaking out against either, fearful of taking either the way which leads to spiritual regeneration or the way which leads to damnation....

J. Alfred Prufrock is no Hamlet who will disturb and rectify the evil of his world, the evil which consists for Prufrock in its decadence, its spiritual, moral, intellectual, sexual, aesthetic sterility. Hamlet can cleanse the rottenness of Denmark; Prufrock can get only a glimpse of the sterility of this world, but he is helpless to do anything about it. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is thus his swan song to life, but it's also a song that he himself sings, for the poem is a dramatic monologue. He sings it in an effort to justify himself for not following the impulses, the suppressed desires of his alter-ego. And the effort damns him. But because the poem also shows that he has come to know his own inadequacies, to know that he is a trimmer, I think finally we do pity J. Alfred Prufrock. I always have....

Eliot builds his poem around the repetition of three central themes or motifs. The first of these is the time theme. This is given in the refrain, "And indeed there will be time." The time theme serves as an excuse for Prufrock for not disturbing his universe, for there is always time to put things off, as talking to his alter-ego—the "you" in the "Let us go now, you and I"—he shows that he will put off telling these women, and he will put off revealing his suppressed desires, apparently, for one of these women. There is always a tomorrow, there is always time.... And there will be time for Prufrock to change his mind about disturbing his universe; there will be time for Prufrock to put off doing it forever; there will be time to say farewell to the glimpse of real life he has had. There will be time for Prufrock to sink back eternally among the rounds of teacups.

The second theme of Prufrock is the "Do I dare" theme, in which Prufrock questions his ability to disturb his universe. This theme, allied as it is with the first theme and with the third theme as all three are allied one with the other, underscores the essential spiritual and moral cowardice of this man. Deliberately, Eliot has Prufrock begin this theme with a grandiose question when Prufrock asks, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" But before the end of the poem, this question degenerates into "Do I dare to eat a peach?" This symbolizes in its degeneration not only Prufrock's moral cowardice but also his essential concern with himself, from the outgoing desire to aid others in the question "Do I dare disturb the universe?" to the ingoing concern with his digestion.

The third theme is one of world weariness, which is begun in the line "For I have known them all already, known them all." This theme underscores Prufrock's weariness with the life that he leads, which is shown most effectively in the line "For I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." As Eliot develops this theme, he shows also Prufrock's bondage to the life which he is so weary of and his inability to bring any life to the half-alive world in which he lives. This theme is modified to stress Prufrock's renunciation of his plan. Prufrock must find some excuse for not doing what he, or rather, I should say, what his alter-ego, had hoped to do; and so he finds it by rationalizing that it would not have been worthwhile after all to bring his breath of life into the sterile world, that he would have been misunderstood, that to bring life into this world he would have had to be like Lazarus come to life, "Come back to tell you all." But he is not a John the Baptist, not a Hamlet. He is only, finally, a pathetic trimmer, J. Alfred Prufrock....

And finally,... let me comment on Eliot's use of just one rhyme within the poem, found in these lines: "Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" The two words which rhyme, of course, are "ices" and "crisis," and the rhyming of these two words is deliberately ridiculous, as ridiculous as Prufrock is himself at times, as ridiculous as Prufrock certainly is here: he's a sexually repressed man, growing old, with a bald spot in the middle of his hair, who can't you see, even rise to any kind of passion. Thus, his love song can never be anything but a song of frustration, of despair; it can never be sung to anyone except the "you," and the wishes and the desires of that "you" lose to the "I," who has revealed why the "you" in Prufrock's monologue can never dominate the man's actions.

Source: Donald R. Fryxell, "Understanding 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,'" in Robert Frost's Chicken Feather; And Other Lectures, from the 1968 Augustana College NDEA English Institute, edited by Arthur R. Huseboe, Augustana College Press, November, 1969, pp. 33-44.

John C. Pope (essay date 1945)

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SOURCE: “Prufrock and Raskolnikov,” in American Literature, Vol. 17, No. 3, November, 1945, pp. 213-230.

[In the following essay, Pope traces similarities between Prufrock and Raskolnikov, the brooding hero of Dostoevski's novel Crime and Punishment, finding in the character Prufrock a similar existential darkness.]

It is now over thirty years since J. Alfred Prufrock entered the literary world. He has become so familiar a figure that he can travel without credentials. Nobody asks where he came from. Yet it is misleading to set him down as one of Eliot's amusing and innocuous “observations,” the abject little man hiding a sensitive soul behind the brassy respectability of a morning coat and a calling-card name. Out of his divided personality come suggestions of something latently revolutionary, even anarchic. What does he mean by saying that “there will be time to murder and create”? Why does he consider “disturbing the universe” or likening himself for a fleeting instant to Hamlet? The truth is, I think, that he has had a dark and disreputable past, or, if you like, other and more sinister incarnations.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published in Chicago in 1915, in the June number of Harriet Monroe's Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Aside from some obvious misprints which suggest that the author had no opportunity to read the proofs, the text does not differ from that of the later editions. Eliot was at this time living in England, having left Harvard (as Professor Matthiessen reports) the previous summer on a traveling fellowship and sojourned in Germany until the war broke out. He had spent the winter reading Greek philosophy at Merton College, Oxford. Meanwhile, on the first of October, 1914, nine months before the publication of “Prufrock,” the Times Literary Supplement announced that Messrs. Heinemann of London had brought out Crime and Punishment in a new translation by Constance Garnett. This was the fourth volume of Mrs. Garnett's translation of Dostoevski, which had begun in 1912 with The Brothers Karamazov and had already included The Idiot and The Possessed. The craze for Dostoevski in England and the United States was approaching its zenith, partly because of this translation, which was making much of his work available in English for the first time and all of it more readable, partly because the literary world was ripe for at least some portion of his penetrating psychology, his revelation of the dark places in the human soul, his searching criticism of modern civilization, his half-mystical doctrine of redemption—and even for the unconventional form in which all this was presented. By the autumn of 1914 the outbreak of the war had intensified England's interest in all things Russian, and especially, perhaps, in Dostoevski as the most illuminating exponent of the Russian soul.

It would not be surprising, therefore, to find that Eliot was among the readers of the Garnett translation of Crime and Punishment at the very time, during that winter of 1914-1915, when “Prufrock” was conceived. Certainly there exist between these two seemingly incongruous works an extraordinary number and variety of resemblances. Merely to observe these resemblances brings out much of the peculiar quality of each, and especially of “Prufrock.”

Long before the time of “Prufrock,” in 1902, a reviewer said of Crime and Punishment, then available in the translation of Whishaw, that Dostoevski had “caught the undercurrent of stifled suffering” in the “withering life of cities.”1 It would be hard to describe more accurately the pervasive atmosphere of Dostoevski's Petersburg; and this atmosphere establishes at once a certain kinship with “Prufrock.” There the “stiflied suffering” belongs mainly to Prufrock himself, and the “withering life of cities” might better be called the withering life of fashionable society—the society that makes Prufrock talk of measuring out his life with coffee spoons, and seek refuge at last among the sea-girls. But as a backdrop in the poem there are the

                                                  half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels,
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells,

and there are the “pools that stand in drains,” the “soot that falls from chimneys,” and

                    the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.(2)

It is well to remember at this point that, according to Eliot himself, it was Baudelaire who, “not merely in the use of imagery of the sordid life of a great metropolis, but in the elevation of such imagery to the first intensity, … created a mode of release and expression for other men.”3 Probably Baudelaire's example—even some of his feeling for cities—and certainly Eliot's own observation played their part in creating these images, but the fact remains that Petersburg and the Boston-like city of “Prufrock” have something in common.

Much more important is the resemblance between the protagonists, Raskolnikov and Prufrock. It is not a physical resemblance, of course. Raskolnikov, the feverish young student, though “exceptionally handsome, above the average in height, slim, well-built, with beautiful dark eyes and brown hair,” was always in rags. Prufrock, growing old, with his bald spot and his thin arms and legs, can boast of little except his immaculate attire. The spiritual resemblance, too, has ironic contrasts that match this physical disparity. Yet the spiritual resemblance is striking. In the poem, Prufrock compares himself to Hamlet, though only to conclude that he does not deserve such honor. Had he mentioned Raskolnikov, he would have had to admit his inferiority again—but with less vigor, for the resemblance is stronger and the disparity less overwhelming. Raskolnikov too, whom Dostoevski often calls Schilleresque, has been compared to Hamlet. A reviewer in 1886 said that he had been aptly named the “Hamlet of the madhouse,” and two years later George Gissing wrote in a letter, of a stage version of Crime and Punishment that he had seen in Paris, “Paul Mounet played Rodion [Raskolnikov]; made him too much a melodramatic Hamlet.”4 All three characters are conspicuous in being “sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,” all three procrastinate, and all three fascinate us with their critical shrewdness, their imagination, and their self-revelation. Hamlet and Raskolnikov, however, ultimately solve the problems that confront them; Prufrock's will is permanently atrophied.

The affair of Raskolnikov is summed up by his clever adversary, Porfiry Petrovitch, the lawyer in charge of investigating his crime: “This is a fantastic, gloomy business, a modern case, an incident of today when the heart of man is troubled, when the phrase is quoted that blood ‘renews,’ when comfort is preached as the aim of life. Here we have bookish dreams, a heart unhinged by theories.” (Part VI, Chapter II.) When we encounter Raskolnikov at the beginning of the story, he is creeping down the stairs “like a cat,” afraid of meeting his landlady, “not because he was cowardly and abject, quite the contrary; but for some time past he had been in an over-strained irritable condition, verging on hypochondria. He had become so completely absorbed in himself, and isolated from his fellows that he dreaded meeting, not only his landlady, but anyone at all.” Having escaped from his lodgings, he walks along the streets, not noticing his surroundings: “From time to time, he would mutter something, from the habit of talking to himself.” Still in the first chapter, we are given a specimen or two of the “monologues in which he jeered at his own impotence and indecision.” His condition grows worse, if possible, as the story proceeds. At the beginning of Part VI the first sentence reads, “A strange period began for Raskolnikov: it was as though a fog had fallen upon him and wrapped him in a dreary solitude from which there was no escape.”

In the opening lines of his soliloquy, Prufrock shows unmistakable signs of the same disease—carried a step farther, indeed.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.

His isolation has gone so far that he not only talks to himself, but divides himself into two persons, “you and I,” as if in compensation for the lack of company. (There is a paragraph in the fourth chapter in which Raskolnikov addresses himself as “you,” but only as a means of upbraiding himself—there is not this uncanny sociability of Prufrock.) And in comparing the foggy evening, which is developed later in conjunction with the cat as one of the main symbols of the poem, to a “patient etherized upon a table,” Prufrock is plainly describing his own half-paralyzed, fogbound condition.

In both Raskolnikov and Prufrock this morbid condition is associated with actions they do not like to contemplate. At first Raskolnikov is trying to decide whether or not to murder “the old pawnbroker-woman” whom he has selected as his appropriate victim. That is why he jeers at himself for his “impotence and indecision,” as in the following passage, where his condition expresses itself in his reluctance to name the deed:

“It would be interesting to know what it is men are most afraid of, Taking a new step, uttering a new word is what they fear most. … But I am talking too much. It's because I chatter that I do nothing. … Why am I going there now? Am I capable of that? Is that serious? It is not serious at all. It's simply a fantasy to amuse myself; a plaything!” (Chapter I)

He is going to the pawnbroker's house, not to commit the deed, but simply to rehearse it. After the rehearsal he is seized with a terrible revulsion and thinks he will give up all thought of the murder; but he is led back to it by a series of tantalizing incidents that seem to prompt him to it. As his torment increases, we catch another glimpse of his mind:

Anyway he must decide on something, or else. …“Or throw up life altogether!” he cried suddenly, in a frenzy—“accept one's lot humbly as it is, once for all and stifle everything in oneself, giving up all claim to activity, life and love!” (Chapter IV)

It is Prufrock, not Raskolnikov, who gives up all claim to these things, and Raskolnikov will discover that he was wrong to look at the situation in this way; but the torment of indecision, so plainly marked in this passage, reappears later, when the problem is confession rather than murder, and a failure to act will indeed involve “throwing up life altogether.” Meanwhile, he shies away still from naming the deed:

And suddenly he realized what he was thinking. “After It,” he shouted, jumping up from the seat, “but is It really going to happen? Is it possible it really will happen?” (Chapter V)

His state of mind has been summed up by the author in a passage that is especially pertinent to the present discussion:

Long, long ago his present anguish had its first beginnings; it had waxed and gathered strength, it had matured and concentrated, until it had taken the form of a fearful, frenzied and fantastic question, which tortured his heart and mind, clamouring insistently for an answer. (Chapter IV)

In all this there is the very essence of Prufrock's crablike indirection, his unavailing efforts to repress his thoughts by not naming them. Prufrock also has his “question.” Half-conscious of the streets through which he must go in order to reach his destination, he finds the question popping up in an alarmingly unexpected way, and tries to defend himself against it:

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Ironically, Prufrock's overwhelming question is merely whether or not to make love to one of those women who

                                                  come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

He is so far from a decision that he seems not even to know which woman to select, for he later refers to his hypothetical mistress with the indefinite “one” rather than “she.” But he behaves toward this question just as Raskolnikov does toward his. Unlike Hamlet, who faces his problem directly when he says, “that is the question,” these latter-day descendants try to keep themselves from knowing what it is they are thinking about. Yet even the streets seem to conspire against them. In Prufrock's imagination they are not only leading him along the familiar route to the house where he will encounter the “one”; bawdlike, they are insinuating into his mind the sordidly erotic images which are at once a painful reminder of his need for love and a symptom of his frustration. Streets have a surprisingly similar effect on Raskolnikov. They lead him, too, to places where he had not wanted to admit that he was going; and what he sees in them increases his torment. In the fourth chapter, for example, while he is still recoiling from the shock of the “rehearsal,” he encounters a drunken and bedraggled girl who has just been seduced. Her pitiable condition seems to heighten his disgust and make him long to kill the pawnbroker merely as a symbol of all that is loathsome in humanity. He has more practical reasons, too, for his poverty haunts him, and he fears that because of it his sister will sell herself in a comparably degrading fashion. With the pawnbroker's money there might be some chance of avoiding all this. The streets seem always to bring him back to his “question.” They even provide him with the vital information that his victim will be alone at a certain hour on the following day, for he overhears a conversation that seems to have been planted there just to drive him on toward his goal. His thoughts about this are highly suggestive:

It is true that it happened to him dozens of times to return home without noticing what streets he passed through. But why, he was always asking himself, why had such an important, such a decisive and at the same time such an absolutely chance meeting happened in the Hay Market (where he had moreover no reason to go) at the very hour, the very minute of his life when he was just in the very mood and in the very circumstances in which that meeting was able to exert the gravest and most decisive influence on his whole destiny? As though it had been lying in wait for him on purpose! (Chapter V)

All Prufrock's suffering is concentrated for us in the single dramatic monologue that he delivers as, either actually or in fancy, he goes to make his visit, mounts the stairs, takes his tea, and retires in defeat. Raskolnikov's, protracted through the whole novel, is focused at three separate crises: the murder itself, the confession to the saintly harlot, Sonia, and the final confession to the police. At each of these crises there are resemblances to “Prufrock,” especially at the point where Raskolnikov is trying to confess to Sonia. Here the situation itself, by its similarity, heightens the ironic contrasts. Raskolnikov, though he will not admit to himself his love for Sonia until he has spent some time in prison, as described in the epilogue, has been irresistibly attracted to her almost since the moment, in the second chapter of the novel, when her drunken father described to him the selfless devotion with which she had sacrificed her chastity on behalf of her family. Her father compared her then to the woman that anointed the feet of Christ, and of whom He had said, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.” Sonia's self-abasement, so violently contrasted with Raskolnikov's own egotistic ambition, works powerfully on his subconscious mind even while he is trying to ridicule it; his subconscious love for her draws him toward the confession and ultimately, when it has become conscious, to his regeneration. The first hint that love brings life (and that the murder has brought death) comes a few moments after he has first set eyes on Sonia, when, receiving a message from her expressing thanks for his services to her family, he exclaims, “Life is real! haven't I lived just now? My life has not yet died with that old woman!” (Part II, Chapter VII.) But he does not understand what he is saying, and much suffering must follow before he can bring himself to go to Sonia for his confession. Even when he goes, he cannot approach the subject directly. The core of his unrest—the conflict between his proud isolation and his longing for a companionship that seems to demand Christian humility and Christian love—this core displays itself before he can utter a word about the fact of the murder. He begins asking Sonia about Lazarus, who is the central symbol of resurrection in the novel. Porfiry had put Lazarus into his mind during a painful interview:

“Then you believe in the New Jerusalem, do you?”


“I do,” Raskolnikov answered firmly; as he said these words and during the whole preceding tirade he kept his eyes on one spot on the carpet.


“And … and do you believe in God? Excuse my curiosity.”


“I do,” repeated Raskolnikov, raising his eyes to Porfiry.


“And … do you believe in Lazarus' rising from the dead?”


“I … I do. Why do you ask all this?”


“You believe it literally?”


“Literally.” (Part III, Chapter V)

But of course he does not. When he comes to Sonia's room, his eye falls on the New Testament, and he forces her to read to him the raising of Lazarus. (Part IV, Chapter IV.) Though outwardly rebellious, he is profoundly impressed: his desire to be like Lazarus, to be born again, leads him to his confession not only to Sonia but eventually to the police. Yet he will not be like Lazarus until the end. Even in prison he will not repent, and will not love. “What surprised him most was the terrible impossible gulf that lay between him and all the rest” of the prisoners. At last his resistance breaks. Repentance and love come simultaneously in a final meeting with Sonia; a new life lies ahead of him.

Sonia does not resemble those forbidding women known to Prufrock who talk of Michelangelo—whose arms are “braceleted, and white, and bare”—whose voices die “with a dying fall”—whose eyes “fix you with a formulated phrase.” Raskolnikov can talk to Sonia much more easily than Prufrock can talk to one of them. The motives for talking are different, too: on the surface, Raskolnikov desires to confess, Prufrock to make love. But Raskolnikov confesses to Sonia because, without realizing it, he loves her; so, if Prufrock should fall in love with one of his terrifying acquaintances, he, too, would have to confess. He would not have to confess a murder. He would merely have to “spit out the butt-ends of [his] days and ways.” Yet we are made to feel that the experience would be equally painful: it would involve a surrender of that proud, sensitive ego that Prufrock shares with Raskolnikov. Moreover, for Prufrock as for Raskolnikov, to fall in love is to be born anew, though Prufrock cannot bring himself to attempt it. He does not dare to be Lazarus:

Would it have been worth while …
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”?

Lazarus is the primary symbol of Prufrock's failure, as of Raskolnikov's victory.

The main difference between Raskolnikov and Prufrock lies in the fact that Raskolnikov, in spite of his hesitation, performs the crucial deeds, while Prufrock gives up. Yet Raskolnikov's last and most fearful test, his confession to the police, nearly ends in a failure like Prufrock's. He dreads it so terribly that, as if he were not already lonely enough, he longs to be still lonelier: “Oh, if only I were alone and no one loved me and I too had never loved anyone! Nothing of all this would have happened.” (Part VI, Chapter VII.) It is a revulsion like Prufrock's, when he says:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

In spite of the revulsion, Raskolnikov goes into the yard of the police office and starts mounting the stairs to the third story. “‘I shall be some time going up,’ he thought. He felt as though the fateful moment was still far off, as though he had plenty of time left for consideration.” (Part VI, Chapter VIII.) He has selected, for his confession, an “explosive lieutenant” of police, and as he goes up the stairs he is beset with doubts:

Was he actually going to him? Couldn't he go to some one else? … Couldn't he turn back? …


“Perhaps I still need not speak,” passed through his mind.

It is the very mood—almost the very words—of Prufrock as he too mounts the stairs:

And indeed there will be time …
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea …
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair.

These parallel speeches foreshadow parallel deeds. Raskolnikov, greeted at the top of the stairs by a flood of irrelevant chatter from the explosive lieutenant, hears without warning a staggering fact: Svidrigaïlov has just committed suicide—the mysterious Svidrigaïlov, whom he has feared doubly as the only man who might forestall his confession by betraying his secret, and as the depraved sensualist whose vice he scorns yet whose criminality he shares. Is there need, then, for confession? Is there even the possibility of it? Perhaps he must accept the degradation of being another Svidrigaïlov. Perhaps he, too, is fated to renounce life altogether. Overcome by such thoughts as these, which Dostoevski does not state explicitly,5 he falters and turns back, as if pointing the way to Prufrock: “He went out; he reeled, he was overtaken with giddiness and did not know what he was doing. He began going down the stairs, supporting himself with his right hand against the wall.” In the courtyard he confronts Sonia. A look passes between them, and Raskolnikov goes back up the stairs to deliver his confession.

Already there begin to emerge certain resemblances more particular and therefore more extraordinary than those of setting, theme, and character. A reader familiar with “Prufrock” finds with growing astonishment how many of its primary symbols are scattered through the pages of Crime and Punishment, as if Dostoevski had provided a quarry for the building of just this fantastically dissimilar poem. Besides Lazarus, we have encountered the fog, the streets, and now most recently the stairs. In fact, every one of Raskolnikov's three crises is associated with a flight of stairs that seems to accentuate its difficulty. And if Raskolnikov himself indirectly supplies the comparison of Prufrock to Hamlet, it is his friendly enemy Porfiry who supplies a hint of those superficial details of character and setting by which the tragic Raskolnikov and his world could be transmuted into satire. In the following speech, though Porfiry is merely engaged in a crafty assault on Raskolnilov's nerves, his words, as if prophetically, call up the picture of a timid, middle-aged bachelor in the midst of talking women:

“You see, I'm a bachelor, a man of no consequence and not used to society; besides, I have nothing before me, I'm set, I'm running to seed and … and have you noticed, Rodion Romanovitch, that in our Petersburg circles, if two clever men meet who are not intimate, but respect each other, like you and me, it takes them half an hour before they can find a subject for conversation—they are dumb, they sit opposite each other and feel awkward. Every one has subjects of conversation, ladies, for instance … people in high society always have their subjects of conversation, c'est de rigueur, but people of the middle sort like us, thinking people that is, are always tongue-tied and awkward.” (Part IV, Chapter V)

Still another of Eliot's prominent symbols may owe something to Dostoevski's suggestion. Prufrock, musing on the certitude of his failure, says:

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald]
                    brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter.

The brilliant comparison to John the Baptist needs only a recollection of the thick, black hair of Oscar Wilde's Jokanaan to explain its peculiar effectiveness.6 But there are two separate passages in Crime and Punishment in which the notion of a prophet springs up, each time in connection with Raskolnikov's prospect of regeneration if only he can be brought to confess, if only he can muster the strength to force his moment to a crisis. Both passages occur within a page of each other in the midst of a tense dialogue between Raskolnikov and Porfiry, in the second chapter of Part VI:

“No!” he said, apparently abandoning all attempt to keep up appearances with Porfiry, “it's not worth it, I don't care about lessening the sentence. …”


“Ah, don't disdain life!” Porfiry went on. “You have a great deal of it still before you. …”


“A great deal of what lies before me?”


“Of life. What sort of prophet are you, do you know much about it?”

And presently Porfiry says:

“I regard you as one of those men who would stand and smile at their torturer while he cuts their entrails out, if only they have found faith or God. Find it and you will live. You have long needed a change of air. … What you need now is fresh air, fresh air, fresh air!”


Raskolnikov positively started.


“But who are you? what prophet are you? From the height of what majestic clam do you proclaim these words of wisdom?”

But if it is surprising to find so many of Eliot's symbols lying ready to hand in Dostoevski's novel, it is doubly so to find, in passages closely allied to “Prufrock,” certain almost identical words and phrases. Just before the murder, we come upon this description of Raskolnikov:

He could not imagine, for instance, that he would sometime leave off thinking, get up and simply go there. … Even his late experiment (i.e., his visit with the object of a final survey of the place) was simply an attempt at an experiment, far from being the real thing, as though one should say “come, let us go and try it—why dream about it!” (Chapter VI)

In this context, surely, there is something uncanny about the resemblance of the italicized words to Prufrock's,

Let us go, then, you and I, …
Let us go and make our visit;

and perhaps also to the later, twice repeated formula, “If one … should say.”

This is an isolated example; it is not until we reach the scene of the confession to Sonia (Part V, Chapter IV), which in other respects is the scene nearest to “Prufrock,” that the verbal parallels become numerous. It is a fearfully tense scene, and the tension expresses itself in repetitions of the same words and phrases. Eliot, with his well-known sensitiveness to turns of phrase and to repetitions and echoes, would have responded to all this with especial vigor. Near the beginning of the chapter is a passage that puts one in mind of Prufrock's hesitance on the threshold of a declaration by a reference to Raskolnikov's indirect approach to his confession, and by an ironically apposite allusion to time:

“You'd better say straight out what you want!” Sonia cried in distress. “You are leading up to something again. …”


His sensations that moment were terribly like the moment when he had stood over the old woman with the axe in his hand and felt that “he must not lose another minute.”


“What's the matter?” asked Sonia, dreadfully frightened.


He could not utter a word. This was not at all, not at all the way he had intended to “tell” and he did not understand what was happening to him now.

The last sentence of this quotation looms large soon after, when its crucial words are reiterated by Raskolnikov's, “Well, here I've come to tell you,” and by the author's comment, “It was not at all, not at all like this he had thought of telling her, but this is how it happened.” By this time one begins to think seriously of Prufrock's unuttered speech:

                    “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all,”

and perhaps also of “That is not it, at all,” which we shall meet again in a moment.

While Prufrock is distantly considering the business of telling all, he wonders, “How should I begin?” These are almost the words of Raskolnikov as he starts his confession: “I must speak now, but I don't know how to begin.” Still, he does begin, and the enormously complex motives that had led to the murder are pulled out of him one by one. His first explanation reminds one a little of Prufrock's flirtation with the idea of his likeness to Hamlet; for Raskolnikov says that he had pondered long on the example of Napoleon:

“It was like this: I asked myself one day this question—what if Napoleon, for instance, had happened to be in my place, and if he had not had Toulon nor Egypt nor the passage of Mont Blanc to begin his career with, but instead of all those picturesque and monumental things, there had simply been some ridiculous old hag, a pawnbroker, who had to be murdered too to get money from her trunk (for his career, you understand). Well, would he have brought himself to that, if there had been no other means? … Well, I must tell you that I worried myself fearfully over that ‘question.’”

Once more, as in the earlier passage that I have quoted about the “fearful and fantastic question,” we are put in mind of the “over-whelming question” of Prufrock. Raskolnikov now proceeds with another explanation, for he sees that Sonia does not understand, or quite believe, the first; and when he has got through this, he is met by a rebuff: “‘Oh, that's not it, that's not it,’ Sonia cried in distress, ‘How could one … no, that's not right, not right.’” Raskolnikov picks up her phrase, and it echoes repeatedly as the strained dialogue proceeds:

“That's not it, you are right there.”


“No, Sonia, that's not it,” he began again suddenly …“that's not it!”

And after a page of explanation: “No, that's not it! Again I am telling you wrong.” Irresistibly one recalls the reply that Prufrock fears from the woman of his choice:

“That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all,”

and the repetition of it:

“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

It is true that the words uttered by Sonia have a slightly different meaning; but they have this in common with those of Prufrock's lady, that they express the want of rapport between the speaker and his interlocutor, and seem destined to lead to the same tortured attempts at self-explanation. And presently Raskolnikov gives another motive for his crime that strikes home: “I … I wanted to have the daring … and I killed her. I only wanted to have the daring, Sonia! That was the whole cause of it!” Just so Prufrock is tormented by the question, “Do I dare?” And when he has given up, his scorn of himself is expressed most bitterly in the remark, “And in short, I was afraid.”

There is one further passage to be noted in the confession to Sonia. It is a haunting one, full of Raskolnikov's misery and self-abasement:

“I know it all, I have thought it all over and over and whispered it all over to myself, lying there in the dark. … I've argued it all over with myself, every point of it, and I know it all, all! And how sick, how sick I was then of going over it all!”

More artfully, but in precisely the same spirit, Prufrock in turn rings the changes on knowing it all:

For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons. …
And I have known the eyes already, known them all. …
And I have known the arms already, known them all.

This and one final set of passages from novel and poem are those that seem most strikingly to move to the same music. Shortly before his confession to the police, Raskolnikov plays variations on another phrase, with a closing exclamation that vividly recalls his earlier performance; and Prufrock, not to be outdone, chooses the same phrase for his own masterly improvisation. I shall quote both passages without further comment:

And was it worth while, after all that had happened, to contend with these new trivial difficulties? Was it worth while, for instance, to manoeuvre that Svidrigaïlov should not go to Porfiry's? Was it worth while to investigate, to ascertain the facts, to waste time over anyone like Svidrigaïlov?


Oh how sick he was of it all! (Part VI, Chapter III)

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile. …
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts
                    that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more? …
Would it have been worth while? …

Such parallels are eloquent. Unless the gods of chance have performed one of their strangest miracles, the Garnett translation of Crime and Punishment was a major source of inspiration for “Prufrock.” It was by no means the only source. I agree heartily with those critics who have seen in the poem traces of Baudelaire's imagery and of Laforgue's technique—even of his themes. In highly original works like Eliot's, influences reinforce rather than exclude one another. A familiarity with the stairs of Dante, or with the cats and fogs, the hospital-images, and the sordid city-scenes of Baudelaire will quicken rather than blunt one's response to similar images elsewhere. So also in matters of technique: a poet will respond to the repetitions and echoes of Doestoevski (or his translator) the more readily if he has learned to enjoy the repetitions and echoes of Laforgue. In another half-technical matter Dostoevski may have exerted a stronger influence. The reticence and indirection of Prufrock's utterance, which constitute the main obscurity of the poem for the casual reader and a source of fascination for the initiate, may have been prompted almost entirely by the example of Raskolnikov. If so, Dostoevski helped to establish a mannerism that has persisted in Eliot's poetry beyond its dramatic occasion, for almost all his poems have something of the flavor of a confession that only half confesses. Yet even here Eliot had encountered a directive in a book that he knew well, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, by Arthur Symons. It contains many hints for the poems he was to write, among them a line from Gérard de Nerval's sonnet “El Desdichado,” from which another line is quoted in “The Waste Land”. The line quoted by Symons, “J'ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage la sirène,” looks suspiciously like the germ of the mermaid passage at the end of “Prufrock.” And later, speaking of Verlaine, Symons says: “From the moment when his inner life may be said to have begun, he was occupied with the task of an unceasing confession, in which one seems to overhear him talking to himself, in that vague, preoccupied way which he often had. … It is the very essence of poetry to be unconscious of anything between its own moment of flight and the supreme beauty which it will never attain.”

But what distinguishes Crime and Punishment as a source is its centrality, its range, and the completeness of its metamorphosis. For any sensitive person, the first reading of it is a notable experience. How much more notable for one troubled by the sterility that he sees, or fancies that he sees, in himself and in his world, one haunted by the ruthless vision of the Divine Comedy, and shoring out of a believing past a few fragments against his ruins. Dostoevski reveals, in the setting of a thoroughly actual and modern metropolis and with almost unequaled dramatic intensity, the torments of unbelievers who yet struggle toward belief. I do not think that Dostoevski can compete with Dante as an abiding influence on Eliot's thought or on his poetry. What seems clear to me is that the reading of Crime and Punishment was a major experience, and that in a multitude of ways it brought about a significant ordering of Eliot's creative imagination. Eliot aptly described the process in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” an essay that reads, from start to finish, like a commentary on the very sort of relationship that I have suggested: “The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” It would seem that Crime and Punishment supplied several of these particles and put them all in readiness to form a new compound.

Apart from the romance of origins and magical transformations, however, I would lay stress on the sympathy that unites Dostoevski and Eliot, these almost antipodal representatives of the modern spirit in literature. Prufrock's kinship with Raskolnikov demonstrates more clearly than his descent from Hamlet the common humanity that universalizes his minutely observed oddity. So, too, the seriousness that underlies Eliot's levity, a seriousness not to be confused with Prufrock's half-comic melancholia, reveals its depth and scope when it is placed beside the seriousness of Dostoevski. Within the poem, Michelangelo, John the Baptist, and above all Lazarus symbolize the spiritual vitality that Prufrock, unlike Hamlet, cannot achieve—the vitality that, in a narrower manifestation, would turn his love-song into something less pathetically dissimilar to Andrew Marvell's. What Eliot states negatively Dostoevski states positively, and so nearly in the same terms that each statement illuminates the other with peculiar clarity. One may carry the comparison a step farther. “Prufrock,” the first of Eliot's mature poems, points clearly, by its theme and by its symbols, toward the comprehensive analysis of spiritual sterility in The Waste Land, and through The Waste Land, where the theme of regeneration begins to assert itself more positively, to the latest of the “Quartets.” It is at least curious, and I think indicative of the end implied by such a beginning, that Crime and Punishment anticipates this entire spiritual development.

Notes

  1. Academy, LXIII, 685 (Dec. 20, 1902).

  2. Throughout this article, the quotations from “Prufrock” follow the text of Eliot's Collected Poems, 1909-1935, by courtesy of the publishers, Harcourt, Brace and Co.

  3. “Baudelaire,” Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (New York, 1932), p. 341.

  4. Spectator, LIX, 939 (Suppl. for July 10, 1886); and George Gissing, Letters to His Family (London, 1927), p. 226. Here and earlier I have been guided by Helen Muchnie's study, Dostoevsky's English Reputation (1881-1936) (Northampton, Mass., 1939).

  5. Mr. Louis L. Martz, who has helped me in these conjectures, has also called my attention to the possibility that Svidrigailov, as in some sense Raskolnikov's double or counterpart, might have some connection with the dual personality of Prufrock.

  6. This was pointed out in the illuminating “Observations on ‘Prufrock,’” by Roberta Morgan and Albert Wohlstetter, Harvard Advocate, CXXV, 27 ff. (Dec., 1938).

Principal Works

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Prufrock and Other Observations 1917

Poems 1919

Ara Vos Prec. 1920

The Waste Land 1922

Poems, 1909-1925 1925

Journey of the Magi 1927

A Song for Simeon 1928

Animula 1929

Ash-Wednesday 1930

Marina 1930

Triumphal March 1931

Two Poems 1935

Words for Music 1935

Collected Poems, 1909-1935 1936

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats 1939

East Coker 1940

The Waste Land, and Other Poems 1940

Burnt Norton 1941

The Dry Salvages 1941

Little Gidding 1942

Four Quartets 1943

A Practical Possum 1947

Selected Poems 1948

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees 1956

Collected Poems, 1909-1962 1963

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound [edited by Valerie Eliot] 1971

Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry (lecture) 1917

The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (essays) 1920

Homage to John Dryden: Essays on Poetry of the Seventeenth Century (essays) 1924

Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca (lecture) 1927

For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (essays) 1928

Dante (criticism) 1929

Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (selected essays) 1932

Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama (drama) 1932

The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry (criticism) 1933

After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (lecture) 1934

Elizabethan Essays (essays) 1934

The Rock: A Pageant Play (drama) 1934

Murder in the Cathedral (drama) 1935

Essays Ancient and Modern (essays) 1936

The Family Reunion (drama) 1939

The Music of Poetry (lecture) 1942

What Is a Classic? (lecture) 1945

Milton (lecture) 1947

On Poetry (lecture) 1947

From Poe to Valèry (lecture) 1948

Notes towards the Definition of Culture (nonfiction) 1948

The Aims of Poetic Drama (lecture) 1949

The Cocktail Party (drama); 1950

Poetry and Drama (lecture) 1951

The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (poetry and drama) 1952

Selected Prose [edited by John Hayward] (nonfiction) 1953

Murder in the Cathedral [film revision of Eliot's drama, with George Hoellening] 1952

The Three Voices of Poetry (lecture) 1953

The Confidential Clerk (drama) 1954

The Frontiers of Criticism (lecture) 1956

On Poetry and Poets (essays and criticism) 1957

The Elder Statesman (drama) 1959

Collected Plays (drama) 1962

To Criticize the Critic, and Other Writings (essays and criticism) 1965

The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (poetry and drama) 1969

Suggested Readings

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Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Bush, Ronald. T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.

Wagner, Linda W. T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

John C. Pope (essay date 1947)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1079

SOURCE: “Notes and Queries,” in American Literature, Vol.18, No. 4, January, 1947, pp. 319-21.

[In the following essay, Pope reprints and comments on a letter from Eliot explaining some of his sources for “Prufrock” and its connection to Crime and Punishment.]

Mr. T. S. Eliot has supplied me with some important corrections for my article, “Prufrock and Raskolnikov,” which appeared in American Literature, XVII, 213-230 (November, 1945). I was wrong in attributing the resemblances between “Prufrock” and Crime and Punishment to Mrs. Garnett's translation, and in supposing as a consequence that the poem had been composed (I rashly said “conceived”) after October, 1914. The actual details are of such interest that I have secured Mr. Eliot's permission to quote his account in full, from a letter of March 8, 1946:

I have never read Mrs. Garnett's translation of Crime and Punishment. The poem of Prufrock was conceived some time in 1910. I think that when I went to Paris in the autumn of that year I had already written several fragments which were ultimately embodied in the poem, but I cannot at this distance remember which. I think that the passage beginning “I am not Prince Hamlet,” a passage showing the influence of Laforgue, was one of these fragments which I took with me, but the poem was not completed until the summer of 1911. During the period of my stay in Paris, Dostoevsky was very much a subject of interest amongst literary people and it was my friend and tutor, Alain Fournier, who introduced me to this author.1 Under his instigation, I read Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov in the French translation during the course of that winter. These three novels made a very profound impression on me and I had read them all before “Prufrock” was completed, so I think you have established very conclusively the essentials of your case, and the only red herring that led you astray was that I could only have read Crime and Punishment in Mrs. Garnett's translation!


Conrad Aiken's statement of trying unsuccessfully to place “Prufrock” in London in 1914 is quite correct.2 This would have been the spring of 1914. I had had the poem by me, therefore, unpublished for three years. Indeed, as I remember it was only with great difficulty that Ezra Pound finally persuaded Miss Harriet Monroe to accept the poem for Poetry Chicago, in 1915.

So far as I know, the only French translation of Crime and Punishment available in 1911 was that by Victor Derély, first published in 1884 and often reprinted.3 In all essentials, this translation creates the same effect as Mrs. Garnett's, and possibly some passages would seem more pertinent to the poem, but I should warn the reader of my article that the verbal parallels on which I laid stress toward the end are considerably less persuasive in the French. For example, here are the two passages from Mrs. Garnett that I quoted on p. 227, and the corresponding passages in Derély:

“I know it all, I have thought it all over and over and whispered it all over to myself, lying there in the dark. … I've argued it all over with myself, every point of it, and I know it all, all! And how sick, how sick I was then of going over it all!” (Part V, Chapter IV)


“Je sais tout. Tout ce que tu pourrais me dire, je me suis dit mille fois, pendant que j'étais couché dans les ténèbres. … Que de luttes intérieures j'ai subies! Que tous ces rêves m'étaient insupportables et que j'aurais voulu m'en débarrasser à jamais!”


And was it worth while, after all that had happened, to contend with these new trivial difficulties? Was it worth while, for instance, to manoeuvre that Svidrigaïlov should not go to Porfiry's? Was it worth while to investigate, to ascertain the facts, to waste time over anyone like Svidrigaïlov?


Oh how sick he was of it all! (Part VI, Chapter III)


Aprés tant de combats déjà livrés, fallait-il encore engager une nouvelle lutte pour triompher de ces misérables difficultés? Était-ce la peine, par exemple, d'aller faire le siége de Svidrigaïloff, d'essayer de le circonvenir, dans la crainte qu'il ne se rendît chez le juge d'instruction?


Oh! que tout cela l'énervait!

The state of mind and the repetitive rhetoric are the same in both versions, but the French passages do not turn on the repetition of “Je sais tout” or of “Était-ce la peine” as do Prufrock's speeches on “I have known them all” and on “Would it have been worth while.” I doubt whether, if I had been reading the novel in French, I should have noted at these points more than a vague relevance to the poem.

Fortunately, although Mr. Eliot's letter gives Crime and Punishment a somewhat less decisive position in the history of “Prufrock” than I was tempted to imagine, it testifies generously to the prominence of Dostoevski in his mind during the period of composition. What is especially welcome is its authoritative account of the growth of an important poem. This account modifies very helpfully Mr. H. R. Williamson's statement (which I had overlooked) that the poem was composed in 1910,4 and reveals with what surprising rapidity it developed from the brief beginnings that can be observed in the poem “Spleen,” first published in the Harvard Advocate for January, 1910.5

Notes

  1. For Alain Fournier's interest in Dostoevski between 1909 and 1911, see Jacques Rivière and Alain Fournier, Correspondence, 1905-1914 (Paris: Éd. de la Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 1926-1928), IV, 84 f., 114, 128 f. (“Depuis Claudel, aucun livre ne m'a rapproché du christianisme comme l'Idiot”;), and passim.

  2. Harvard Advocate, CXXV, 17 (December, 1938).

  3. Vladimir Boutchik, in his Bibliographic des œuvres littéraires russes traduites en francais (Paris: Jean Flory, 1935-1936), I, 52, lists two undated translations, one by J. Ferenczy, the other by M. Séménoff, which I have been unable to trace, but I am almost certain that they belong to a later period. The Idiot was available only in Derély's translation (1887). The Brothers Karamazov had been translated by E. Halpérine-Kaminsky and Ch. Morice in 1888 and by J.-W. Bienstock and Ch. Torquet in 1906, both versions greatly but differently abridged. Eliot is more likely to have read the former, since it was published with the Derély versions of the other two novels by Plon-Nourrit et Compagnie.

  4. The Poetry of T. S. Eliot (London, 1932), p. 61.

  5. Reprinted in the Harvard Advocate, CXXV, 16 (Dec., 1938).

Shyamal Bagchee (essay date Winter 1980)

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SOURCE: "'Prufrock': An Absurdist View of the Poem," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. VI, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 430-43.

[In the following essay, Bagchee argues that "Prufrock" should be reinterpreted in terms of post-modern theories.]

I

The aim of this article is to reclaim one of T. S. Eliot's most celebrated poems as a truly modern poem: as poetry that is as significant in our post-Modernist times as it was in 1915 when it was published at the beginning of the Modernist movement in Anglo-American literature. For much too long it has been admired and interpreted mainly from narrowly Modernist or Eliotic perspectives. Most existing readings of the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" ridicule the poem's main character for his timidity and self-deception. He is blamed for surrendering too easily to the petty vanities encouraged by a shallow and self-conscious society. The poem is admired mainly for its supposedly Modernist irony and its stylistic innovations. It seems to me that this "standard" approach fails to explain the poem's strange and powerful hold on the imagination of twentieth-century readers. There is an inexplicable gap between the critics' high-minded rejection of Prufrock and his world, and the incontrovertible appeal of the poem itself. The important concerns of the poem are those of the central character, yet critics have continually berated that character.

The view that Prufrock is a damned soul or a morally flawed character is popular also because it ties in well with the moral and religious concerns of Eliot's later writings. But this acceptance of the "integrity" of Eliot's oeuvre, though attractive in its neatness, tends to make us overlook significant differences between the poems. Today Eliot scholarship has advanced far enough for us to demand an analytical rather than a synthesized view. By making the right distinctions between the various kinds of creative impulses which inform the different poems we will better understand the poet.

In view of the continued appeal of "Prufrock" and The Waste Land at a time when Modernist poetic ideals have fallen in general disfavour, one may perhaps rightly conclude that in spite of certain superficial affinities with the deliberately iconoclastic and abrasive poetry of the early Modernist period, these poems never really belonged to that literary school or period. I think it can be profitable to examine Eliot's poetry from such post-Modernistic positions as the Existentialist and Absurdist. The poems indicate the inadequacy of reason and morality to make sense of our experience. "Prufrock," in particular, depicts a rational, sensitive, and sensual individual's exasperatingly pointless encounter with reality. The poet seems unable to suggest a path that will lead to sense and will impose some meaning upon experience.

Given Eliot's natural inclinations (which were towards order, some system of belief whether literary or religious) it is difficult to believe that he would ever have accepted this absurdist stance as the final view of life. Therefore, it is not surprising that Eliot did not write about an absurdist view in his prose criticism. For him the ideal was always a system of order, but his poetry was not merely the versification of what he thought; it embodied his experience of reality. On the one hand, Eliot was far too sensitive to be able to ignore the pervasive and painful irrationality of the world around him; on the other hand, he was not one who could, like Yeats and Lawrence, fight that reality passionately and imaginatively. Eliot must be seen apart from other writers who underwent the modern experience. He did not have Joyce's fine sense of proportion about the absurd which gave Ulysses its moral-comedic vitality. Neither was he temperamentally equipped to persist indefinitely in a view of amoral-irrationality; therefore, he did not develop into a writer like Kafka. Eventually Eliot had to discover tradition and religion as his symbols for order, but in these early poems he was mainly free from religious predilections and was close to the world of the absurd. It cannot be said that he was ever quite convinced about the inevitability of the absurd world (though he was surely, for the time being, painfully aware of its inexorability); for this reason he never became a co-medic-nihilist like Samuel Beckett.

II

"Prufrock" is more an inconclusive question (both for the protagonist and the poet) than it is a solution effected through social or moral satire. The poem does not invite us to force an absolute distinction between the poet and the protagonist; rather it invites us to regard Prufrock as a likely mask for the poet and for many of the poem's readers—the deliberately conflated "us" in the opening line.

What I would like to suggest is that Prufrock should be regarded as Eliot's Everyman. Of course, Everyman is never really every man and Eliot's is no exception. What makes Prufrock an Everyman is that in him acceptable notions of the self, of both the poet and the reader, find expression. Needless to say Everyman is not a heroic character; but this Everyman, being the Everyman of a particularly sensitive, learned, literary-minded, intelligent poet, is at least a special person. So is, in a way, the ideal reader of Eliot's poetry.

Far from being a damned soul, or a social nincompoop, Prufrock is actually quite admirable, especially when we contrast him against his social milieu. Moreover, Prufrock proves himself capable of describing and interpreting astutely the moral pointlessness of the world in which he lives.

It has often been pointed out that the poem highlights lack of communication between individuals, and that Prufrock's main guilt is his refusal or inability to sing his "love song." However, throughout the poem it is Prufrock who worries most about the impossibility of such communication. Prufrock's most urgent wish is to convey his feelings. He is the most humane of Eliot's early protagonists and is flanked on one side by the silent and solipsistic Narcissus ("stifled and soothed by his own rhythm"), and on the other by the pathetic and gregarious lady of "Portrait of a Lady." Prufrock does not sing his "love song." But this is not because he wants to remain aloof from people who surround him. Rather, unlike the lady, he is acutely conscious of the insensitivity and callousness of his society and can see the futility of expressing his true feelings. Whatever else the unuttered "love song" may be, the bit of it that is actually verbalized by Prufrock is neither solipsistic nor lofty in any philosophical sense. In fact these are words that try to reach out to other people, words that are pregnant with great sympathy for fellow human beings:

     Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
     And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
     Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?

We should pay particular attention to these lines. Within the poem's fragmented narrative framework, they represent Prufrock's first tentative formulation of the song. For most readers these lines are overshadowed by the more transparently rhetorical hyperbole of Prufrock's rehearsing of his "speech" a few lines later:

     "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
     Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"—

That this is really a "speech," or the beginning of one, is indicated by the inverted commas used to emphasize its theatricality. This "speech" has no thematic substance at all; it gives no indication of what it is that is bothering Prufrock; it is merely a pose, deliberate histrionics.

By contrast, in the earlier quotation Prufrock attempts to bring to the attention of a gregarious but uncaring society the real sense of isolation, of loneliness, that exists under the surface. It is not necessary to assume that this loneliness affects only the protagonist who loves to luxuriate in imagined suffering and eventually becomes an enervated solip-sist through sentimental overindulgence. What makes the poem relevant to our age is our recognition of both the validity of what Prufrock wants to say and of the fact that the women in the room will never really understand what he means. In fact what Prufrock wants to say in these lines is echoed by Eliot in "Morning at the Window" and "Preludes," two of the most compassionate of his early poems. In "Preludes IV" an "I" voice, who is probably the poet himself, confesses:

     I am moved by fancies that are curled
     Around these images, and cling:
     The notion of some infinitely gentle
     Infinitely suffering thing.

Critics often point to these lines when they seek to defend Eliot from charges of indiscriminate irony and lack of human sympathy. I think Prufrock's lines belong with these. But Prufrock is not a poet, he is merely the poet's Everyman. The poet is in a special sense a hero, a creator; he can live through the images he creates. To Prufrock such life is not available. In spite of these differences between the "I" of "Preludes" and Prufrock, the similarity of the message strengthens my view that Prufrock is actually quite close to the poet, for even the poet admits that in the face of our unthinking, heartless reality his images are, perhaps, no more than "fancies" to which he "clings." This is the most that is available to sensitive individuals—to hope for a more tangible solution to one's anxiety is to deceive oneself.

Eliot does not depict Prufrock as a prophet or even a prophet manqué. Prufrock's prophetic voice in the Lazarus speech is really a joke, and Prufrock intends it to be seen as a joke. It is not correct to imagine that Prufrock unrealistically or obtusely thinks of himself as one who has come back from the dead. As a matter of fact, Prufrock knows himself quite well. When he pictures himself making the speech, he does not see himself as being tense or overly serious, rather as being amused at the incongruous image of "squeezing the universe into a ball." He thinks of himself as casually "biting off the matter with a smile" (italics mine). This is one of Prufrock's private jokes: private because he cannot share it with anyone who is around him. Only he can see it as a comic invention, and he alone is capable of imagining such an improbable scheme with which to provoke his stupid audience. It is worthwhile to remember that Prufrock is not seeking to ask the overwhelming question but merely "some" overwhelming question—any that would be suitably highfalutin, outrageous, and improbable. In the opening stanza of the poem we are told that the overwhelming question is to be asked of Prufrock, not by Prufrock.

Prufrock already knows that his humane appeal to his listener's conscience will inevitably fail: "I have seen the moments of my greatness flicker." He fully understands that he must not expect from either the woman or anyone else in his world sympathetic imagination and genuine concern. In fact, his lines about "lonely men in shirt-sleeves" are not obtuse enough to attract his listeners' attention or to interest them. His words may contain truth but they sound too simple, too low-key. What should he do instead? Use a special style, even if a false one? Speak in an artificial, theatrical rhetoric? Assume the tone and diction of a prophet? He is not convinced that doing any of these things would help him in any way: "Would it have been worth it after all?" he asks. The answer, obviously, is "no." Nevertheless, he tries to imagine what he would sound like if he did; he may even be able to startle his audience with this improbable form of speech. It is Prufrock himself, with his definite sense of irony, who tells how incongruous any show of human concern will be

     After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
     Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me.

In pointing out the irony Prufrock makes it quite clear that he has the ability to judge the true worth of the norms of social behaviour expected of him, the behaviour he regretfully conforms to. His sensitivity makes him vulnerable. He is an outsider and is treated as such by the women who discuss him as they would anyone similar to him—"some talk of you and me." The "you" here, as in the first line of the poem, includes the reader and the poet, both of whom are outsiders in that society.

Mainly, Prufrock wishes to tell his listeners that "No man is an island, entire to itself." But Prufrock is not a hero; he does not have a prophet's power to convince others, nor does he have the self-assurance needed to convince himself that he should at least try. Instead, he despairs and gives up. Numerous critics have dwelt upon Prufrock's "failure," his inability to "force the moment to its crisis." But this inability has been unjustly seen as moral failure, even more turpitude. Such a view of morality may be appropriate in the context of traditional ethical expectations, particularly to the conventional notion of a hero, but it is out of place in the amoral world of this poem. Ideally, Prufrock should have persisted in making his point; but to insist on such positive action from an unheroic character is to force a heroic concept on a world where notions of heroism have become inoperable. Prufrock is not a leader of men, but in not being one he does not automatically become insignificant to the reader. The disapproval of Prufrock's failure is quite simplistic and indicates our inability to enter imaginatively the existential and kinetic (rather than ideal and absolute) world of the poem.

The important question to ask is, "What could Prufrock have done being who he is?" To say that he should have been a different kind of person is to overlook the essential existential problem outlined in the poem. Prufrock comes at the head of the long list of non-heroes in recent literature. As a non-hero Prufrock is not better or worse than we are; therefore, we understand what he has to say while his listeners in the poem do not. This is one of the major indications of the poem's absurdity, its absurd world, and its absurd process of communication. Like many post-Modernist works of literature, "Prufrock" arranges its communicative pattern in a non-static, spatial way. What Prufrock fails to say to the lady in the poem, the very act of his failure makes most meaningful to the reader. I am not talking about dramatic irony, allegory, or any such referential rhetorical device that makes us understand a created literary piece—an object stable in time—from the outside of it. "Prufrock" is not to be understood merely by reference to stable intellectual and moral notions outside the poem. In fact "Prufrock" should not be approached referentially at all. Its dimension is that of space and it grows spatially into our, the readers', world. The creation of the relationship between the protagonist and the reader, in the "us" of the opening line, is vital to the poem's intended significance. It is not Prufrock's failure that we are shown in the poem; rather we are given an unmistakable sense of deja vu. The poem's world and its agony, despair, and uncertainty reach our world by extending a number of tentacles—various and complex patterns of images, emotional vibrations, and voices. Among these must be mentioned strange and compelling imagistic features like the "street" that follows like a "tedious argument," the fearful and mechanistic shadow of nerve patterns on the wall, and the silently scuttling crab that Prufrock wishes he was.

The special feeling of the absurd in the poem arises from Prufrock's, and our, apprehension that although the world is amoral and illogical, we are not yet prepared to accept it as such. This makes for a peculiar dilemma: is one what one thinks one ought to be, or is one someone one has never been taught to recognize? These critics who suggest that the "overwhelming question" is not really an "insidious" one but a profoundly moral one fail to understand the way in which the poem works. The questions about what Prufrock did, what he should have done, and what he should not to have done are quite out of place and deserve Sweeney's firm but impatient disapproval:

    What did he do! what did he do?
    That don't apply.

When Prufrock admits with much agony, "it is impossible to say just what I mean!"—lines that can be placed next to Sweeney's words, "Well here again that don't apply/But I've gotta use words when I talk to you" we should not assume that this is merely because Prufrock cannot articulate recondite ideas.

The tragedy of Prufrock, if the word tragedy is not inappropriate here, is that he, like most of the poem's readers, has been brought up on the idea of a hero ("Prince Hamlet") and therefore cannot now reconcile himself to the notion of a non-hero. In other words, Prufrock is quite unlike Murphy, the protagonist of Samuel Beckett's novel Murphy. Caught between two worlds, the reasonable and the moral, and the irrational and the amoral, Prufrock epitomizes one of the most central and most perplexing of modern dilemmas. And it is my view that the communication of this dilemma accounts for the continued appeal of "Prufrock." In the poem and in its portrayal of the protagonist we recognize the "divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting," which according to Albert Camus constitute the feeling of Absurdity.

To understand the absurdist intentions of the poem we must consider the character of Prufrock in the context of the world in which he lives. We should not approach the poem from preconceived moral or satirical premises. The poem is about a man who is neither so naive as to overlook the irrationality of the world around him, nor so pessimistic as to accept the failure of reason as final and absolute. This hesitation makes Prufrock a special person. Prufrock is not like the others in the poem who appear to be utterly ignorant of what it is that is happening to their world. Some degree of sympathetic and intellectual understanding of life is necessary before questions about reason and irrationality, meaning and absurdity become important to an individual. Such questions do not trouble obtuse minds. It is an indication of the special nature of Prufrock's character that these questions bother him; his predicament is of half knowing and half not knowing the issues involved. When one is not thus bothered one can afford to be dogmatic, smug, and self-assured as the woman in the poem is when she says so emphatically, "That is not it, at all" (italics mine). By contrast Prufrock hesitates, vacillates, and is diffident. He is not one of the "low"

      on whom assurance sits
      As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
                                       (The Waste Land)

It is instructive to contrast Prufrock with the house-agent's clerk in The Waste Land. Prufrock, middle-aged and neat of appearance, is an antithesis of the "young man carbuncular" even though both are shown visiting their ladies. Eliot's early poetry demonstrates the several levels at which individuals encounter reality. Among the various characters who populate the early poems Prufrock is alone in believing that no individual, however competent and intelligent he may be, can truly have his whole meaning by himself. Yet having a meaning, or at least believing that meaning is important, is one of major concerns. The young man in The Waste Land is not in the least bothered by the fact that his overtures to his mistress have no effect on her. His assurance and self-sufficiency are disgusting:

      The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
      The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
      Endeavours to engage her in caresses
      Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
      Flushed and decided, he assaults at once. (Lines 235-39)

For Prufrock, polite and sceptical, time is never "propitious" in the world in which he has to live.

Although Prufrock never sings his "love song," neither does he reduce his love to an "assault." Prufrock is diffident not because he believes that his song is unworthy of being sung; his main fear is that it will be ridiculed and defiled by an uncaring world. In the world of the poem, the emotional, lyrical quality of his sensitive mind makes Prufrock an exceptional person, but it also makes him especially lonely. However, the inexorable fact about both love and song is that they need at least two people to give them meaning.

What can a person like Prufrock do? The poem's stark answer is "nothing." That is precisely what Prufrock does. One cannot, as the protagonist of The Waste Land foolishly imagines possible, set one's own lands in order. It is an intellectual self-deception to presume that there are "my lands" which can be separated from lands that belong to others, and it is equally self-deceiving to believe that one can, by oneself, set any land in order. The only things one can truly have by oneself are one's dilemma and anxiety. Eliot's personal, and it would appear inevitable answer to this dilemma in later life was the rejection of the world itself. But such a drastic metaphysical position is not maintained in the early poems, where the concerns of the absurd world are unmitigated by any ascetic desire for withdrawal into a spiritual world. In the world of the early poems such withdrawal can merely "confirm a prison." Many of Eliot's early protagonists are solipsistic and ego-bound: Narcissus, the young man in "Portrait of a Lady," Gerontion, and several characters in The Waste Land. Only Prufrock, even in his faltering ways, desires to break open the prison of the complacent self. In a vague way he is similar to the woman in "Portrait of a Lady" who also believes in friendship: "Without these friendships—life, what cauchemar!" What makes this woman pathetic is that she foolishly declares her love to a world that cares little for such an emotion. She sings her love song and confirms the validity of Prufrock's fears. In spite of the strong erotic attraction of the woman in the shawl Prufrock does not sing his song to her; in doing what Prufrock does not do, the woman in "Portrait" acquires a lover who trifles with her affection.

What is, in effect, absurd about the world of Prufrock is that even the most apparently right gestures and efforts lead only to wrong solutions—or to no solutions at all. No easy reconciliation with this irrational world is possible for the person who expects reasonable and humane solutions. The unthinking woman whom Prufrock loves, or the cruel young man of "Portrait of a Lady," are least bothered by this absurdity. But Prufrock and many of the poem's readers are not such people. Unlike the protagonist of Thom Gunn's poem "Innocence," Prufrock is not

     ignorant of the past:
     Culture of guilt and guilt's vague heritage,
     Self-pity and the soul.

Rather, he is an heir to all these, especially "soul"; perhaps "self-pity" is a more human manifestation of soul's "vague heritage" than the arrogant, upstanding qualities our world loudly proclaims in public and expresses in clichés. In Gunn's ironic poem the "hero" has forged, out of such "finitude of virtues" (line 13) as "Courage, endurance, loyalty and skill" (line 10), a conscience that "No doubt can penetrate, no act can harm." Prufrock's soul is not composed of such innocent and sturdy ingredients. On the other hand, Prufrock's recent literary inheritors include many of Philip Larkin's sensitive but non-heroic protagonists. This comparison goes against the generally held view of the works of these two poets. For instance, C. B. Cox has recently written that "there is a compassion which sharply differentiates Larkin's democratic sympathies from T. S. Eliot's assumptions of superiority." The misunderstanding is due mainly to the Modernist readers' fastidious cultivation of a taste for ironic and abrasive literature. "Prufrock" has often been admired for wrong reasons—reasons which are, to some extent, based on pre-conceived assumptions about Modernist literature. Today we recognize the humanity of Joyce's Ulysses, although for a long time Joyce was regarded primarily as an iconoclastic writer. Such change of attitude towards Eliot's works is not yet evident. At least partly, "Prufrock" is a humane poem.

III

Our understanding of Prufrock's character has been influenced also by our notion of Eliot's poetic techniques. For example, critics often quote approvingly Eliot's statement, made several years after he wrote "Prufrock," that a modern poet must become more and more "allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning." But this is not the only way poetry can be written. Obliqueness in poetry, as the context of Eliot's statement makes quite clear, is the result of cultural contingency and is not in itself a special poetic virtue. Although the modern world has cultivated to a high degree its habit of not paying attention to simply expressed words, this is not necessarily because such words are inevitably inadequate. In a kind of two-tiered logic "Prufrock" seems to make this very point. The protagonist's words about lonely men in shirt-sleeves are quite direct and make no attempt to "dislocate" language. But they fail to satisfy the fastidious listener, who demands something rich, strange, and obviously different from normal speech; this expectation leads Prufrock to contemplate half mockingly his speech about Lazarus. In Pound's words, "The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace." In "Prufrock", a highly innovative poem, the complex, disjointed structure and indirect mode of expression are undercut by a deeper, persistent belief that it is the condition of the world itself that has banished from it both natural feelings and a natural kind of poetic expression. It is impossible to make sense in this world unless one joins hands with it. This is the contingency the poet faces and he adjusts his expression accordingly. The form of the poem is a living, spatial symbol of that reality.

I wish now to examine a specific aspect of the poem's spatial nature—the central method of its depiction and embodiment of the absurd. In "Prufrock" a number of inanimate, or at least non-human, objects acquire a living quality. The most important of these is the "street" of the opening paragraph. Both the descriptive words used to signify it, and the effect it supposedly has on the protagonist, give the street a sinister character. The street forms not merely a part of the landscape—the celebrated opening "scene" of the poem—it assumes an active role in the poem. The street is described as a "muttering retreat." This phrase stands in ambiguous syntactical relationship with the cheap hotels as well as the street. The street not only "mutters" but it also "follows" while at the same time that it, paradoxically, "leads." The street is not stationary, nor is it merely a long, curving line drawn in a painting; it chases the speaker from behind, while it is also ahead of him, beckoning him toward "an over-whelming question." Apparently, its intentions are far from benevolent; they are "insidious": lying in wait somewhere along the street, in ambush, is the question one cannot foresee or formulate, the question that one suspects exists, that one knows one will never be prepared for. The anxiety that propels the protagonist, who from time to time glances fearfully backwards over his shoulder (how else would he know that the street was following him?), makes him step cautiously (the insidious question lying in wait for him, ahead of him) but hastily (for he is also being pursued) into a future which seems to continue unendingly…. The point I am trying to make is that the "street" is not a symbol or a metaphor. Eliot's "multifoliate rose" is a symbol—a complex one, but still only a referential signpost. So are the "rock" and the "rose garden." But this sinister, slithering, and self-willed street is an active agent of the anxiety that haunts the protagonist. For the individual, who exist between birth and death—Eliot does not appear to be concerned with Christian salvation in this poem—the anxiety has no beginning which he can manipulate, nor can he know where its end lies. The street is a continually self-regenerating image. Unlike the "rock" in The Waste Land it is not stable and finite. The "rock" is stable and solid, both semantically and in the range of its traditional symbolical meanings.

As the spatial vehicle of Prufrock's anxiety about not knowing what it is that he should do, the street extends into the reader's world and adds a concrete dimension to the poem. From the beginning Prufrock and the reader are walking, escaping, and following the same street. If the street is to be taken as a metaphor, then it must be seen as a deliberately misapplied one: it suggests a meaning—the journey, the path, the anxiety—and yet it remains itself—concrete, menacing, advancing. The word "street" suggests a range of possible meanings, then it proves all those meanings (what it stands for) highly inadequate and becomes real itself. In a way, it is a catachresis rather than a metaphor. In another sense, the "street" is what phenomenological critics call an essential "experiential pattern" which embodies an author's experiential world, or his Lebenswelt.

The street recedes backward into the remote distance, but it never actually ends; beyond every curve on the way it is still there. Ahead, it lies on and on; even when out of view it is unmistakably there. This creates a mise en abîme effect. It recedes but does not disappear; its validity is both continuous and continually revived. The street engulfs both Prufrock and the right reader. To cover it, to travel to its end, to reach some meaning, to hope to have the overwhelming question asked is to engage in the labour of Sisyphus, the most absurd and nerve-wracking of all endeavours. Sisyphus is an appropriate symbol for Prufrock and we may, in viewing them together, see why Prufrock fails to ask his question although he tries repeatedly and almost achieves success. Prufrock is doomed continually to try to sing his love song, to waver between a desire to sing his song and a desire to conform to the trivial wishes of the world, to hear "human voices" telling him to roll his trousers and forbidding him to eat peaches, and to expect to hear the "mermaids singing"—who sing "each to each" but never to him.

The street runs out of the page and into the reader's world; at the same time it runs through the poem from the half deserted streets, to the strand at the end of the poem where Prufrock contemplates walking in white flannel trousers. The street is always there, even when we are indoors, insidiously lying in wait for us just outside or watching us through the "window-panes." While Prufrock attempts to ask his question—which is not the "overwhelming question"—he is also mindful that the insidious, inexorable "overwhelming question" may be asked of him at any time. These two ironically juxtaposed "questions" make the protagonist's double-edged dilemma visible to the reader. In fact, when he first formulates his question he mentions his walks "at dusk through narrow streets" where he was expecting to have the over-whelming question" asked of him.

Prufrock does not know the exact nature of the "overwhelming question." However, in his absurd and pointless life the encounter with this question is likely to be the only significant thing to happen to Prufrock. We may call it a "spot of time" or the point of the intersection between time and eternity although it is likely that the high experience suggested by the two phrases may be entirely out of place in the life of a non-hero. But that absurdity is in itself an indication of the overriding absurdist view presented in the poem. A more positive character, a hero, a saint, or a poet, may be able to create such special moments, or may know how to make his life an appropriate context for such moments. But Prufrock does not know anything about the nature of that special hour. He merely hopes that his life, too, will have such a moment and his worst fear is that it might come upon him when he is least prepared for it. Therefore, he is afraid of the street by the side of which the overwhelming question lies in wait to spring before him at any random moment. Unlike others in the poem, Prufrock cares very much for such a moment of illumination. So far his life has been far from remarkable and he knows that. He is not so cynical as to imagine that such moments are of no worth, nor is he so much enlightened as to have any prior notion of what it can mean. He is both afraid and hopeful. The important thing is that Prufrock can, even at his humdrum level of existence, contemplate the existence of an "overwhelming" question. His impatient "Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?'" is quite understandable. To ask for its definition is to limit its awesome dimensions, whereas Prufrock needs something that is infinite. In his finite world everything he knows is frustratingly insignificant. If the poem was meant to work within an idealistic framework—moralistic, aesthetic, or religious—the question would have been more definite and its significance more fathomable, although it still may not have been within the power of the individual to will it. In Murder in the Cathedral Becket does not, cannot, take the "decision" but can, as Prufrock cannot, with his "whole being give entire consent." But we cannot compare Becket with Prufrock for their worlds are seen from very different points of view. "Prufrock" is a more revealing picture of the reader's world than are the later works. This is not a world where empty pools in the rose garden suddenly get "filled with water out of sunlight" ("Burnt Norton"); it is a world where "eyes … fix you in a formulated phrase" not only because you are painfully conscious of what people think of you but also because the "eyes" themselves get metamorphosed, abstracted from the rest of the body and dominate the scene as in a surrealistic painting. It is a world where "hands" drop questions "on your plate," and "arms" acquire separate identities. Prufrock has not lost his senses; it is merely that he alone seems to be aware of the strange but real landscape. In a way he is no more insane than Salvador Dali. We misread Prufrock's thoughts when we say that he prefers to withdraw into a hard shell and wants to become a crab "scuttling across the floors of silent seas." He is merely saying that in the society in which he lives there is as little communication and reaching out towards others as there is between crabs. It is not he who is a crab or wants to be a crab, it is the woman—synedochically expressed as "Arms that are braceleted," therefore comparable to "a pair of ragged claws"—who behaves as a crab. A much-distressed Prufrock wonders why he too could not have been such a silent hardshelled crustacean; had he been one he would not have felt so out of tune with his world.

This poem is spoken by Prufrock, and much of what we know about the world around him is reported to us by him. It is not necessary to blame him for every action he reports. It is unfair to imagine that only Prufrock has measured out his life with coffee spoons. Of course he has done so, as have others, but only he seems to recognize that there should have been more to life. Similarly, Prufrock is bothered by the women's opinion of his appearance, but they themselves are not above such petty concerns. His reaction to the women's trivial behaviour is not exemplary, but it is real and not idealized. It is unlikely that even if Prufrock was made of worthier stuff, if he had been a real hero, he would have had a different reception from the women.

Again, when Prufrock says:

    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
    Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
    I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach

we may not assume that he is expressing his most cherished desires. It is much more likely that he is merely hoping that by conforming to the standards expected by society he may be able to keep the backbiting women ("some talk of you and me") at bay. Like Kafka's K he, too, cannot understand what crime he has committed, and is unable to find an explanation for society's irrational displeasure with him. These lines show Prufrock's defeat at the hand of "human voices." Yet it is not a final defeat, for end of the poem is a great lyrical outpouring, with Prufrock on the beach within earshot of the women and the mermaids. One imagines that Prufrock's vision of sea-girls will not allow him to be irredeemably drowned by "human voices."

In the religious phase of his career Eliot said "in our beginning is our end" and the "end is where we start from" ("Little Gidding," v). By that time the road itself had become manageable, comprehensible, and even dispensable. But in "Prufrock" neither the beginning nor the end is known, and the road is not inconsequential. The path is not cyclical; it is lateral, infinite, and insidious. Most of Eliot's early poems show only arbitrary beginnings and arbitrary ends; the beginnings mock each other as the ends do themselves. The poems themselves become icons for the "insidious" and "cunning" streets and corridors, as well as for movements along them. The final existential anxiety that perplexes a Prufrock is a convincing representation of the Absurd—not knowing where the road started, not knowing if it leads to any place, and waiting in fear and hope for the "overwhelming" question, "Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door."

Prufrock's Dilemma

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1519

To begin with Eliot's title, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," is the second half quite what the first led us to expect? A man named J. Alfred Prufrock could hardly be expected to sing a love song; he sounds too well dressed. His name takes something away from the notion of a love song; the form of the title, that is to say, is reductive. How does he begin singing?

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky ...

That sounds very pretty—lyrical—he does seem, after all, in spite of his name, to be inviting her for an evening; there is a nice rhyme—it sounds like other dim romantic verse. Then comes the third line:

Like a patient etherised upon a table ...

With this line, modern poetry begins.

In the first place, the third line proves that the author of the first two lines did not mean them. They were a come-on, designed merely to get the reader off guard, so that he could be knocked down. The form, again, is reductive; an expectation has been created only to be diminished or destroyed. (Presently it will prove that "you" is not the woman at all, since "you" is invited to make a visit with "I" to her; we can hardly say yet who "you" is; an assumption has been destroyed.) And the word "then"—"Let us go then"—is really very unpromising; if he had only said, "Let us go," it would have sounded much more as if they were going to go; "Let us go then" sounds as if he had been giving it thought, and thought suggests hesitation. Of course he never goes at all: the visit, involving the "overwhelming question," the proposal of marriage, is never made. Here again we come on a reduction....

Eliot's manner is highly sophisticated, but perhaps we ought not to call the poem sophisticated. Let us call it primitive. The poem pretends to be a love song. It is something much more practical. It is a study—a debate by Prufrock with himself— over the business of proposing marriage, agreeing to lay your fate in someone else's hands, undertaking to spend your life with her, to beget and rear children, and so on. He never makes it. The first half of the poem looks forward to the proposal, the second half looks back on how it would have gone if it had gone at all. The poem is intensely anti-romantic, and its extremely serious subject, in a so-called Love Song, is another rebuke to the (probably romantic) reader. Primitive societies take a dim view of not marrying. Hawaiian mythology, for instance, describes a god called Nanggananaag, whose job it is to stand with an immense club on the Road to Paradise and smash off it, into nothingness, any unmarried male who, having died, tries to get by. This way of thinking is precisely Eliot's. Late in the poem Prufrock looks forward with dismay (and a certain jaunty pathos) to his endless bachelorhood—the sameness and triviality that are the lot of one who never succeeded in adopting his human responsibilities at all. It is clear that the poet sympathizes with Prufrock. It is also clear that the poet damns Prufrock. Some of the basic emotions of the poem are primitive also—fear, malice—but lust is absent, and the prevailing surface tone is one of civilized, overcivilized anxiety. Prufrock's feelings are rather abstract; he never makes the woman real at all, except in one terrible respect, which let us reserve a little. He is concerned with himself. He is mentally ill, neurotic, incapable of love. But the problem that he faces is a primitive problem.

Eliot brings to bear on Prufrock's dilemma four figures out of the spiritual history of man: Michelangelo, John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet. Prufrock identifies himself, in his imagination, with Lazarus; he says that he is not the Baptist or Hamlet. About the first all he says is:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

What are we to make of this? There is a twittering of women's voices. Their subject? A type of volcanic masculine energy—sculptor, architect, as well as painter—at the height of one of the supreme periods of human energy, the Italian Renaissance. Chit-chat. Reduction, we may say. Michelangelo, everything that mattered about him forgotten or not understood, has become a topic for women's voices —destructive, without even realizing it. Then Prufrock says,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—

The situation is a visit, or the imagination of a visit, to the woman; it was women who got the Baptist beheaded. We might phrase the meaning as: I announce no significant time to come, I am the forerunner of (not children, not a Saviour) nothing. Then Prufrock is speculating about how it would have been, IF he had

squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"—

We have seen Prufrock already imagined as dead, the suggestion of the epigraph, and at the end of the poem he drowns. Here he thinks of himself as come back. Lazarus, perhaps, is the person whom one would most like to interview—another character from sacred history, not Christ's forerunner but the subject of the supreme miracles (reported, unfortunately, only in the Fourth Gospel)— the one man who would tell us ... what it is like. Prufrock has a message for the woman that is or ought to be of similar importance: here I am, out of my loneliness, at your feet; I am this man full of love, trust, hope; decide my fate.

Now—postponing Hamlet for a second—what Prufrock imagines the woman as saying in return for his Lazarus-communication explains his despair:

If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."

Here the reason for his inability to propose becomes clear. He is convinced that she will (or would) respond with the most insulting and unmanning of all attitudes: Let's be friends; I never thought of you as a lover or husband, only a friend. What the women's voices did to Michelangelo, her voice is here imagined as doing to him, unmanning him; the sirens' voices at the end of the poem are yet to come. This is the central image of Prufrock's fear: what he cannot face....

As for Hamlet, Prufrock says he is "not Prince Hamlet." He is not even the hero, that is to say, of his own tragedy;... But of course he is Hamlet— in one view of Shakespeare's character: a man rather of reflection than of action, on whom has been laid an intolerable burden (of revenge, by the way), and who suffers from sexual nausea (owing to his mother's incest) and deserts the woman he loves.

The resort to these four analogues from artistic and sacred history suggests a man—desperate, in his ordeal—ransacking the past for help in the present, and not finding it—finding only ironic parallels, or real examples, of his predicament. The available tradition, the poet seems to be saying, is of no use to us. It supplies only analogies and metaphors for our pain....

Prufrock's not proposing to the lady (there is no suggestion that anyone else will) might be thought of as aggressive: at whatever cost to himself, he deprives her of a mate, a normal married life. For such fear and humiliation as he suffers, we should expect some sort of revenge taken. But Prufrock suffers from the inhibitions that we might imagine as accompanying a man of such crucial indecision. He has difficulty in expressing himself, for instance, and this difficulty is brought prominently into the poem. Notice particularly the lines

And how should I begin?
It is impossible to say just what I mean!

His incoherence is a token of his struggle, and it is hardly surprising that his resentment against the woman in the poem emerges only in malicious detail ("catty" we would call this) as—of her arms—

in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!

What does come forward openly is his imagination of escape from the dilemma altogether.

Prufrock's burden is that of proposing marriage when he does not know whether or not he may be ridiculed. His desire, from the outset, to have the whole thing over with, no matter how, we have seen already in the line about the "patient etherised upon a table." At the very end of the poem, in an excited and brilliant passage which might be characterized as one of negative exaltation, he imagines—like Hamlet—his death, as an escape at any rate from the dread anxiety of his ordeal....

Source: John Berry man, "Prufrock's Dilemma," in The Freedom of the Poet, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1940 pp. 270-276.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

Criticism

Bentley, Joseph. "Actions and the Absence of Speech in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'" Yeats Eliot Review 9, No. 4 (Summer-Fall 1988): 145-48.

Argues that what Prufrock is really afraid of is modern society and its language patterns, and thus is not the pathetic character portrayed in other criticism.

Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'." Explicator 52, No. 3 (Spring 1994): 170.

Discusses the importance of shellfish to the imagery in "Prufrock."

Campo, Carlos. "Identifying the 'Lazarus' in Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." English Language Notes XXXII, No. 1 (September 1994): 66-9.

Claims that the Lazarus referred to in the poem is from Luke's account and the more famous story in John.

Colum, Padraic. "Studies in the Sophisticated." New Republic 25, No. 314 (8 December 1920): 52, 54.

Discusses the modernistic aspects of Eliot's poetry.

cummings, e. e. "T. S. Eliot." Dial XLVIII (June 1920): 781-84.

Praises Eliot's technique in Poems.

Everdell, William R. "Monologues of the Mad: Paris Cabaret and Modernist Narrative from Twain to Eliot." Studies in American Fiction 20, No. 2 (Autumn 1992): 177-96.

Considers the evolution of American literature as influenced by Mark Twain, culminating with Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Fleissner, Robert F. "The Germanic Insect Image in Prufrock." Germanic Notes 20, No. 1 (1989): 2-3.

Discusses insect imagery in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

―――――――. "Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Explicator 50, No. 2 (Winter 1992): 104-05.

Suggests a reinterpretation of the poem's opening lines, arguing they are not as tentative and hesitant as critics perceive.

―――――――. "Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Explicator 48, No. 3 (Spring 1990): 208-10.

Analyzes the influence of American popular music on Eliot's poem.

Helmling, Steven. "The Humor of Eliot: From 'Prufrock' to The Waste Land." Yeats Eliot Review 9, No. 4 (Summer-Fall 1988): 153-56.

Considers the evolution of humor in Eliot's poetry from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to The Waste Land.

Krogstad, Christopher, and James D. Alexander. "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'." Explicator 53, No. 1 (Fall 1997): 53-4.

Considers the influence of Omar Khayyam's The Rubaiyat on "Prufrock."

Monteiro, George. "T. S. Eliot and Stephen Foster." Explicator 45, No. 3 (Spring 1987): 44-5.

Compares "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with Stephen Foster's "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."

Sherfick, Kathleen A. "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'." Explicator 46, No. 1 (Fall 1987): 43.

Comments on Biblical references in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

"Not Here, O Appolo." Times Literary Supplement, No. 908 (12 June 1919): 322.

Claims that Eliot's attempt at sophistication and novelty in Poems leads him to say nothing in his poetry.

Untermeyer, Louis. "Irony de Luxe." Freeman I, No. 16 (30 June 1920): 381-82.

Praises "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" but finds the rest of Poems lacking.

Weinstock, Donald J. "Tennysonian Echoes in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'." English Language Notes VII, No. 3 (March 1970): 213-14.

Notes similarities between Prufrock and Tennyson's characters but concludes that Prufrock is doomed to paralysis while Tennyson's protagonists take action.

Critical Overview

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According to Vincent Miller, "By 1914 the age of the heroic achiever was over. That was ... the truth [this] love song pinned down in a startlingly new and creative way for an entire generation." Indeed, American poet John Berryman declares that "Modernist poetry begins" in the simile "like a patient etherised upon a table." He recognizes, however, that even the title manifests a decidedly Modernist "split" in its juxtaposition of the full romance of the term "love song" against such a highly formalized name as J. Alfred Prufrock. This is a technique Eliot discovered in reading the French Symbolist poets Jules Laforgue and Charles Baudelaire. He declared that his early free verse was "more 'verse' than 'free,'" adopting Laforgue's practice of "regularly rhyming lines of irregular length, with the rhyme coming in irregular places." This creates the music of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and inspired American poet Delmore Schwartz to theorize that "[t]here is [a mode of] poetry whose chief aim is that of incantation, of inducing a certain state of emotion." It is clearly the intent of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to involve the reader at an emotional level, and Eliot's use of the second person "you" in the opening line is an expert strategy toward this. But whether the "you" Prufrock is speaking to begins as the poet Eliot or as some imaginary companion, it is evident that, as Northrop Frye maintains, Prufrock ultimately is talking to himself, and that "[i]n addressing a 'you' who is also himself" the pattern is set for a division between Prufrock and the world he contemplates—until he stands irrevocably separated from that world.

M. L. Rosenthal contends that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" projects "an actual inner state ... of one type of cultivated American psyche of Eliot's generation." He further notes "a strongly adolescent flavor," asserting that the poem "positively sweats panic at the challenge of adult sexuality and of living up to one's ideal of what it is to be manly in any sort of heroic model." Ann P. Brady says that Eliot was aware of this, maintaining that the poem reflects Prufrock back "from the world in which he moves" in a "clinically hard" way, and that this contrast with romantic aspirations—the "juxtaposition of lyricism with the tone of satire"—creates the Modernist tension. She finds the satire unusually effective in Eliot's coupling of rhyme words that "are absurd," particularly "ices-crisis, platter-matter, flicker-snicker," producing what she calls "deflation by association."

English novelist May Sinclair notes Eliot's concern with reality, with his careful presentation "of the street and the drawing-room as they are," as well as "[w]ith ideas ... that are realities and not abstractions...." Thus "Prufrock" presents not only a man in the world but, as James F. Knapp says, "a mind shaped along the lines of [Modernist] depth psychology...." He sees this reflected in the poem by the abandonment of "logical continuity" necessitated by Eliot's material. The radicalness of "Prufrock," according to Knapp, is not simply in its break with poetic tradition, but in its use of old conventions and new ones to keep poetry "in touch with a changing world."

George Williamson (essay date 1955)

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SOURCE: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in A Reader's Guide to T.S. Eliot: A Poem-By-Poem Analysis, Thames and Hudson, 1955, pp. 57-70.

[In the following essay, Williamson provides a close analysis of “Prufrock.”]

The mixture of levity and seriousness immediately confronts the reader in the title poem of Prufrock and OtherObservations. For he transposes his epigraph from the serious context of Dante's Inferno to the lighter context of Prufrock's love song. The epigraph is never to be ignored in Eliot for while it is not an essential part of the poem, it conveys hints of the significance or even genesis of the poem. Together with the title, it prepares the reader for the experience of the poem. Thus the first rule in reading one of Eliot's poems is to consider the possibilities suggested by the title and epigraph.

In this poem (1915) we have the love song of a certain character, whose very name is suggestive of qualities he subsequently manifests.1 Then the epigraph states the situation of another character, who was called upon to reveal himself. How is it related to the title? Are the two characters alike or merely in similar situations? In view of the disparity which we have already noted, let us proceed on the assumption that likeness in situation is more likely to explain the presence of the epigraph. What, then, is the situation? In the Inferno (xxvii, 61-66) the flame of Guido is asked to identify himself—“so may thy name on earth maintain its front”—and he replies, in the words of the epigraph: “If I thought my answer were to one who ever could return to the world, this flame should shake no more; but since none ever did return alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer thee.” Obviously, if this relates to Prufrock, it must be an extended metaphor which will gradually unfold itself.2

The first line of the poem introduces a “you and I” at a point in a debate at which the subjective “I” is surrendering to the more objective “you” and agreeing to go somewhere. Who are the “you and I” and where are they going? The “I” is the speaker, but who is the “you” addressed? The title would suggest a lady, but the epigraph suggests a scene out of the world, on a submerged level. Is the “I” giving in to a lady? Going to a more acceptable rendezvous? Or is he submitting for the moment to an urgent “you,” with whom he is not in harmony?

It is evening, tea-time as we shall see. But the evening has an unusual character; as something seen through the eyes of the speaker, it derives its character from the speaker. This speaker is, we know, submissive—if we cannot say reluctant. Now he sees the evening in the aspect of etherization, and the metaphor of etherization suggests the desire for inactivity to the point of enforced release from pain. All of this simply projects the mind of the speaker—a mind, it would appear, that is in conflict, but presumably concerned with love.

After we learn the time of the going, colored by the speaker's mind, we learn the way of the going; and, considering the suggested character, it is a surprising way, through a cheap section of town. But it further characterizes the argument, tedious but insidious because leading to an “overwhelming question.” The streets suggest the character of the question at their end as well as the nature of the urge which takes this route. The abrupt break after the mention of the question suggests an emotional block, which is emphasized by the refusal to identify the question. The urge seems to belong to the “you” and the block to the “I”. Yet we are given an object of going in “our visit,” though the real purpose has been evaded. This closes the first section and is followed by a stanzaic pause.

The most obvious question that “visit” provokes is “where” and this is answered by “in the room.” But it is more than answered; it is qualified, again by the speaker's mind: his destination is a room in which women talk of the sculptor of heroic figures—no doubt trivial talk, but none the less of Michelangelo. After this recall of his destination, he turns back to the immediate scene—immediate at least in his psychological drama, or interior monologue.

With the image of the fog as cat we have another reflection of his mental state: desire which ends in inertia. If the cat image suggests sex, it also suggests the greater desire of inactivity. The speaker sees the evening in aspects of somnolence, or of action lapsing into inaction, both artificial and natural—sleep and etherization. The fog's settling down prompts the reflection that “indeed there will be time” for its more suggestive activity, and for his own. It may be observed that Eliot also follows Ben Jonson's rule for disposition: that each part provide the “cue” to the following part. “Time” now associates the scene with his mental indecision, but time also offers him an escape. This escape is good, however, only until the crucial moment for the question arrives; and it will be observed how the tension mounts as the time shortens, reaching a climax when he must “begin.”

As he takes comfort in postponement, in the future, he amplifies the contemplated action in its “overwhelming” aspect with a violence of similitude that began with the metaphor of etherization. This also adds to the growing tension. And this violence of similitude is functional: it expresses emotions or states of mind; its exaggeration often explodes into gentle ridicule, provides the excess by which excessive feeling is perceived and measured. But there will be time for what? To prepare a face for the ordeal? Or rather “to meet the faces that you meet”? His self-conscious accommodation to the social scene suggests the same thing in others. This action is given an incongruous violence by the phrase “to murder and create”—relative to one face or being and another. The same kind of mock-heroic contrast appears in the un-Hesiodic “works and days of hands,” though it also magnifies the “question.” And there will be time for the two of them, you and me, at least before the event. This section ends by making precise the moment for the “overwhelming question,” which is tea-time.

And again the place is recalled. In the poem it becomes almost the haunting refrain that it is in the mind of the speaker.

Still finding comfort in time, the next section increases the tension by raising the question of daring—only to particularize his fear. The tensional image of climbing stairs, with implication of effort, only exposes his weakness in the self-conscious disabilities proper to unromantic middle-age. Again there is the mock-heroic touch in his “collar mounting firmly,” and the “assertion” of his simple pin. His fear has now mounted to the image of daring to “disturb the universe.” And so he clings the more desperately to the comfort of time: in the possibilities of a “minute” he finds the courage to mention “decisions” where before he could only utter “indecisions.”

In this projection of a psychological drama it will be noticed that Prufrock is coming ever nearer to “the room.” Now he recalls the times that he has known, the trivial and timid measuring out of his “life with coffee spoons.” At this point the imminence of his test is indicated by the emergence of the present tense: “I know the voices”; he is within sound, and presently within range of the other senses. He has known all this without doing what he now considers; so how should he presume to disturb the accepted order?

The images progress in intimacy as he approaches the climax: voices, eyes, arms. Now the eyes fix him, give him his place in the accepted order, with a formulated phrase. When he has been classified like an insect, how can he deny this classification and break with his past? How can he begin “to spit out all the butt-ends”—the violence of the metaphor has an appropriate indecorum for the social scene which intensifies the conflict within him.

As he itemizes the arms that he has known, he is distracted for a moment by an erotic symbol, the parenthetic observation “downed with light brown hair.” He seeks the cause of this digression in “perfume from a dress”; but is it a digression? And if so, for the “you” or the “I”? Knowing these arms, he asks, “should I then presume?” The climax comes with a question which is also an answer: “And how should I begin?”

And begin he does, but he never finishes his proposal. After the preamble following “Shall I say,” his psychological block sets in, and he concludes by observing the kind of creature he should have been—“a pair of ragged claws” in “silent seas,” not Prufrock in a drawing room. It is noteworthy that his beginning about “lonely men” recalls the streets which he took on his way to the room. And the sea imagery should be kept in mind at the end of the poem. Eliot has indicated the crisis by typographical breaks in the text, but the transition is as simple as from “how begin” to “shall I say.”

After this crisis the somnolent imagery is resumed and decreasing tension is at once marked. Of course the reversal is unfolded in terms of the tea party. Now the evening sleeps, or malingers, catlike, “here beside you and me”—both of whom, we must conclude, are Prufrock. For the lady is never “you” in the poem; she is “one.” The rhyme of “ices” with “crisis” mocks their chime by their antithesis, and is characteristic of the way in which Eliot makes his rhyme functional. Now a series of heroic parallels, first suggested in Michelangelo, is begun in a self-justification which thereby becomes mock-heroic. Though he has prepared for his trial of strength, he is no prophet like John the Baptist; certainly not the hero of Wilde's Salomé, for he is “grown slightly bald.” Though he has aspired to such a role, his self-consciousness makes him extremely sensitive to social discomfiture—reflected in the image of his head “brought in upon a platter,” another likeness to John. And so his great moment has passed, and the “eternal Footman” of social fate—as inexorable as John's death—has snickered as he held his coat, dismissing him with the shame of inferiority added to defeat. Timidity has conquered his amorous self—the suppressed “you.” In excusing himself he has seized on a parallel which both exposes and mocks his weakness.

Henceforth he looks back upon the event and rationalizes his failure: “would it have been worth it”? And always his fear of misunderstanding the lady and exposing himself to ridicule settles the question. To his frustrated self he explains that “among some talk of you and me” he might have revealed his buried life—here the Lazarus parallel expresses its momentous nature for him—only to expose himself to a rebuff. And the magic lantern image puts his great dread, public revelation of his sensitivity, into its most vivid form.

Then the poem turns again, this time to a note of decision, marking the resumption of his dominant role. He is not Prince Hamlet, though indecision might suggest it; rather the cautious attendant. Here even the sententious, choppy verse suggests the prudent character, as he takes refuge in self-mockery. The long, heavy sounds of weariness are heard in the line “I grow old … I grow old …” while he asserts the unromantic character to which he resigns himself, resolving, however, to be a little sportive in dress (by wearing his trousers cuffed). No more “overwhelming questions” for him; only whether to try to hide his baldness, or whether he dares to eat a peach. Perhaps all this will be his revolt against middle-aged decorum, but then the mermaids, like the lady, probably will not sing to him (as to Ulysses).

The imagery of the sea, begun with “oyster-shells,” again emerges at this point; it is the imagery of his suppressed self. And the verse takes on a lyric or singing character where it has been talking verse before. The lyric note comes with the erotic imagery of the mermaids, and the hair of the waves recalls the down on the lady's arms. This watery, floating imagery involves the relaxation of all effort, offers a submerged fulfilment. It is ended when “human voices wake us, and we drown”—with the intrusion of reality, which drowns the inner life, the “us” in Prufrock. If this is a sublimation of the amorous Prufrock, it is a release of the timid Prufrock from the polite world which overcomes him. But reality returns, and the divided self is submerged again, not resolved.

Now we can see how Eliot has transposed his epigraph to a modern psychological context. Prufrock answers his suppressed self because “none ever did return alive from this depth”; hence he can answer without fear of being exposed. The reasons for this suppression, however, involve other fears. The “you” is the amorous self, the sex instinct, direct and forthright; but now suppressed by the timid self, finding at best evasive expression; always opposed by fear of the carnal, which motivates the defensive analogies. It is to this buried self that Prufrock addresses himself and excuses himself. His love song is the song of a being divided between passion and timidity; it is never sung in the real world. For this poem develops a theme of frustration, of emotional conflict, dramatized by the “you and I.”

With respect to its poetic method, particularly its mode of connection, let us summarize a few of its characteristics. Evening likened to “a patient etherised upon a table” is not a logical inference, but an association or an intuition deriving from an emotional state; it tells us more about the perceiver than about the object of perception. The figure could be developed logically by observing the similar elements on each side, thus inferring the likeness from these sings. But the reference in Eliot's comparisons is less to the thing compared than to the mood, character, or situation with which it is associated.

On the other hand, “Let us go and make our visit” is followed by a logical inference—that of destination, for visits have destinations. But the inference is presented in the form of an image:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And this image carries both the inference and a description—a description of place, by Eliot's favorite method of showing something happening there. But it also insinuates the mood of the speaker: at his destination they talk of Michelangelo; it is the first of his heroic juxtapositions.

Other things follow logically enough from this perceiver, his visit, and the room; but many connections in the poem are associative relations, not logical relations, and are established by the feeling, in which the association of images is an important factor. To put this method another way, it is psychological reference rather than grammatical. What is last in the mind (at least, previously) connects with what follows; in looking for the link we sometimes overlook the obvious. Violent breaks are violent only in the immediate context, not in the context of the poem, always the antecedent part. Incongruous elements are explained by the larger context of the poem. Never accept any explanation that conflicts with part of the context or with the whole poem. The explanation of violent or exaggerated phrasing must be sought in the character or feeling represented, not in the poet.

In general, metaphor and symbol replace direct statement in Eliot. In “Prufrock” we have what comes to be a familiar compound, observation, memory, and reflection, in which observation becomes symbol. The doctrine of the objective correlative means not only that the subjective is projected into the objective, or by means of it, but that it is expressed in other terms—metaphor; objects become symbols, and personal feeling is set apart from the poet. Connection through imagery is characteristic of Eliot, who is likely to exploit a kind of imagery, not to use it at random. A particular kind of imagery becomes the expression of a particular kind of feeling, not only in the same poem but in different poems. Recurrent imagery may not only reiterate a theme, but provide a base for variations, or development; its recurrence usually is accompanied by a deeper plumbing or a richer exploration of its significance. For some of these uses witness in “Prufrock” the sea imagery, hair imagery, sartorial imagery, that of polite versus crude society, that of bare sensitivity versus the protective shell, images of relaxation or concentration of effort or will, and finally the heroic parallels which both magnify and mock the overwhelming question.

Such a method of indirection is appropriate to a character who never really faces his inner conflict or his frustrated self, and hence is incapable of a direct expression of it, to say nothing of a solution. Here the most revealing lines in the poem are

Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?

But the observation “downed with light brown hair” is no digression from the arms or from Prufrock's problem. This is why the epigraph, with its conditioned response, provides an important clue to the intention of the poem; and the title shifts its context significantly. The title suggests the question for this song of indirection, made such by repression. The mock-heroic tone is not merely in the author's treatment or in his character's conception of the problem, but finally even in Prufrock's evasion of himself.

Such a use of imagery is more than usually dependent upon arrangement. But the order of parts will reveal an implicit method in an Eliot poem that is essential to its meaning. There is such a method in “Prufrock”; it is begun by “Let us go” and ended with “and we drown.” The going is developed and dramatized even by verb tenses, the time element. The “drown” submerges again what has emerged in the “going”—which is never directly said—and concludes the imagery of his submerged life. To this arrangement the author helps the reader in other ways. His punctuation, for example, is functional, not conventional. What does it tell you? Especially at critical points? Some of the answers have already been suggested. Verse, too, is a kind of punctuation, as Eliot has remarked, and he comes to rely upon it more and more in this capacity. Here the phrasal separation in the short lines may be studied, and the effective chimes of the mock-heroic rhyme.

All verse—even nonsense verse is not quite free—depends upon an order and organization capable of being followed and understood; requires an implicit, if not an explicit, logic—connections which can be discovered in the terms of the poem. If the words of a poem have syntax, they make sense, have a logic. Otherwise the poet has no control over his material except that exerted by metre. Only an ordered context can control the range of meaning set off by the single word; and relevance to this context must be the guide for any reader in determining the range of meaning or the logic involved. Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity is a misleading book in that it explores possible meanings without proper regard to their limitation by the context. As George Herbert said, “the words apart are not Scripture, but a Dictionary”—for every context employs exclusion in order to turn the dictionary into scripture.

Notes

  1. If Eliot's proper names do not acquire meaning from history or literature or etymology, they are used for their generic or social suggestion.

  2. My exposition is indebted to the analysis by Roberta Morgan and Albert Wohlstetter in The Harvard Advocate for December 1938. But see The Criterion “Commentary” for April 1933 on Laforgue's use of irony to express a division or doubling of the personality.

J. G. Keogh (essay date Summer-Autumn 1986)

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SOURCE: "Mr. Prufrock's Big City Blues," in Antigonish Review, Nos. 66-67, Summer-Autumn, 1986, pp. 75-9.

[In the essay below, Keogh compares Eliot's poem "Prufrock" with blues music.]

Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying that the love-song of Eliot's "Prufrock" is a blues song, and he related it to the interface between urban and agrarian life in the American South. In "Mr. Eliot and the St. Louis Blues," McLuhan wrote

Further, the peculiar character of jazz derives from the South, perhaps because of the interplay between industrial and metropolitan life, on one hand, and agrarian life, on the other hand. People situated on the frontiers between metropolitan and agrarian culture are naturally inclined to interplay them. The sounds of the city can be poured through the spoken idiom in such areas.

I suppose the original nostalgia of the slave for his African homeland eventually mutated into the urban black's anguished longing for rural roots on the farm and the plantation. That same lonesome whistle blew, more wistfully, for the newly urbanized white at the turn of the century (when "Prufrock" was written, at Harvard), no longer down on the farm, whether native emigrant or foreign.

While visiting his birthplace in Missouri in the 1950s, Eliot referred to the yellow fog in "Prufrock" as being "a St. Louis fog, now abated by the timely St. Louis smoke ordinance." The region of southern Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis, is quite notorious for the polluting qualities of its soft, high sulphur coal. "The Love Song" begins with an invitation to the reader to visit an urban inferno whose streets are full of sliding yellow smoke, a forbidding region whose smoggy river mist has anesthetized even the evening sky. Invisible only to the eye, gas-lamps only "mutter" (just as electric carbide lamps "sputter" in a later poem), and place the reader in an enchanted and acoustic space.

Eliot's poem is prefixed with an earlier revelation from below, Dante's fraudulent Count Guido in the Inferno, a spectre speaking from within a shaking flame. Prufrock's equivalent seems to be the magic lantern in the medical theatre, with its anatomy chart of the nervous system flung out in patterns on the screen. Controversial, polygraph. But Prufrock's depths are watery, not fiery; and when, sprawling and wriggling, he finds himself in the poison bottle or in a bit of hot water, he retreats into his shell. He can think only of a pair of ragged claws, scuttling for safety across the sea-floor.

Discussing the significance which Baudelaire held for him in "What Dante Means to Me" (To Criticize the Critic) Eliot quotes Baudelaire's description of the swarming city,

     Fourmillante Cité, cité pleine de rêves,
 
     Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant

a city full of dreams, where ghosts in broad daylight clutch at the passer-by. Eliot's comment: "I knew what that meant, because I had lived it before I knew that I wanted to turn it into verse on my own account." And he continues,

From him, as from Laforgue, I learned that the sort of material that I had, the sort of experience that an adolescent had had, in an industrial city in America, could be the material for poetry; and that the source of new poetry might be found in what had been regarded hitherto as the impossible, the sterile, the intractably unpoetic.

Watched by lonely men in shirt-sleeves, this is the sort of experience which Prufrock has had too ("young man," Eliot called him) but like Count Guido he recounts it as discarnate spectre.

What Dante could turn to poetic account in the Inferno and Eliot in his "Love Song," the wailing horns of jazz and the blues did for urban America—a good half-century before the Beatles learned to do it for the industrial midlands of England. In view of McLuhan's insights into these and other matters, it is in no way surprising that the composer of "Mood Indigo," Duke Ellington, should have held him in such high regard.

In "The Music of Poetry" (On Poetry and Poets), one of the essays of Eliot from which McLuhan quoted frequently, there appears the following intriguing passage about blues and the nonsense verse of Edward Lear.

His non-sense is not vacuity of sense: it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it. The Jumbles is a poem of adventure, and of nostalgia for the romance of foreign voyage and exploration; the Yongy-Bongy Bo and The Dong with a Luminous Nose are poems of unrequited passion—'blues' in fact.

Eliot's "Prufrock" certainly reveals its affinity with the nonsense world of Carroll and Lear. Of equal interest is Eliot's statement in "From Poe to Valéry" (delivered in America) that the only poet in England or America whose style appears to have been formed by a study of Poe was—Edward Lear. He mentions this while discussing the exceptional feeling of Poe for "the incantatory element" in poetry. Eliot owned several of Lear's landscape paintings, but we can be sure that the incantatory rhythms and interior landscapes of Lear's poetry influenced him far more.

Incantation ("There will be time, there will be time") is noticeably present in "Prufrock," and is largely responsible for the aura of self-hypnosis which hovers about the poem. And of course the blues, with their traditional repetition in the first two lines of any stanza, are the archetype of incantation. The closest thing we have to a blues lyric in the poem can be found in the three elaborately wrought stanzas beginning, "For I have known them all ready, known them all." They are, like many blues songs, sung by Prufrock to himself. They even include a reference to the Elizabethan musical term "a dying fall," a melancholy harmonic progression found in love songs of the period (the 'blacks' as it were).

It does not seem to have been noticed that the verses in the scene at the end of "Prufrock" share a music-hall rhythm with Lewis Carroll.

     Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
     I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

Momentarily jarred from the depths of his dreamy sea-cave, and debating whether to sport about on the sunlit strand, Prufrock with his rag-time question seems to echo Carroll's "Lobster Quadrille" ("Will you join the dance?") and the rhythm of

     Will you walk a little faster?" said whiting to the snail,
     There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail."

If Prufrock in his morning coat earlier in the poem, in his boiled shirt and tails, did not so much suggest the lobster (even to himself) we might even take him for Alice's white rabbit—no longer preoccupied with time and an approaching appointment, but lounging on the beach with a copy of the latest Playboy.

We have lingered. But Count Guido assures us from the epigraph that "none ever did return alive from this depth." No survivor, and certainly no social butterfly, Prufrock is unable to skim the social surface, and remains sunk in the social whirl. Unlike Strephon, Prufrock never saw his goddess go. His mermaids ride, while he walks. They sing, while he talks. Their world has ever gone on wheels. And so they sing to each other, but he does not expect them to sing to him.

Surrounded and confounded by the variety of life, Prufrock is locked into one mood, as in the blues, or according to Eliot as in any of the successful poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Eliot explains the success of Poe's magical verse and richness of melody in the same essay

It has the effect of an incantation which, because of its very crudity, stirs the feelings at a deep and almost primitive level.

This is the very technique employed by the creators of contemporary rock music, as they stir the global village, mixing memory and desire. Any too abrupt surfacing from such moody depths entails the risk of blood froth and of bends. As we emerge from the anesthetic the pain returns, along with more prosaic voices. A song lulled us to sleep, now human voices wake us. We are unable any longer to drown our sorrow in song, so now our sorrow drowns us. This is the music we must face once the ether has worn off, and the butterfly taken out of the chloroform bottle. After a night of singing the blues, the morning has come to consciousness. We are once again on display.

Further Reading

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CRITICISM

Donoghue, Dennis. “Beginning.” Southern Review 34, No. 3 (Summer 1998): 532-49.

Personal and critical essay recounting the author's first reading of “Prufrock.”

Gwynn, Frederick L. “Faulkner's Prufrock—And Other Observations.” Journal of English and German Philology 52 (January 1953): 63-70.

Examines the influence of Eliot's work on William Faulkner.

Harmon, William. “T. S. Eliot's Raids on the Inarticulate.” PMLA 91, No. 3 (May 1976): 450-59.

Discusses the “negative aspects of speechlessness” in Eliot's poetry.

Stepanchev, Stephen. “The Origin of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Modern Language Notes 66, No. 6 (June 1951): 400-401.

Briefly notes that Eliot may have subconsciously taken the name Prufrock from the Prufrock-Littau Company, furniture dealers in Eliot's birthplace of St. Louis.

Additional coverage of Eliot's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol 28; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 41; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 13, 15, 24, 34, 41, 55, 57, 113; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists and Most-Studied Authors and Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 10, 45, 63; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 88; Major Twentieth-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; and World Literature Criticism.

Robert McNamara (essay date Fall 1986)

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SOURCE: "'Prufrock' and the Problem of Literary Narcissism," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 356-77.

[In the following essay, McNamara analyzes "Prufrock" in terms of realism and subjectivity.]

The central failure of modernist literature, according to Georg Lukács's vehement critique in "The Ideology of Modernism," is that it denies the historically situated character of human thought and action and in so doing denies the power of human actions to effect social change. Modernist literature, says Lukács, is rooted in a bourgeois ideology, at the center of which a self-made and self-contained individual confronts history, but history given a static, and as such fundamentally ahistorical, form. Like the bourgeois ideology in which it is rooted, modernist literature denies that history is a changing ensemble of human activities, and therefore subject to change by human action. Modernism rejects the tradition of realist literature in which the human individual is conceived of as an essentially social and historical being, both formed by and forming his or her environment. In modernism, that "concrete typicality" of the realist view is replaced by an "abstract particularity" that is grounded in a view of the human individual as essentially solitary and asocial, capable at best only of superficial contacts with others. Human action, particularly action aimed at effecting social change, is thereby rendered impotent.

Lukács asserts that Hegel's distinction between concrete and abstract potentiality is crucial to an adequate conception of the relation between human subjectivity and the objective world. Where concrete potentiality is concerned with the dialectical relationship between individual subjectivity and objective reality, abstract potentiality is wholly subjective, and much richer than actual life. Abstract potentiality is at once infinite and highly individual, and as such cannot determine actual development. In Lukács's view, modernism voids the distinction between concrete and abstract potentialities. It violates the crucial Hegelian distinction "by exalting man's subjectivity," and thereby, against its own intentions, impoverishing it. Modernism's view of the human individual as essentially solitary and asocial, and of self-development as a fundamentally inward, subjective matter, violates the principle that it is in the interaction of character and environment, by decision and action, that concrete potentiality is singled out from the "bad infinity" of abstract potentiality. Modern subjectivism confuses abstract potentiality with the actual complexity of life, and as a consequence, personality, which can only be strong in relation to a strong reality, begins to disintegrate, to fragment. Subjectivity, says Lukács, succumbs to fascination and melancholy.

Along with this disintegration of personality, says Lukács, comes the modernist obsession with psychopathology. We may see the obsession either as an escape from the reality of life under capitalism or as a critique of daily life under capitalism, but neither escape nor critique, says Lukács, leads anywhere: because the psychological view grants primacy to origins and sources and posits no real goals, no ideals to be realized, it condemns action to impotence.

Much of the force of Lukács's critique, I find, derives from his use of Hegel's distinction between concrete and abstract potentialities to describe and critique the ethos of modernist literature. Lukács's description seems, on the level of character, both accurate and insightful, and it pointedly raises what I believe are crucial questions about the relation of notions and representations of self to the possibilities of social change.

But there are two claims in Lukács's argument that I think it important to resist. The first is that the realist mode provides the framework necessary for establishing characters as developing in dialectical relationships with their social environments and capable of effecting social change. The second is that modernist literature is unself-consciously the literature of abstract potentiality, of exalted subjectivity. The first I want to address only briefly, and primarily as an aid to formulating the second, which will be the main focus of this paper.

Leo Bersani has offered what seems to me a strong, and for my purposes, useful, case against realism. Bersani sees realism as a fundamentally conservative mode, one whose ideological interests are those of the bourgeois status quo. According to Bersani, the central assumption of the realist ideology is that the self is an intelligible structure. This is evident in the ways in which the movement toward significant form in realist literature serves the cause of coherently structured character: incidents reveal personality, beginnings and endings are purposeful, and desire, which for Bersani is by nature unbounded, is circumscribed by being forced to take form either as a ruling passion or as an abstract faculty. These strategies, as Bersani notes, serve social ends: the hero in realist works is defeated not only by his society but also by the psychology of realist form-the psychology of the "coherently structured and significantly expressive self". We see this as well in the two primary forms that heroism takes in realist literature: first, there is the hero who embodies disruptive desire, rejects social definitions of the appropriate limits of the self, and is consequently submitted to "ceremonies of expulsion" by which the anarchic impulses are socially contained; and second, there is the hero who smothers desire, either in unambiguous warning or as a strategy of retreat from the social order.

Desire cannot, Bersani argues, be fully and finally contained by the ordering strategies of descriptive narrative, and eventually fragments it into juxtaposed images. Under the pressure of desire, realist form shatters. But where Lukács sees a loss, a weakened sense of reality, a weakened personality and hence a diminished capacity for effective action, Bersani sees a potential for liberating desire from its traditional channels and hence an opening up of possibilities for social change.

Using Bersani's critique of realism to reformulate my second question with specific reference to "Prufrock," we may ask: is the disjunctiveness of the poem primarily mimetic of the fragmentation of Prufrock's personality, or is it a critique of totalizing forms of desire? Certainly criticism has seen in "Prufrock" a weakened, severely fragmented personality, one paralyzed by possibility, with virtually no capacity for effective action, more often than it has seen a heroic liberation of desire. But there is another side of "Prufrock," as I will attempt to show, that offers a critique of the fantasies of coherent selfhood and the representational forms that support it, and that shows Prufrock's paralysis as the result, in large part, of his desire for a totalizing image of himself. Eliot is aware of the problem Lukács identifies, but unlike Lukács, Eliot recognizes that the ideology of the unified, coherent self is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The issues of selfhood involved in "Prufrock" gain clarity when we see the poem in literary context. I shall begin by briefly examining a number of examples of the dominant lyrical mode at the turn of the century, in order to characterize the fundamentally narcissistic ethos to which Eliot is responding in "Prufrock."

The dominant poetic mode at the turn of the century was a poetic of mood. It was grounded in the nineteenth-century culture of feeling and claimed as of primary value the recovery of moments of intense feeling as they provided for the momentary recovery of a unified self. The Aesthetes, continuing the anti-Victorian revolt of Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites, produced a poetry that moved toward Symbolism, but without the Symbolist emphasis on rendering a transcendental reality. Taking the conclusion to Pater's The Renaissance as providing their rationale, these poets produced a body of work characterized by sentimental emotion and poetic artifice. The poets of the Decadence, at the other pole of the poetic of mood, replaced the Aesthetes' sentimental emotion with eroticism and a libertine nostalgia. But for all these poets, poetry was a badge of sensitivity, and as such a sign of the poet's superiority, his greater capacity for life.

The poetic of mood has been succinctly characterized by Cairns Craig as the late nineteenth-century heir to the English associationist tradition, which he traces from Hume through Archibald Allison, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and Pater. The poems in this mode are, characteristically, poems of reverie, particularly a reverie in which the poet's recovery of memory serves as a recovery of self-depths. They display the poet's acute sensitivity, and the poetic implies a hierarchy of people ranked according to their receptivity, their sensibility. Emotion supplies the poem's unity, and the poet's associations supply its diversity. The poetic values permanent over accidental associations, but, Craig argues, can provide no way of knowing one from the other. The associationist aesthetic is, he claims, essentially solipsistic, with no way of testing or grounding its claims, no way of insuring that the poet's associations are more than individual quirks.

Even the Symbolist influence on this poetic is filtered through the English associationist tradition. Symons, generally acknowledged as a primary force in bringing Symbolism into English literary culture, does so, according to Craig, by domesticating it with associationist principles that find their place in Hallam's defense of Tennyson. Nor does Anglo-American modernism, in Craig's view, break these associationist chains.

The poetic is as well closely tied to a number of features of the general culture. As late Victorian culture forbade the public expression of feeling, the poetic, like the culture of feeling in which it was grounded, served a compensatory function, elevating the forbidden to a position of value. (We may see here a logic that would seem to require a Decadence: as the value of expressed feeling depended, in this compensatory scheme, on its illicitness, poets would be driven further and further from social norms to find their materials.) Further, the poetic was tied to particular notions of personality and selfhood that were dominant in the late nineteenth century. Personality, in this view, was largely seen as the capacity to recover one's emotions, and as such was controlled retrospectively, following emotional expression, by self-consciousness, a view which encourages the longing, nostalgia, and regret that were prominent emotions in the poetry of mood. The self, imprisoned by its appearances in the world, can only be recovered in its wholeness, and then only momentarily, by the recovery of feeling. Such recovery involves an acute sensitivity to the details of appearances for their deeper, more intense, psychological meanings—as in, at one extreme, commodity fetishism. But in a world without a generally accepted code for reading such appearances, readings always give way to remystification.

It is out of this poetic of mood, but also against it, and most powerfully against its ethos, I want to argue, that Eliot builds the modernist poetic of "Prufrock" and The Waste Land. Laforgue, the poet most commonly identified as the poetic father of "Prufrock," was of value to Eliot, as Kenner has observed, primarily because he had "discovered the potentialities of self-parody not in poetry at large but in the poetry of a circumscribed era, in a lyric mode closely allied with that of Dowson and Symons, one along among the possible derivations from Baudelaire." That lyric mode is very much in evidence in "Prufrock": the poem "most clings to the memory whenever it exploits … the authorized sonorities of the best English verse" of the period; "the effects themselves, the diction, the sonorous texture and the interbreeding of nuances, came in 1908 or 1909 from sources so diffuse as to be virtually anonymous, the regnant sensibility of those years."

But Kenner's careful attention to such effects does not show the critique "Prufrock" offers of the ethos of this "regnant sensibility." In order to make this critique clear and to show that what Eliot has to offer in "Prufrock" is more than, and other than, a continuation of the associationist line, I want to look at a number of poems in the dominant mode in an attempt to characterize both the powers and limits of its ethos.

First Symons's "Pastel":

      The light of our cigarettes
      Went and came in the gloom:
      It was dark in the little room.
 
      Dark, and then, in the dark,
      Sudden, a flash, a glow,
      And a hand and a ring I know.
 
      And then, through the dark, a flush
      Ruddy and vague, the grace
      (A rose!) of her lyric face.

The poem, in reverie, recalls a moment of epiphany: out of the gloom and darkness, light and grace. The poem exemplifies the poetry of mood as Craig describes it: an attempt to recover, through memory, in reverie, an association of some significance. The speaker's claim seems to be that the intensity of the experience, or the intensity of the recollection, is what gives the moment value: this is what happened, this gradual unfolding out of the gloom and darkness of a vision I spontaneously saw as "a rose." This is possible, in part, as a result of the speaker's acute sensitivity, revealed in his attention to and response to fairly common objects.

But these implicit claims are foiled by the poem's very deliberate rhetoric. The studied melodramatics of "Dark, and then, in the dark, / Sudden, a flash, a glow," the deliberate introduction of religious overtones through "grace" and "A rose!" to an experience that seems otherwise not to warrant them, and the heavy reliance on adjectives for both mood and value make it clear that we are in the presence not of spontaneous reverie but of careful artifice that would like to deny itself as such. And must, if we are not to see the speaker's sensitivity as a bit of self-satisfying self-staging.

Further, we may note that the speaker's epiphany depends on a vagueness filled in by desire—an "hallucinated satisfaction in the absence of the source of satisfaction," an "appetite of the imagination" that is inseparable from fantasizing. "Pastel," although its claim seems to be of an intensity that was produced by an encounter between the speaker and his world, has nothing to offer but the intensity of desire, manifest in its rhetorical artifice and, most clearly, in its heavy reliance on adjectives (especially the "lyric" of the final line). The world of the poem is a blur, a vagueness. What desire produces is a sense of mystery but without any real content; we have a mood, but no sense of particular feelings in response to an object. This is because what the speaker desires, finally, is not so much the face as it is the moment of emergence itself, presented here as a total state.

The power of this desire and its tendency to blur the lines between psyche and world are even more apparent in another Symons poem, "White Heliotrope":

     The feverish room and that white bed,
     The tumbled skirts upon a chair,
     The novel flung half-open, where
     Hat, hair-pins, puffs, and paints, are spread;
 
     The mirror that has sucked your face
     Into its secret deep of deeps,
     And there mysteriously keeps
     Forgotten memories of grace;
 
     And you, half dressed and half awake,
     Your slant eyes strangely watching me,
     And I, who watch you drowsily,
     With eyes that, having slept not, ache;
 
     This (need one dread? nay, dare one hope?)
     Will rise, a ghost of memory, if
     Ever again my handkerchief
     Is scented with White Heliotrope.

Here the air of illicitness about the relationship is stronger than it was in "Pastel," and the dark and gloom of that poem has given way to jittery disorder, a kind of neurasthenic scene, which the poem attempts to draw into a unified and unifying state. Again, power and value are connected with spontaneity: here, the scent "White Heliotrope" has, or so the speaker desires, the power to raise "this"—the scene of the first three stanzas. The poem achieves a satisfying closure if we accept this desire as fact, which the poem encourages us to do: the emotional response to the memory as prospective—dread and hope—are relegated to a parenthesis, and "this" scene has, after all, already been raised before us. (Here again the claims of spontaneity are undermined by their own rhetoric, the rhetoric that has, through its deployment of the resources of tone and diction, invested them with importance.)

The second and third stanzas shed interesting light on the totalizing desire expressed in the fourth: the mirror, the woman, and the speaker inhabit a world in which relations are reduced to the production and consumption of images, a process at most half-conscious ("you, half dressed and half awake"; "I, who watch you drowsily"). Watching here is a kind of visual vampirism: the mirror has "sucked" the woman's "face / Into its secret deep of deeps," the repository of "memories of grace," and the woman watches the speaker "strangely," while his eyes, sleepless, "ache." What each wants from the other is life for himself or herself, and the structure of the stanza, gaze balanced against gaze, and the relation of the second and third stanzas, gazes balanced against the image-consuming mirror, suggest that life, or selfhood, is a matter of one's appearances, and the register of appearances is the gaze of the other. For the speaker, the recovery of something like a unified selfhood—such "grace" as is available—will be possible only retrospectively, and through the resources of memory. And memory, in this associationist poem, will require jogging, an externally supplied mnemonic to get it moving: selfhood will be recoverable at the scent of White Heliotrope.

But White Heliotrope is, we see as well, a scent whose powers as a mnemonic reduce the world to a figure of fantasy. Finally, we feel, the details of this scene don't matter. We sense, but vaguely, the presence of contradictory feelings playing over the objects, but the feelings remain unexamined beneath the pressure of totalizing desire. The result is a mood that gains its power from the unanalyzed complex of rhetorically evoked feelings, and the recovery of self that White Heliotrope will enable will be a mood-dominated recovery of the self as its prior appearances, such appearances, such "grace" as the mirror holds.

Symons seems, at times, aware of the pitfalls of constructing a unified and coherent self, and in "Prologue" offers a critique of one such self:

      My life is like a music-hall,
      Where, in the impotence of rage,
      Chained by enchantment to my stall,
      I see myself upon the stage
      Dance to amuse a music-hall.
 
      'Tis I that smoke this cigarette,
      Lounge here, and laugh for vacancy,
      And watch the dancers turn; and yet
      It is my very self I see
      Across the cloudy cigarette.
 
      My very self that turns and trips,
      Painted, pathetically gay,
      An empty song upon the lips
      In make-believe of holiday:
      I, I, this thing that turns and trips!
 
      The light flares in the music-hall,
      The light, the sound, that weary us;
      Hour follows hour, I count them all,
      Lagging, and loud, and riotous:
      My life is like a music-hall.

A life played for the approval of others, says Symons's speaker, is empty, and loud, and dull. His critique at first sight seems to extend to the narcissistic "I" in general, the part projected as a unified and coherent self: "I, I, this thing that turns and trips!"

But the limits of the critique soon become clear. How is the speaker different from the "I" that "turns and trips"? If the "I" is, in its other-directed vain gaiety, an empty mask, is not the voice just one more self-satisfying staging of the self, albeit played to a classier audience? The speaking voice, full of an empty, decadent sense of its social inauthenticities, participates in the same narcissistic dynamic: the part projected as the whole, the self staged as unified and coherent. Vain weariness and self-contempt answer vain gaiety. Voice claims for itself an authenticity its performance belies. The speaker, motivated, we may feel, by a desire for an act that would allow for an expression of the self without residue, can offer no alternative to the life he critiques. He is, for all the vehemence of his attack, impotent.

The desire for an act that fully expresses the self, running as an unspoken desire through "Prologue," is an expression of what Harold Rosenberg has called "the Hamlet problem": the problem of living in a world in which actions no longer represent a person without remainder. The search for such an act can claim to be self-grounded only by denying its own rhetoricity: to admit rhetoricity is to admit that the self depends on a prior authorizing ground. The self seems inescapably, and uncomfortably, a social construction and the occasion of self-alienation. The attempt to deny their own rhetoricity leads these poems, in their quest for a totalizing act or state, to blur the lines between psyche and world, and at the same time to make claims that depend on these same lines being clearly drawn.

What I offer is far from a survey of the dominant mode of the late nineteenth century. But the analyses are, I hope, adequate to reveal general tendencies, which we can readily recognize as well in Wilde's "Impression du Matin," or Dowson's "Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae," or even some of Yeats's early poems. And adequate to showing the use Eliot makes of the dominant mode in "Prufrock."

     Let us go then, you and I,
     When the evening is spread out against the sky.

If we can, after years of hearing "Prufrock"'s first three lines as an indivisible gem, a touchstone of modernist poetry, pause long enough after the second line to hear the invitation to a journey, with its sense of expansive possibilities, we may recognize a strain of romantic pastoralism that would be right at home, say, in Wordsworth's "Stepping Westward": given such an invitation, "who would stop, or fear to advance, / Though home or shelter he had none, / With such a sky to lead him on?". Admitting the third line, at this point, we may hear just how forcefully the tone set by this gentle invitation, and the suggestion "of something without place or bound," is disrupted by it: "Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table." Possibility at once expands and contracts: the patient may dream anything, do nothing. And who, we must ask in another vein, has seen such a sky? Can we take this as a descriptive metaphor, or must we see it, as it seems to be, as a symptom of Prufrock's psyche? The juxtaposition of violently disjunctive images opens as a problem the tendency we have seen in the poetry of mood toward blurring the line between world and psyche. But Prufrock's unwavering voice seems unaware of the problem the juxtapositions have opened up. Prufrock does not, however, resume his pastoral tone; rather, he extends his invitation for a journey into a "quiet fin-de-siècle inferno" whose objective status is in doubt:

    Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
    The muttering retreats
    Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
    And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
    Streets that follow like a tedious argument
    Of insidious intent
    To lead you to an overwhelming question …
    Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
    Let us go and make our visit.

Prufrock's invitation is a composition of contraries: an image of both paralysis and violence disrupts a pastoral invitation; streets appear "tedious," but their motives are "insidious"; beneath an "etherised" sky, a nervous, aimless, undefined, and illicit energy runs on. Yet the contraries seem less intentional figures than inadvertent self-disclosures. Prufrock, in Kenner's phrase, is "a name plus a Voice", and the voice does not register the contraries as such. What we sense here is the play or tension that will produce the central drama of the poem: the tension of Prufrockian Voice, deploying the commanding rhetoric of the dominant mode, played against the authorial acts that reveal the contradictions the Voice would conceal.

Prufrock's refusal to stop to discuss the "overwhelming question" and his insistence on first-hand examination of the empirical data that lead toward it may be taken as a refusal of what Charles Altieri has characterized as Victorian discursiveness, the poetic deployment of reflective consciousness which too often became for the Victorians less a means to self-transcendence than "an endless hall of mirrors", a self-paralyzing of the mind focused on its own activities and processes, and cut off from action. But Prufrock's refusal may be no more than an expression of his awareness that he cannot give any meaning, even to the extent of deriving an overwhelming question, to his impressions. The impressions and images Prufrock presents, as Altieri has observed, "are not simply objects but rhetorical figures insisting on their own utter facticity while performing and deforming the traditional symbolic gestures of relating the world to the demands of the psyche." We cannot, as we have noted, tell with any certainty where the world begins and Prufrock's psyche ends. Once again, it is in the tension between these two readings that the novel life of this poem resides: the mood that the Voice evokes, asking, I think, our identification with its seemingly bold and adventuresome empiricism, is punctured by the authorial acts that partly deconstruct it, revealing, or suggesting, a fear and fragmentation at work behind the bravado. Here authoriality opens up, as problems, features of the lyric poetry of mood, and the poem gains its distinctive energies from this tension.

The poem, as we have seen, frustrates any expectations we may have had for clear distinctions between inner and outer worlds, and for a coherent speaking identity. In its foregrounding of authorial acts, it also distinguishes itself sharply from the traditional dramatic monologue. We may note another mark of this distinction in the authorial disruption of the linearity of Prufrock's discourse:

     In the room the women come and go
     Talking of Michelangelo.

We seem far from the slightly sordid lower-class haunts of the first stanza, but where is this room, who are these women? And what are Prufrock's feelings? Desire? Fear? Both? It's hard to say.

If we can't know the answers to these questions, what we can know, as Kenner has observed, is that "The closed and open o's, the assonances of room, women, and come, the pointed caesura before the polysyllabic burst of 'Michelangelo,' weave a context of grandeur within which our feeling about these trivial women determines itself." The tone surrounds these aimless, ethereal women, speaking of an intensely physical artist, with an aura of seemingly undeserved grandeur. We are in the realm of effects we observed in "Pastel," but with a difference: "Prufrock"'s foregrounding of the authorial act plays against the mood of grandeur the voice creates, drawing attention to the constructed nature of the voice and allowing us to glimpse behind the grandeur the inappropriate objects to which the mood has been attached.

Prufrock, unlike the speaker of "Pastel," is not to be taken as the source or voice of affectively grounded truth: he is, rather, a constructed voice, one capable of powerful evocations of mood, and as well the objects of an analysis that begins to sort out the particular objects and feelings that are blurred into these moments of totalizing mood:

     The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
     The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
     Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
     Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
     Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
     Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
     And seeing that it was a soft October night,
     Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

The catlike fog seems the perfect figure for the totalizing desire at work here and in the poetry of mood, surrounding and suffusing all the disparate details with its vague inclusiveness. Rhetoric here is at work in the service of fantasy, as it has been in the previous stanzas. Once again, however, authorial action both analyzes and deconstructs its totalizing thrust: the tone of gentle, domestic reverie jars with the often crude physicality of the cat, who appears covered in soot, lingering over waste-water. And at the center we notice a curious emptiness: what's in this house? The Victorian domestic ideal evoked by the Prufrockian voice is ruptured by authorial action, from without by the physicality the ideal denies or excludes, and from within by its own emptiness.

What we have been given, thus far in the poem, are three stanzas, each deploying different resources of the dominant mode in order to construct a voice, or voices plus a name, speaking first of its setting off on a quest, second of the object of its quest, and third of the goal or end of the quest. In each stanza, we have seen the same play of identification and authorial act, of mood and discriminated feelings, opening up for dramatic possibilities and for critique the unexplored problems of the dominant mode.

Having presented Prufrock defining his quest in the first three stanzas, the poem now gives us Prufrock, as though in response, backing off from it:

     And indeed there will be time
     For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
     Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
     There will be time, there will be time
     To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
     There will be time to murder and create,
     And time for all the works and days of hands
     That lift and drop a question on your plate;
     Time for you and time for me,
     And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
     And for a hundred visions and revisions,
     Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Backing into discursivity, the Prufrockian voice backs further into the realm of abstract potentiality. Here, where everything is possible, everything is leveled: this is the realm of a "modern doubt" in which all hierarchies have collapsed. The parataxis suggests that murder and creation are on a level with preparing a social mask, that such moral and practical advice as Hesiod offers a rural peasantry in Works and Days is on a level with a concern with dinner-party conversation. Authorial acts make clear the poem's judgment of the smallness of Prufrock's concerns: the references to Hesiod and Ecclesiastes expose as trivial the life Prufrock engages.

What authorial action plays against here is a vaguely Polonian public rhetoric, managed in a voice that is calm, measured, avuncular in tone, that offers its assurance and advice with the certainty that they are wise. And what authorial action reveals here, through juxtapositions, is the powerfully motivated nature of this would-be objective pose: the pose provides a defense against the kinds of clear, discriminating responses to, and valuations of, particular objects and actions, responses that would move from the vague moods of a world of abstract potentiality into a world of commitment to concrete particulars and to action.

The Polonian features of this pose are picked up more directly later in the poem in what is perhaps the poem's finest parody of late Victorian discursiveness and self-analysis:

     No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
     Am an attendant lord, one that will do
     To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
     Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
     Deferential, glad to be of use,
     Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
     Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
     At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
     Almost, at times, the Fool.

The stanza, as John Jackson has observed, is distinctive in the assuredness of its tone, and the seemingly lucid external perspective on himself that Prufrock here achieves. Such, we might say, is the lure of reflective consciousness. But authorial action undermines this lucidity from the start: Prufrock begins this self-explanation by denying precisely what we have come to suspect about him, namely that he suffers from the Hamlet problem. There is, of course, some truth in his denial, even if it is only the truth of his defensiveness: unlike Hamlet, he will protect his own paralysis, maintain his incapacity to act. Reflective consciousness, as the authoriality of the poem reminds us, is less the servant of Truth than of self-interest.

Assuredness of tone here is finally no more persuasive than lucidity. Fully identified with the Polonian public stance, the Prufrockian voice is made to choose for itself virtues befitting a late Victorian civilized bourgeois: it is "Deferential … Politic, cautious, and meticulous." The logic of this identification leads the voice first to an unintended description of its own rhetoric: it, too, is "Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse," blind to the dimensions of its predicament—and finally to its logical conclusion—that it is "At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—/ Almost, at times, the Fool." And never more so than at this moment, in which Prufrock is trapped in the rhetorical machinery of the self-enclosed public voice of late Victorian discursivity. The logic of identification is here carried to its comic limits, and such foolishness as it produces is the inevitable result of trying to create an assured, totalized, and coherent self in an available public voice.

We should note here too, regarding this passage that would pass as self-analysis, that such analysis as is successfully carried out in this poem is the result of authorial action. The voice of self-analysis, as we have seen it at work in the poem, produces only one more identification with an established, conventional, and hence falsifying pose, and repeatedly proves, despite its implicit claims to disinterest, to be fully self-interested. Authorial action takes place in a space not falsified by rhetorical masks and the demands of personality, and as such can make and sustain greater claims than can be sustained by such a voice.

In the Prufrockian voice, rhetorical powers are repeatedly deployed to invest the trivial with grandeur and to mask Prufrock's affective life. When the women return in lines 35-36 speaking of Michelangelo, and we see them set against Prufrock's concern, in the previous stanza, with social success, the women seem more threatening that they did in their first appearance. Juxtaposition reveals, or suggests, what Prufrock's tone does not: how Prufrock feels. The juxtaposition also allows us to see that these women are an objectification of Prufrock's desire for the satisfaction of his own unrecognized feeling of lack. These ideal or idealized women, we may come to sense, have the power to fill that lack, to affirm Prufrock's being, but they also, as such, have the power to deny him:

     And indeed there will be time
     To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
     Time to turn back and descend the stair,
     With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
     (They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!")
     My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
     My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
     (They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!")
     Do I dare
     Disturb the universe?
     In a minute there is time
     For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Repeatedly the Prufrockian voice rhetorically invests parts with an emotional charge more appropriate to wholes. To "dare" is to risk all because rejection would leave Prufrock hopelessly empty and would shatter his self-contained world of limitless possibility. Daring might force Prufrock to confront an actual woman, not a figure of his own fantasy, invested with a grandeur and mystery no real woman could support. The passage quoted above plays with this dynamic of parts and wholes, constructed as it is out of vocal attitudinizings that attempt to master the flickers of doubt the passage registers, attempts that are repeatedly undermined by the triviality of the objects on which desire is made to fall. Further, the passage neatly dramatizes within Prufrock's voice a tension that we have seen to exist between voice and authoriality: Prufrock fears being defined and falsified by the voices of others. In the language of a later passage, he fears "The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase." He fears, that is, what authoriality enables Eliot to avoid: self-enclosure in the rhetoric of the dominant mode.

Having seen the analytic force of the poem's juxtapositional aesthetic at work within and between stanzas, we may now note its force in structuring larger units of the poem. We may see it in the juxtaposition of the stanzas governed by "I have known them all" against stanzas governed by the repeated "There will be time." One effect of this juxtaposition is to make clear that, despite their obvious differences in meaning, the two claims share a motivation: to block the route to action and to forestall Prufrock from having a life in the present. This effect is compounded later in the poem when, after Prufrock fails to imagine himself acting, a block of stanzas governed by the question, "would it have been worth it, after all?" completes this larger structure and reveals the poem to be structured around an absent center: the act of lovemaking Prufrock seeks, an act that would make the poem a love song.

Prufrock, we come to feel, is trapped in and by the rhetorical stances in which he is constructed, partial stances invested with the desire for wholeness. As Kenner has observed with regard to "Prufrock"'s debt to the soliloquies of Elizabethan drama, the moods of the soliloquies "are affectingly self-contained, the speaker imprisoned by his own eloquence, committed to a partial view of life, beyond the reach of correction or communication, out of which arises the tragic partiality of his actions." Authoriality in "Prufrock" multiplies such partial views: Prufrock bravely off on his quest, Prufrock in wonder at the grandeur of the women "talking of Michelangelo," Prufrock claiming that all is possible, claiming that he has known all possibilities and that none are worth pursuing, and wondering whether or not his contemplated action would have been worth the risk it involved. Juxtaposing these disparate stances, authoriality renders Prufrock not as a unified and coherent self, but rather as a figure paralyzed by his narcissistic investments in each of these partial positions.

Prufrock suffers from what Eliot describes in an early essay as the Victorian "pathology of rhetoric." "Prufrock" treats the disease in the only way Eliot acknowledged it could be treated: "the only cure for Romanticism is to analyse it." Rhetoric is pathological, in Eliot's view, when it becomes a vehicle for evading feeling, for creating self-satisfying illusions, and for producing a sense of wonder or mystery that is not supported by the facts. To cure the disease, Eliot calls in that essay for a literary "intelligence, of which an important function is the discernment of exactly what, and how much, we feel in any given situation." In "Prufrock," such discernment and analysis is not possible in any of the public, discursive voices given to Prufrock: here, what would pass as objective analysis is bent to serve self-interest. The emotional discernment achieved in the poem is the work of authorial actions that enable us, if not to see clearly and unambiguously the particular feelings that Prufrock's mood-producing rhetoric denies or obscures, at least—and this is certainly a major contribution of the poem—to gain insight into the problems of narcissism, rhetoric, and self-representation.

Action, in this poem, is the province of authoriality; Prufrock cannot act, in part because in his grandiosity he cannot accept that a requisite of action is that he locate himself in a middle: "And how should I begin?" he asks, wanting an entirely self-determined and fully self-expressive act. Prufrock does try, however, to imagine himself taking action:

     And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peace-fully!
     Smoothed by long fingers,
     Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
     Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
     Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
     Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
     But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
     Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
     I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
     I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
     And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
     And in short, I was afraid.

To imagine action, even the act of lovemaking, Prufrock must first imagine the afternoon or evening tamed or asleep: he must see his action as self-generated, and not as a response to a prior condition. He must then imagine himself as possessing the masculine strength, force, and crisis-orientation necessary to answer the highly civilized, and feminine, "tea and cakes and ices." Rhyme undermines Prufrock's melodramatic staging of the scene, a staging that, due to his inability to claim the strength he believes he needs, leads Prufrock to imagine himself not as agent but as patient, as the victim of women and servants: he has been treated by women as John the Baptist was by Salome, he has been victimized by a Fate that has refused him, despite his suffering and fasting, the role of prophet (a role that would allow him, as John Jackson has astutely observed, to name "l'être aimé comme parole fondatrice", and he has fallen from his (fantasized) greatness to the low point of being laughed at by his inferiors.

But to say, simply, that Fate has refused Prufrock the role of prophet is to miss the distinctive thrust of the poem. Prufrock, a construct of available rhetorical stances, cannot be a prophet because prophecy is not one of these stances, is not possible in the poetic of mood. When later in the poem Prufrock melodramatically imagines his own emotional assertion as prophecy, as a witness to eternal truth, by imaging his heretofore buried affect as "'Lazarus, come from the dead'", he fears being told that he has misread the scene, misunderstood what "one" has told him. The poetic of mood, and the Victorian cult of feeling, which was closely tied to the tendency in nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism to shift the ground of faith from doctrine to affect, cannot provide the certainty Prufrock desires. Desire may produce vague religious feelings, the sense of mystery without the facts that Eliot describes as the "pathology of rhetoric," but it cannot produce either the clear discrimination of objects and feelings that would enable action or the public framework that would authorize prophetic utterance. One is consigned, in the associationist poetic of mood, to patient status.

Prufrock fears not only misreading but both being misread and being fully read. He fears that having "bitten off the matter with a smile," having "squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question," he will be confronted by "one, settling a pillow by her head," saying to him "'That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all'." He fears that what he says will be taken as a full expression of who he is: "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" But this is not to say that Prufrock desires to be fully seen: the following line, "But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen," suggests that Prufrock feels more expressed than self-expressing and is anxious about the prospect of inadvertently revealing himself, or rather, of being revealed by a "magic lantern" or an unconscious capable of expressing him beyond the control of his conscious mind. Wanting nothing less than the ability to fully articulate and control an image of himself, Prufrock is afraid of both himself and others.

But the "magic lantern" that reveals Prufrock's nerve patterns is not an unconscious but the authoriality of "Prufrock." What authoriality reveals through Prufrock is the danger of the collapsing of psyche and world that is characteristic of the poetic of mood: the desire informing or producing this collapse, the desire for a totalizing state or act in which or of which one is fully in control, denies the agency of others and forecloses the possibility of action, since no act can be fully expressive of the self. The desire for authenticity and control produces self-enclosure.

Here, I think, we find the peculiar pathos of "Prufrock," in the dramatization of the desire for such self-sufficient modes and the limitations of such modes as are available. Prufrock's desire exceeds what authoriality reveals to be the limited rhetorical solutions to his problem:

      I grow old … I grow old …
      I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
      Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
      I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

Prufrock will remain a spectator as well as a spectacle. He may hear the mermaids singing, but they will not sing to him; he may see them riding on the waves, and even linger with sea-girls in the "chambers of the sea," but only "Till human voices wake us, and we drown." The human voice exerts claims of limited relations, of limited powers: to enter into discourse with those voices would, for Prufrock, require that he give up his melodramatic claims to specialness, the grandiosity of his self-staging, his repeated evasions of feeling in self-serving and self-enclosed rhetoric. Further, it would require that he confront a lover who is neither sea-girl, mermaid, nor ethereal aesthete, "Talking of Michelangelo": that his lover be not the Woman of abstract potentiality but a concrete woman, with whom he can interact without fear of disturbing the universe.

For Prufrock, this would be a drowning, in a world of middles, of contingencies—and others—beyond his control.

The absent center of "Prufrock" is an act of lovemaking. Prufrock, as we have seen, cannot imagine himself making love to a woman, nor can he make the poem the vehicle of lovemaking that would make it truly a love song. Prufrock is, as many critics have observed, a narcissist, and the symptoms are everywhere in the poem: Prufrock's sense of specialness, his grandiose sense of election, coupled with a powerful and debilitating sense of worthlessness (which stands behind the Hamlet-like excesses of his responses and his inability to act); his fear of rejection as a possible cause of fragmentation, of loss of control; his hypercathexis of images, his sense of visibility as corrosive, and his fear of being defined by, of capitation by, the image of the other—those "eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase."

These symptoms appear in, and as signs of, Prufrock's romantic posturing, closely tied to the poetics of mood, with its characteristic desire for a totalizing state in which a unified and coherent selfhood can be recovered, by means of association and memory, from its dispersal in its appearances, and its equally characteristic blurring of the edges of psyche and world. Prufrock is the vehicle of Eliot's critique of the mode. Eliot relocates the nineties vagueness we saw typified in "Pastel," placing it not in the scene, where it can support vaguely mystical feelings, but in the rhetoric of the Prufrockian voice. Prufrock is, as Kenner has observed, "strangely boundless", and he is so, we are made aware, because authorial acts in the poem construct him so as to foreground his collapsing of world and self in ways that generate powerful moods but not discriminated objects and feelings.

"Prufrock" is, clearly, a departure from the associationist line. If we return to Craig's schema, discussed earlier, we can see the ways in which "Prufrock" represents both a critique and a significant departure. In "Prufrock," unity is provided not by emotion but rather by the analysis of a condition—or, we might say, by the condition analyzed. Depth, or what depth we find, is not a matter of singular and profound experience, but is, rather, triangulated by the structure of the poem from its series of lyric poses, each a self-enclosed moment. And variety in "Prufrock" is not simply a matter of the speaker's associations, but is as well a symptomatology, a presentation of the various forms that repressed desire takes. Variety, too, is a function of analysis: the foregrounding of authoriality makes clear that what Eliot's poetic values is analysis. Sensitivity, the highest value in the poetic of mood, becomes in "Prufrock" the rough equivalent to sentimentality, and what sentimentality indicates is a lack of self-awareness.

Eliot's critique is a powerful one, and its mode offers considerable resources for analysis. But it has, we should note, serious limitations. The use of a persona limits the range of problems that can be addressed. The poem can, and does, deal powerfully with the difficulties of how we stand in relation to particular states of self. But the world of the poem is limited to that of a single consciousness, and a very narrow consciousness, and cannot take up the significance of what that consciousness excludes.

Perhaps a more serious limitation is that the analytical mode of the poem seems incapable of addressing the problem of actionable values. It can analyze romanticism, narcissism, and bourgeois evasiveness, and can do so because authoriality accepts its position in a middle—the middle of literary conventions and modes—as a condition of action, but what can it offer as an alternative? Only more analysis. As such, it seems, it becomes one more form of paralysis, repeating the problem of the Victorian discursivity it sought to replace. It may be only one more version—perhaps the most modern—of modern doubt.

Hugh Kenner (essay date 1957)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2632

SOURCE: “Prufrock of St. Louis,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XXXI, No.1, Spring, 1957, pp. 24-30.

[In the following essay, Kenner suggests possible influences for “Prufrock,” and analyzes Eliot's prosody.]

The name of Prufrock-Littau, furniture wholesalers, appeared in advertisements in St. Louis, Missouri, in the first decade of the present century; in 1911 a young Missourian's whimsical feline humor prefixed the name of Prufrock to what has become the best-known English poem since the Rubaiyat. The savor of that act had faded from the memory of the sexagenarian London man of letters who wrote to a mid-century enquirer that his appropriation of the now-famous German surname must have been “quite unconscious.” There would be no point in denying that it probably was; but the unconscious mind of T. S. Eliot once glimmered with a rich mischief which for many years has been much more cautiously disclosed than it was in 1911.

The query itself must have amused him, however; Mr. Eliot's dealings with people who wanted to know what he was concealing have for two decades afforded some of the richest comedy in the annals of literary anecdote. Letter after letter, visitor after visitor, he answers with unfailing plangent courtesy. After The Confidential Clerk was produced, a journalist, teased by implications he couldn't pin down, or perhaps simply assigned a turn of duty at poet-baiting, wanted to know what it meant. It means what it says, said Mr. Eliot patiently. No more? Certainly, no more. But supposing, the journalist pursued, supposing you had meant something else, would you not have put some other meaning more plainly? “No,” Mr. Eliot replied, “I should have put it just as obscurely.”

No other writer's verse has inspired so tenacious a conviction that it means more than it seems to. Certainly no other modern verses so invade the mind, attracting to themselves in the months following their ingestion reminiscence, desire, and speculation. Eliot deals in effects, not ideas; and the effects are in an odd way wholly verbal, seemingly endemic to the language, scrupulously concocted out of the expressive gestures of what a reader whose taste has been educated in the 19th-century classics takes poetry to be.

That is why they will not leave the mind, which grows bored with ideas but will never leave off fondling phrases. How much of the grotesque melancholy of “Prufrock” radiates from the protagonist's name would be difficult to estimate. It was surgical economy that used the marvellous name once only, in the title, and compounded it with a fatuous “J. Alfred.” It was a talent already (aetat. 23) finely schooled that with nice audacity weighed in a single phrase the implications of this name against those of “Love Song.” It was genius that separated the speaker of the monologue from the writer of the poem by the solitary device of affixing an unforgettable title. Having done that, Eliot didn't need to keep fending off his protagonist with facile irony; the result was a poised intimacy which could draw on every emotion the young author knew without incurring the liabilities of “self-expression.”

This complex deftness in the title of his first long poem epitomizes the nature of Eliot's best early verse. Every phrase seems composed as though the destiny of the author's soul depended on it, yet it is unprofitable not to consider the phrases as arrangements of words before considering them as anything else. Like the thousand little gestures that constitute good manners, their meaning is contained in themselves alone. Eliot is the most verbal of the eminent poets: more verbal than Swinburne. If he has carried verbalism far beyond the mere extirpation of jarring consonants, it is because of his intimate understanding of what language can do: how its “tentacular roots,” as he once said, reach “down to the deepest terrors and desires.” Only a poet who came after the nineteenth century and grew up in its shadow could have acquired this understanding. Eliot acquired it early, and was able to coerce a small masterpiece into existence at a time when, according to his later standards, he understood very little else.

“Prufrock” exploits the 19th century's specialized plangencies at every turn.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Everyone remembers these lines. They manage to be ridiculous without being funny (the speaker is not making a joke) or cruel (a joke is not being made about the speaker). Their mechanism is allied to the mock-heroic but it doesn't burlesque anything. Like a side-show mermaid, this non-sequitur of an aging Bostonian floats embalmed in dark sonorities whose cloudiness almost conceals the stitching between mammal and fish. We feel that the two halves won't conjoin at the very instant of being persuaded they do. The vowels sound very fine, the syllables are impeccably cadenced; but vaguely within one's pleasure at Tennysonian excellence there struggles an intimation of the absurd, with no more chance of winging clear into view than a wasp in a jar of molasses.

The phenomenon of sound obscuring deficiencies of sense from writer and reader is often to be observed in English poetry; the Romantics may be said to have elevated it into a procédé. Mr. Eliot's originality consisted in allowing the deficiency to be concealed only from the speaker. The writer is too cool not to have known what he was about, and as for the reader, his pleasure consists precisely in experiencing a disproportion difficult to isolate. The certainty that Prufrock himself understands it no better than we do checks any pursuit of “metaphysical” analogies between senility and trouser-bottoms; and as for Prufrock's mind, where the collocation is supposed to be taking place, its workings are nowhere very profoundly explored. His sensibility is plumbed to the uttermost, but that is not what is usually meant when a poet is praised for revealing a human soul. To say that Prufrock is contemplating a young blade's gesture, or alternatively an old castoff's, rolling up his trousers because he either hasn't learned to care for dignity or has outgrown its claims, is to substitute for the poetic effect a formula that fails to exhaust it because incapable of touching it. For the purposes of the effect, the pathos of the character of Prufrock is no more than a donnée. And the effect is unique, and no reader has ever forgotten it.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” most clings to the memory whenever it exploits, as a foil to undistinguished middle age, the authorized sonorities of the best English verse, circa 1870:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The closed and open o's, the assonances of room, women, and come, the pointed caesura before the polysyllabic burst of “Michaelangelo” weave a context of grandeur within which our feeling about these trivial women determines itself. The heroic sound, and especially the carefully dramatized sound of the painter's name is what muffles these women. The lines scale down severely in French:

Dans la pièce les femmes vont et viennent
En parlant des maîtres de Sienne.

That the translator has caught the sense and approximated the movement is an achievement strangely insufficient for lines whose poetic mechanism, one might have thought, depended on so simple a contrast of conceptions: talking women, and a heroic visionary. But Eliot's effects traffic only marginally with conceptions. Hence—again—the elusive disproportion from which his humor arises, a delicate vapor in whose aura the lights twinkle.

Tennyson, to whom Eliot owes so much, does not smile; “He really did hold,” as G. K. Chesterton said, “many of the same ideas as Queen Victoria, though gifted with a more fortunate literary style.” It was in the nature of things impossible for him to realize that the peculiar medium he had perfected from Coleridgean beginnings was a totally unsuitable climate for the conducting of human thought. This perception was reserved for his friend Edward Lear, another of Eliot's mentors, whose wistful incantations—

… Where the purple river rolls fast and dim
And the ivory ibis starlike skim,
Wing to wing we dance around
Stamping our feet with a flumpy sound

—provide a sort of middle term between Coleridge's incantation on the running of Alph the Sacred River and

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

This embryology isn't adduced in belittlement; whatever Coleridge and Lear may have been up to, Eliot has so disciplined the procedures for securing “an air of meaning rather than meaning itself” that—in his later work at least—the spectacle of their operation can itself imply meaning of a still more austere kind.

Lear, however, wasn't a technical innovator; he discovered his comic method by contemplating not the state of the poetic tradition but (Prufrock-like) his own artistic futility. Tennyson remains the Victorian norm. “His feelings,” Eliot has noted, “were more honest than his mind,” and his feeling found continually exact expression—

                                                  … but far away
The noise of life begins again
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

But he made, notoriously, attempts to think in this kind of verse—

Are God and Nature then at strife?

—which are really mistaken attempts to exploit the apparent inclusiveness of his poetic world (it contains so much that it ought to contain everything) and which emphasize by their lameness the sacrifices through which that air of inclusiveness has been achieved. A sphere is self-bounded because its surface is turning away at every instant from possible tangents.

What was bequeathed to the young poets of 1910 by their predecessors in England was a world made out of words; much of Tennyson and most of Swinburne has no more bite on the realities outside the dictionary than have the verses of Jabberwocky. It cohered by exploiting the sounds of the words and the implications concealed in their sounds; “A cry that shivered to the tingling stars” would be a strikingly impoverished line if the English language could be suddenly purged of the words “twinkling” and “tinkling.” T. S. Eliot from the first has leaned on words in that way; it was the name of Prufrock that attracted him; no information about the St. Louis bearers of that name can throw the smallest light on his poem. In the few juvenilia that have been preserved we find him manipulating sounds in Johnson's way—

The Flowers I sent thee when the dew
          Was trembling on the vine
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
          To pluck the eglantine. …

(1905)

or Swinburne's—

Their petals are fanged and red
With hideous streak and stain. …

(1908)

or Tennyson's—

The moonflower opens to the moth,
          The mist crawls in from the sea;
A great white bird, a snowy owl,
          Slips from the alder tree. …

(1909)

Two years later he wrote “Prufrock.” It was the Tennysonian medium that he learned to use; characteristically, he took what it seemed proper to take at the time, the manner of his immediate elders. He learned to use it; he never made the mistake of trying to think in it. Aware both of its limitations and of its extraordinary emotional inclusiveness, he contrives instead to give the impression that thought is going on alongside the poetic process, that sardonic eyes are being frequently bent on the pretensions toward which rhythmic speech incorrigibly reaches, and that whole areas of human life which the sentiments of romantic verbalism have appropriated are patently, to a rational vision, entoiled in richly muffled absurdity—

They will say “But how his arms and legs are thin!”

Such is the situation that “Prufrock” dramatizes: a muffling of rational behavior by rhetoric. To the aggrandizement of that situation the poet brings every conceivable wile. The epigraph is a piece of calculated opportunism:

S'io credisse che ma risponse fosse. …

“If I thought that my response would be addressed to one who might go back alive, this flame would shake no more; but since no one ever goes back alive out of these deeps (if what I hear be true), without fear of infamy I answer you.”

Senza tema d'infamia ti risponso.

From these Italian words the English speech moves forward without a break—

Let us go then, you and I …

—effecting a liaison between this situation and Dante's which is all the smoother for the reflective, lingering rhythm of the opening phrase. For the next twenty lines Eliot brings all his melodic resources to the incantation of a quiet fin-de-siècle inferno, equipped with nightmare streets that “follow” and are ominously “half-deserted,” and inimical clouds of yellow fog. It is a hell neither sustained by a theology nor graduated by degrees of crime; a genteel accumulation of stage effects, nothing quite in excess. It isn't a punishment so much as a state. Somewhere beyond or around it lies the world where questions have answers, but the moment an “overwhelming question” is mentioned we are cautioned,

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Above this monotonous emotional pedal-point runs a coruscating texture of effects. For twelve lines the word “time” reverberates, struck again and again, while (punctuated once by the startling precision of “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”) portentousness overlays mere sonority:

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

What “murder and create” may mean we cannot tell, though it is plain what the phrase can do; the words have lost their connection with the active world, lost in fact everything but their potential for neurasthenic shock. “Time for you and time for me” is as hypnotic and as meaningless as a phrase on the cellos. The yellow smoke rubbing its back upon windowpanes is a half-realizable picture; the detail about the hands and the plate has the air of being a picture but in fact isn't, the thing that is dropped on the plate being “a question,” and the hands—blurred by the phrase “works and days” which is a fusion of Hesiod and Ecclesiastes (III, 1-8)—being not quite those of God and not quite those of a butler.

And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate …

These gravely irrational words evoke a nervous system snubbed by the Absolute without committing themselves as to whether that Absolute is the moral rigor of an implacable Creator or the systematized social discomfort of a Boston tea-party.

The first half of “Prufrock,” in fact, is devoted to a systematic confusion of temporal and eternal disciplines; this man's doom is an endless party-going—

For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

—which he is no more at liberty to modify than one of Dante's subjects can desert his circle of Hell. As he moves wearily through the fog toward yet another entrance-hall he can toy with images of rebellion—

And indeed there will be time
To wonder “Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

But one doesn't—the switch from social to cosmic is typical—“disturb the universe.” In Hell you do what you are doing.

John Berryman (essay date 1960)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3553

SOURCE: “Prufrock's Dilemma,” in The Freedom of the Poet, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1960, pp. 270-78.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1960, Berryman describes “Prufrock” as ushering in the era of modern poetry with its ability to subvert and invert the reader's expectations.]

To begin with Eliot's title, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” is the second half quite what the first led us to expect? A man named J. Alfred Prufrock could hardly be expected to sing a love song; he sounds too well dressed. His name takes something away from the notion of a love song; the form of the title, that is to say, is reductive. How does he begin singing?

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky …

That sounds very pretty—lyrical—he does seem, after all, in spite of his name, to be inviting her for an evening; there is a nice rhyme—it sounds like other dim romantic verse. Then comes the third line:

Like a patient etherised upon a table …

With this line, modern poetry begins.

In the first place, the third line proves that the author of the first two lines did not mean them. They were a come-on, designed merely to get the reader off guard, so that he could be knocked down. The form, again, is reductive; an expectation has been created only to be diminished or destroyed. (Presently it will prove that “you” is not the woman at all, since “you” is invited to make a visit with “I” to her; we can hardly say yet who “you” is; an assumption has been destroyed.) And the word “then”—“Let us go then”—is really very unpromising; if he had only said, “Let us go,” it would have sounded much more as if they were going to go; “Let us go then” sounds as if he had been giving it thought, and thought suggests hesitation. Of course he never goes at all: the visit, involving the “overwhelming question,” the proposal of marriage, is never made. Here again we come on a reduction.

Also, the simile is not visual: it only pretends to be. No reader could possibly be assisted in seeing the evening spread out against the sky by having his attention suddenly and violently called to a patient laid out on an operating table. The device of simile is being put to a novel use, violating the ordinary logic of verse, just as the abrupt vision of a hospital violates the lyrical notion of an evening stroll.

What does the line mean? We are obliged to resort to suggestion, not to logic. The situation of a patient under ether is unenviable, risky: he is about to be cut into, soon he may be dead. This fear is basic to the poem: Prufrock finally says, in fact, “I was afraid.” On the other hand, the situation of the patient can be regarded as desirable in that he has made a decision and now the result is out of his hands, he has no further responsibility, it is up to the surgeon to save him or not. This desire—to have made the proposal, and to have his fate left up to the woman—is also basic to the poem. We may think of that as quite a lot of work to get done in one line. Of course, the suggestion that Prufrock sees himself as ill is important also, and we will return to this.

Between the title, with its slight effect of double-take, and these opening lines, with their full effect of double-take, the poet has inserted an epigraph in Italian, six lines of it. A knowledge of Italian is of very little help. All the lines say is, “If I thought what I am going to tell you would ever get back to the world, you would hear nothing from me. But as it is,” and so on. One has to know who is speaking in Dante's Divine Comedy. This is a lost soul, in Hell, damned in particular because he tried to purchase absolution before committing a crime. We are obliged to consider, that is, as of Prufrock with his dilemma of whether or not to propose marriage, whether the fundamental reason he does not do so—his sin—is his refusal to take the ordinary, inevitable human risks: he wants to know beforehand whether he will be accepted or not—in fact, he does think he knows already what will happen—but this belongs later for us.

Everything we have been saying paints a picture as different as possible from that of a writer sitting down to entertain, beguile, charm, and lull a reader or readers. Obstacles and surprise, of no pleasant kind, are this poet's stock-in-trade. The reader's expectation that one thing will happen is the first to be attacked. Several things are going to be happening simultaneously. One feels, even, a certain hostility on the part of the poet. The modern poet, characteristically, has lost confidence in his readers (this is not altogether surprising, considering the quality of most contemporary education); but so far from causing him to reduce his demands therefore, this loss of confidence has led to an increase in his demands. Good poetry has never been easy to read with any advanced understanding, but it has seldom been made so deliberately difficult.

Shall we connect this deliberate difficulty with the reductive devices studied earlier and suggest that the poet's impatience is based on the fact that the reader's mind is full of vague and grandiose assumptions which seem to the poet contemptible? The poet sees himself as a warning voice, like a Hebrew prophet calling on the people to repent, to understand better themselves and the world. Of course, this is a reduced world. In one celebrated view, we have undergone three crucial scientific revolutions. The first was the astronomical, in the sixteenth century, which taught man that so far from occupying a splendid position at the heart of the universe, he lived in a suburb, and one of no importance. He digested this unwelcome information very slowly. Then he was informed, by Darwin and others, a hundred years ago, that he was not unique but continuous with the animals whom he had always patronized. Our periods of time are getting much shorter. He had barely fifty years in which to learn to accept this biological insult, when the psychological revolution associated with the name of Freud informed man that he was not even king inside but stood at the mercy of gigantic unconscious forces within himself. All this ought to have rendered him distinctly uneasy, let us say, and has done so, depending on his degree of self-awareness; but hardly to a degree acceptable to the exceptional self-awareness of the poet. Eliot had pretty certainly not read Freud when he wrote this poem. In some ways, however, their thought is parallel, for the “you” whom Prufrock invites to go with him for the visit must be another part of his own personality, whom he vainly invites to join him in the great task before them—the instinctual part of man (as against the façade that knows itself, the I, the ego), for which Freud was to borrow the word “id” from Groddeck.

But the “you” is perhaps also the reader, addressed thus surprisingly in this dramatic monologue; and this device is French, part of the general air of elaborate sophistication adopted by Eliot in this poem. This tone is not original; it is borrowed from the French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue (1860-87), under whose influence Eliot first found his own voice. Some of the characteristic properties in “Prufrock” are Laforgue's, allusions to Hamlet and the sirens. But there is influence also from Elizabethan drama, in the speech rhythms (the poem is written in what is called “free verse,” which only means that the laws it obeys are different from those of traditional stanza or blank verse); and there is influence from prose works, especially the expatriate American novelist Henry James's. In any event, Laforgue could never have conceived or written the poem. He only supplied the manner, and anyway his music—very beautiful sometimes—is hardly Eliot's.

Eliot's manner is highly sophisticated, but perhaps we ought not to call the poem sophisticated. Let us call it primitive. The poem pretends to be a love song. It is something much more practical. It is a study—a debate by Prufrock with himself—over the business of proposing marriage, agreeing to lay your fate in someone else's hands, undertaking to spend your life with her, to beget and rear children, and so on. He never makes it. The first half of the poem looks forward to the proposal, the second half looks back on how it would have gone if it had gone at all. The poem is intensely anti-romantic, and its extremely serious subject, in a so-called Love Song, is another rebuke to the (probably romantic) reader. Primitive societies take a dim view of not marrying. Hawaiian mythology, for instance, describes a god called Nanggananaag, whose job it is to stand with an immense club on the Road to Paradise and smash off it, into nothingness, any unmarried male who, having died, tries to get by. This way of thinking is precisely Eliot's. Late in the poem Prufrock looks forward with dismay (and a certain jaunty pathos) to his endless bachelorhood—the sameness and triviality that are the lot of one who never succeeded in adopting his human responsibilities at all. It is clear that the poet sympathizes with Prufrock. It is also clear that the poet damns Prufrock. Some of the basic emotions of the poem are primitive also—fear, malice—but lust is absent, and the prevailing surface tone is one of civilized, overcivilized anxiety. Prufrock's feelings are rather abstract; he never makes the woman real at all, except in one terrible respect, which let us reserve a little. He is concerned with himself. He is mentally ill, neurotic, incapable of love. But the problem that he faces is a primitive problem.

Eliot brings to bear on Prufrock's dilemma four figures out of the spiritual history of man: Michelangelo, John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet. Prufrock identifies himself, in his imagination, with Lazarus; he says that he is not the Baptist or Hamlet. About the first all he says is:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

What are we to make of this? There is a twittering of women's voices. Their subject? A type of volcanic masculine energy—sculptor, architect, as well as painter—at the height of one of the supreme periods of human energy, the Italian Renaissance. Chit-chat. Reduction, we may say. Michelangelo, everything that mattered about him forgotten or not understood, has become a topic for women's voices—destructive, without even realizing it. Then Prufrock says,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)
                    brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—

The situation is a visit, or the imagination of a visit, to the woman; it was women who got the Baptist beheaded. We might phrase the meaning as: I announce no significant time to come, I am the forerunner of (not children, not a Saviour) nothing. Then Prufrock is speculating about how it would have been, if he had

                                                  squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

We have seen Prufrock already imagined as dead, the suggestion of the epigraph, and at the end of the poem he drowns. Here he thinks of himself as come back. Lazarus, perhaps, is the person whom one would most like to interview—another character from sacred history, not Christ's forerunner but the subject of the supreme miracles (reported, unfortunately, only in the Fourth Gospel)—the one man who would tell us … what it is like. Prufrock has a message for the woman that is or ought to be of similar importance: here I am, out of my loneliness, at your feet; I am this man full of love, trust, hope; decide my fate.

Now—postponing Hamlet for a second—what Prufrock imagines the woman as saying in return for his Lazarus-communication explains his despair:

If one, settling a pillow by her head,
                    Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
                    That is not it, at all.”

Here the reason for his inability to propose becomes clear. He is convinced that she will (or would) respond with the most insulting and unmanning of all attitudes: Let's be friends; I never thought of you as a lover or husband, only a friend. What the women's voices did to Michelangelo, her voice is here imagined as doing to him, unmanning him; the sirens' voices at the end of the poem are yet to come. This is the central image of Prufrock's fear: what he cannot face. We see better now why the image of an operation turned up so early in the poem, and the paranoid passages swing into focus:

                              when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall …

and:

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns
                                                  on a screen …

A reasonable study of these fears of exposure would take us not only into our well-known Anglo-Saxon fear of ridicule but into folklore and psychoanalysis.

As for Hamlet, Prufrock says he is “not Prince Hamlet.” He is not even the hero, that is to say, of his own tragedy; let us have in mind again the scientific revolutions and also the hero of one of Franz Kafka's novels, The Trial, who suddenly says, when recounting his arrest afterward, “Oh, I've forgotten the most important person of all, myself.” Prufrock is merely, he says, an extra courtier, an adviser (to himself a very bad adviser—the name “Alfred” means, ironically, good counselor, and the character in Dante who supplies the epigraph was an evil counselor). But of course he is Hamlet—in one view of Shakespeare's character: a man rather of reflection than of action, on whom has been laid an intolerable burden (of revenge, by the way), and who suffers from sexual nausea (owing to his mother's incest) and deserts the woman he loves.

The resort to these four analogues from artistic and sacred history suggests a man—desperate, in his ordeal—ransacking the past for help in the present, and not finding it—finding only ironic parallels, or real examples, of his predicament. The available tradition, the poet seems to be saying, is of no use to us. It supplies only analogies and metaphors for our pain. Needless to say, the author of this poem was not a Christian; he became one years later.

Prufrock cannot act. He can, however, reflect and feel and imagine. Here we might think of W. B. Yeats's lines in a celebrated poem called “The Second Coming”:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Prufrock would be among Yeats's “best” only for sensitivity and intelligence, it is true, his human failure being otherwise complete. Let us explore a little, however, his positive courses of imagination; and Hamlet's desertion of Ophelia, and his “intolerable burden,” as we called it, point our way.

Prufrock's not proposing to the lady (there is no suggestion that anyone else will) might be thought of as aggressive: at whatever cost to himself, he deprives her of a mate, a normal married life. For such fear and humiliation as he suffers, we should expect some sort of revenge taken. But Prufrock suffers from the inhibitions that we might imagine as accompanying a man of such crucial indecision. He has difficulty in expressing himself, for instance, and this difficulty is brought prominently into the poem. Notice particularly the lines

And how should I begin?
It is impossible to say just what I mean!

His incoherence is a token of his struggle, and it is hardly surprising that his resentment against the woman in the poem emerges only in malicious detail (“catty” we would call this) as—of her arms—

in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!

What does come forward openly is his imagination of escape from the dilemma altogether.

Prufrock's burden is that of proposing marriage when he does not know whether or not he may be ridiculed. His desire, from the outset, to have the whole thing over with, no matter how, we have seen already in the line about the “patient etherised upon a table.” At the very end of the poem, in an excited and brilliant passage which might be characterized as one of negative exaltation, he imagines—like Hamlet—his death, as an escape at any rate from the dread anxiety of his ordeal. These are mermaids, sirens, the women of the poem come into the open as killers:

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

This death is desired—like the hospital situation—as well as feared. But the basic image of escape occurs in the dead center of the poem, in a couplet, without much relation to anything apparently, lacking which this would be a much less impressive poem than it is. These are the lines:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

You notice, first, that this is not much of a couplet, though it is a heroic couplet; the off-rhyme speaks of incongruity. As abruptly, second, as we were transferred from the prospect of a romantic evening to a hospital, are we here plunged, away from modern social life (“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”) into—into what? Man's biological past, continuous with him, but unimaginably remote, long before he emerged into the tidal areas: Prufrock sees himself, in his desire, as his own ancestor, before this ordeal came up, when he was sufficient unto himself, a “pair,” not needing a mate. Now the whole crustacean is not imagined—only the fighting part, which is taken for the whole—the claws. But these do not seem to be in very good condition (“ragged”), and unquestionably we must take them also to be full of fear (“scuttling”), like Prufrock now. But the seas are silent: no woman speaks. Therefore, the situation is desirable, protected. We really need to resort to the later formulations of Freud to understand this. When a human being encounters a problem beyond his capacity to meet, Freud thought, regression occurs: the whole organization of the emotional and instinctual person escapes from the intolerable reality by reverting to an earlier, or ancient, stage of his individual development—paying the price of symptoms but securing partial oblivion. The antagonism toward civilization in Eliot's couplet is unmistakable. It contains, indeed, a sort of list of the penalties that civilization has exacted from man's instinctual life—having cost him: open expression of hatred, fear, remorse, intolerable responsibilities.

“I am no prophet,” Prufrock says. It must be obvious, however, that this extraordinarily ambitious poem, including as it does acrid sketches not only of man's spiritual but of his biological history, is not designed as entertainment, whatever the author may say to us (Eliot has defined poetry as “a superior amusement”), and whatever his mask inside the poem: the sophisticate, the disillusioned, the dandy with his particular social problem in Boston, as Baudelaire had had his in Paris and Belgium and Laforgue his in Berlin. The poet has adopted the guise of light verse, but he writes as a prophet, without any trace of conciliation toward any possible audience. He does not write directly. He uses the mask of Prufrock—whose fate is like that of what are called the Vigliacchi in Dante. These sinners did neither good nor evil, and so they cannot be admitted even to Hell, lest the damned feel a certain superiority to them; they suffer eternally in what is called the vestibule of Hell. It is better, as Eliot says in one of his critical essays, to do evil than to do nothing. At least one exists in a relation to the moral world. Under this mask he sets up a ruinous antithesis to Victorian hope—in particular, to what must have seemed to him the vacuous optimism of the most recent master of dramatic monologue in English before him, Browning. Civilization is not condemned. The results of civilization are dramatized, that is all; above all, the destruction of the ability to love, and—in the well-meaning man—to be decisive. The poet speaks, in this poem, of a society sterile and suicidal.

Notes

“The Poetry of Ezra Pound.” Originally appeared in Partisan Review, vol. 16, April 1949, pages 377-94.

“Prufrock's Dilemma.” First printed in somewhat different form in The Arts of Reading, co-edited by Ralph Ross, Allen Tate, and John Berryman, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960.

Donald J. Childs (essay date Fall 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5276

SOURCE: "Knowledge and Experience in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", in ELH, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 685-99.

[In the following essay, Childs argues that in order to fully comprehend "Prufrock" the poem must be considered in light of Eliot's dissertation on F. H. Bradley.]

But what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning—or without forgetting, merely changing.

                —T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Although scholars and critics became aware of F. H. Bradley's influence upon T. S. Eliot at a relatively late point in the latter's career, the relationship between the two writers has now been extensively documented. The studies of Kristian Smidt and Hugh Kenner led to a number of books and articles on this subject in the early sixties. This research culminated, largely through the efforts of Anne C. Bolgan, in the publication in 1964 of Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley—in effect, Eliot's 1916 dissertation on "Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley," supplemented by his articles on Bradley and Leibnitz in The Monist (1916). Not surprisingly, the publication of Eliot's dissertation only increased enthusiasm for research into Bradley's influence upon his criticism and poetry. Indeed, so much has been published on the subject throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties that a recent reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, perhaps intimidated by the sheer amount of such research, attempted to dismiss most of it as unimportant. Reviewing yet another book on Bradley and Eliot, he suggested that "The pioneer work on Eliot's philosophy and its pervasive presence in his poetry was done by Hugh Kenner in The Invisible Poet and there is not a very great deal of importance to be added." He did allow, however, that the book he was reviewing had advanced the subject beyond Kenner in providing "a much stronger sense than we had before of how profoundly imbued with philosophy is Eliot's imagination, both as critic and poet." This, in fact, has been the general achievement of the research that the reviewer so easily dismissed; one can no longer hope to comprehend Eliot's imaginative achievements without also comprehending Bradley's pervasive influence upon them.

In the end, then, scholars and critics have been trying to prove what Eliot announced in the very beginning:

Few will ever take the pains to study the consummate art of Bradley's style, the finest philosophic style in our language, in which acute intellect and passionate feeling preserve a classic balance: only those who will surrender patient years to the understanding of his meaning. But upon these few, both living and unborn, his writings perform that mysterious and complete operation which transmutes not one department of thought only, but the whole intellectual and emotional tone of their being.

Those who have taken Eliot's implied advice here and studied Bradley (and studied him with Eliot in mind) have concluded that virtually everything Eliot wrote after encountering Bradley's philosophy is colored by it. The metaphor here is Kenner's: "it is precisely as a stain, imparting color to all else that passes through, that Bradley is most discernible in Eliot's poetic sensibility." Eliot's first important poem, however, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," would seem to be uncolored by Bradley's thought, for the poem was completed between 1910 and 1911, and Eliot apparently did not begin his study of Bradley until 1913. As Kenner observes, "there is no evidence that Eliot paid [Bradley] any attention until after he had written 'Prufrock' and 'Portrait of a Lady.' (He did not buy his own copy of Appearance and Reality until mid-1913)." In fact, Eliot may have been reading Bradley before 1913, but it is not likely that he was reading him before he composed "Prufrock." Granting all this, however, I would nonetheless like to argue that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a poem closely linked to Eliot's work on Bradley. It is a poem that influences Eliot's understanding of Bradley, and it is also a poem that Eliot comes to see in a Bradleyan light. In fact, the poem offers a reading of the dissertation and the dissertation a reading of the poem.

That "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was on Eliot's mind in 1915 and 1916, as he was completing his dissertation, seems certain. He sent the finished dissertation to Harvard in January or February of 1916. In January of 1915, in a letter to Harriet Monroe attempting to persuade her to publish "Prufrock," Ezra Pound explained that Eliot would not agree to the deletion of the "Hamlet" verse paragraph. Pound had been campaigning, and would continue to campaign for the next six months, to have Harriet Monroe publish the poem (which she did in June of 1915). As the letter of January 1915 suggests, Pound probably kept Eliot informed of his progress with Monroe while the campaign was under way. In August, Pound sent Monroe another batch of Eliot's poems. Finally, in June of 1916, Eliot himself wrote to Monroe, explaining that he thought "Prufrock" better than his other poems written between 1909 and 1911. By this point, furthermore, it would seem that Eliot was suffering from a period of poetic sterility so severe that he felt he might never again produce anything as good as "Prufrock." He wrote to his brother in September of 1916, in fact, to say that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" might prove to be his "swansong."

     Let us go then, you and I,
     When the evening is spread out against the sky
     Like a patient etherised upon a table.

Critics have made these opening lines to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" the cornerstone of their readings of the poem. The central preoccupation has been with the notorious distinction between "you and I." According to George Williamson, the reference of the pronoun "you" is not at all clear: "The 'I' is the speaker, but who is the 'you' addressed? The title would suggest a lady, but the epigraph suggests a scene out of the world, on a submerged level." Grover Smith, however, explains the reference of the pronoun "you" and suggests that the distinction between "you and I" is the framework for the Prufrockian dialectic: "By a distinction between 'I' and 'you,' [Prufrock] differentiates between his thinking, sensitive character and his outward self…. He is addressing, as if looking into a mirror, his whole public personality. His motive seems to be to repudiate the inert self, which cannot act, and to assert his will." In her Jungian interpretation of the poem, Joyce Meeks Jones reaches a similar conclusion: Prufrock, she argues, is an extrovert "who is unable to resolve the conflict between the demands of his own individuality, and those of his persona, or social mask. In consequence, he struggles helplessly in an eternal hell of self-estrangement and moral indecision." Carol T. Christ finds that Prufrock's "fictions insulate and preserve him in a solipsistic dream world, a chamber of the sea." "Prufrock," she writes, "begins with a definite address and invitation … but … so deliberately avoids defining its events and audience that we question whether the poem records any interchange with a world external to the speaker's consciousness." Hugh Kenner looks to the epigraph for a clue as to the function of "you and I"; he sees in the poem a liaison between Dante's journey through hell, led by Virgil, and Prufrock's journey through the city streets led by "you"—"a liaison between [Prufrock's] situation and Dante's which is all the smoother for the reflective, lingering rhythm of the opening phrase." Joseph Chair develops a similar line: "you and I" are part of "an internal monologue which is not meant to be heard," just as Guido de Montefeltro's words are not to be taken back to the land of the living. "Obviously it is not only the evening which is etherized upon a table but also the speaker, who is in a kind of inferno-like situation."

For F. O. Matthiessen, however, the question is academic. That is, the first three lines of "Prufrock" are too academic; they are "too studied." The conceits in the lines in question have the look of "coming into existence not because the poet's mind has actually felt keenly an unexpected similarity between unlikes but as though he too consciously set out to shock the reader." The problem for Matthiessen lies not so much in the distinction between "you and I" as in the comparison between the evening spread out against the sky and the patient etherized upon a table: "Even though the reader can perceive wherein the comparison holds, he may still have the sensation that it is too intellectually manipulated, not sufficiently felt."

I would agree with Matthiessen that the opening metaphors are to some extent "intellectually manipulated." I would perhaps disagree with his charge that they are "not sufficiently felt." As Eliot himself pointed out in his dissertation, "There is no greater mistake than to think that feeling and thought are exclusive—that those beings which think most and best are not also those capable of the most feeling." I would obviously agree with all of these scholars and critics that the "you and I," the "evening spread out against the sky," and the "patient etherised upon a table" are essential elements in any interpretation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." But what concerns me here are the implications of the distinction between "you and I" for the poem and the dissertation as readings of each other.

That Eliot actually recalled the first three lines of the poem in the very act of writing the dissertation is suggested by his use of the image that begins "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"—the image of a patient spread out upon a table. The physician-patient metaphor, in which the subject or observer is the physician and the object or thing observed the patient, is one of Eliot's favorites. The Prufrockian patient appears in the dissertation:

Our only way of showing that we are attending to an object is to show that it and ourself are independent entities, and to do this we must have names. So that the point at which behaviour changes into mental life is essentially indefinite; it is a question of interpretation whether … expression which is repeated at the approach of the same object … is behaviour or language. In either case, I insist, it is continuous with the object; in the first case because we have no object (except from the point of view of the observer, which must not be confused with that of the patient under examination), and in the second case because it is language that gives us objects rather than mere 'passions'.

The relation between subject as physician or "observer" and object as patient is central to understanding both the dissertation and the poem. In this passage, Eliot argues that subject and object are continuous except from the point of view of an observer (another subject that is a truly subjective self) who is able to regard the original subject as an object (an objective self)—in other words, as a "patient under examination." The consciousness that is the speaking voice in "Prufrock" is apparently just such an observer, articulating the discontinuity between "you and I." In the dissertation's terms, the Prufrockian observer is not the self as object or patient (the "I" observed), but the truly subjective self that is able to distinguish between object and objective self (that is, between "you and I"). That which is "spread out" and "etherised upon a table," in short, is not just the evening, but also the self as object. Prufrock, as object, is the patient. And yet it is his absolutely subjective self that is the observer or physician. Just as there is no patient without physician, so in the poem there is no "you" without "I," and so in the dissertation there is no language or object without observer. The metaphysical and epistemological implications of the Prufrockian metaphor, it seems, unfold in the dissertation.

Eliot develops the same medical metaphor in his early essay "The Function of Criticism" (1923): "Comparison and analysis need only the cadavers on the table," he writes, "but interpretation is always producing parts of the body from its pockets, and fixing them in place." Eliot's concern here is the same as that expressed in the epistemological context of his dissertation: he finds that interpretation introduces an epistemologically necessary second point of view, but he also finds that such a point of view inevitably produces only a relative truth—a truth relative to the point of view introduced, the point of view of the critic or reader. By the terms of Eliot's metaphor, then, the critic or reader is inevitably a coroner (dealing with dead fact or dead language, not with life or language as lived and living), but the critic or reader as interpreter is worse, for he or she is a dishonest coroner who supplies the body of fact or the body of the text with its missing parts from the pockets of his or her interpretation. As elaborated in 1923, therefore, the medical metaphor is still part of the original quest in "Prufrock" and the dissertation to discover an objective point of view on the relation between the self and its object—its objects being determined, according to the dissertation, by language. In the poem, the dissertation, and the essay, the body on the table is a linguistic object. The poet (Prufrock), the philosopher (Eliot), and the critic (Anonymous) are all physicians, and in each case the fate of the patient is in doubt. In 1923, then, Prufrock's overwhelming question remains unanswered: "What is the nature of the relation between subject and object?"

The same medical metaphor appears in Four Quartets:

     The wounded surgeon plies the steel
     That questions the distempered part;
     Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
     The sharp compassion of the healer's art
     Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

In the Christian context of Eliot's writing in the 1940s, of course, the physician has become Christ. For Eliot at this time, poetry, philosophy, and criticism (or the act of reading in general) begin and end in a Christian point of view. But the patient remains the individual human self, the self as objectified in language (whether the language of Four Quartets or the language of the Christian liturgy). And just as in "Prufrock," the dissertation, and "The Function of Criticism," so in Four Quartets the relation between physician and patient is all important. Upon it—that is, upon the relation between self and other selves, subject and object, language and observer (or poem and reader)—depends the very nature of reality. As always, furthermore, the Eliotic inquiry into the nature of this relation produces not answers, but questions: questions about the nature of the relation between distempered part and wounded surgeon, between cadaver and coroner, between patient and physician, between language and observer—in short, questions about the relationship between "you and I". I would suggest, then, that the metaphor in "Prufrock" that introduces this fundamental metaphorical, metaphysical, and epistemological relation gathers much of its subsequent significance from the implications for the relation between subject and object suggested in Eliot's dissertation on Bradley.

The Prufrockian echo of the word "patient" in Knowledge and Experience is admittedly not very loud, but the echo of the Prufrockian words "spread out" and "table" is: "We can never … wholly explain the practical world from a theoretical point of view," Eliot suggests, "because this world is what it is by reason of the practical point of view and the world which we try to explain is a world spread out upon a table—simply there!" Similarly, in his conclusion, he reminds his reader that "Theoretically, that which we know is merely spread out before us for pure contemplation, and the subject, the I, or the self, is no more consciously present than is the inter-cellular action."

What were the first three lines of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" bringing back to mind? I suggest that by recalling them in 1915 Eliot was reevaluating the philosophy embodied in the poem. In these lines, that is, we find the philosophical attitude to the relationship between "you and I" that Eliot held in 1910 and 1911, an attitude that seems to have been informed by Bergsonism. Over thirty years after writing the poem, Eliot told an inquirer that he was a Bergsonian when he composed "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Piers Gray, exploring the Bergsonian dimensions of the poem, notes that in the opening lines "the world, at least in so far as the evening may be synecdochic of it, is in a state of deep unconsciousness." In the Bergsonian universe, he points out, such a state holds the greatest potential for real life, for it is not bound by the practical, goal-oriented consciousness. According to Bergson, consciousness restricts its use of memory to those memories which bear on the present goal: "the a recollection should reappear in consciousness, it is necessary that it should descend from the heights of pure memory down to the precise point where action is taking place." "It is form the present." Bergson continues, "that comes the appeal to which memory responds, and it is from the sensori-motor elements of present action that a memory borrows the warmth which gives it life." Only in an unconscious state, then, can pure memory—in which resides the total of one's past—reappear. "To be etherized," Gray therefore concludes, "is to be potentially open to the totality of one's past life." The first three lines of the poem, therefore, suggest the etherized abdication of goal-oriented consciousness, an abdication that allows the uncontrolled descent from "pure memory" of the particular memories and images that haunt Prufrock throughout the poem and thwart action at every turn. As J.S. Brooker observes, "Prufrock, not the evening, is etherized upon a table. Like everything else in the poem, the tired, sleepy evening is an aspect of Prufrock's mind."

But the first three lines of the poem are even more closely related to Eliot's study of Bergson than this brief analysis of certain Bergsonian concepts might suggest. One finds the metaphor of the world "spread out" in space in Time and Free Will, Bergson's first book and the book Eliot quoted most frequently when writing on Bergson. "Our conception of number," Bergson complains, "ends in spreading out in space everything which can be directly counted." The problem with western philosophy, he suggests, is that we have imported the quantifiable aspects of that which is external and material into our notions of what is properly unquantifiable, that which is internal and immaterial: the unextended is thought of as though it were extended; in other words, it is spread out in space. In the end, the externality of material objects, he explains, "spreads into the depths of consciousness." Consciousness, according to Bergson, is not a multiplicity of states, but a pure, undifferentiated duration; in fact, a plurality of conscious states is not observable, he argues, unless consciousness is "spread out" in space.

Eliot picked up the same metaphor when as a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard he wrote about Bergson: "Berkeleyan space, I believe, as adapted by Bergson becomes, on the one hand, extension; and Bergson's space is the Berkeleyan pure space; for Berkeley non-existent; for Bergson the homogeneous medium spread out by our understanding as a substratum for extrinsic relations." The image is as pervasive in Eliot's understanding of Bergson as it is in Bergson's writing: "The 'travail utilaire' of the 'esprit,'" Eliot writes, "consists in a kind of refraction of pure duration across space." There can be no doubt, then, that the opening lines of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" establish a Bergsonian context for the relation between "you and I," sky and evening, patient and physician, and objected and subject. And of course the relation is false, the distinction artificial. In Bergson's world, reality is a timeless, distinctionless, pure duration. The falseness of Prufrock's world, therefore, stems in part from the falseness of the categorical distinctions (between "you and I") by which his consciousness proceeds.

What, then, did Eliot see in "Prufrock" four or five years after completing it? How did he himself read the opening lines of the poem in 1915 and 1916? What light does the dissertation throw upon Eliot's later interpretation of the distinction between "you and I"? In short, what was Bradley's influence upon Eliot's reading of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

In noting in his dissertation that the epistemologist's world is "a world spread out upon a table—simply there" Eliot distinguishes between the epistemologically theoretical and practical points of view. Reality, he suggests, is "an approximate construction, a construction essentially practical in its nature." In other words, reality is a function of preconscious self-interest. The attempt to step beyond this point of view; that is, the attempt at objectivity, merely results in confusion, for one must then comprehend the internal from the point of view of the external. In the end, "We forget that what has grown up from a purely practical attitude cannot be explained by a purely theoretical [attitude]." In short, "this world is what it is by reason of the practical point of view," whereas the world one tries to explain by epistemological theory is placed before the mind as "a world spread out upon a table—simply there." The epistemologist, in other words, is inevitably a dishonest coroner, producing parts of the body from his or her pockets and fixing them in place to suit his or her culturally and historically relative interpretation.

In rereading "Prufrock" during the writing of his dissertation, therefore, Eliot discovered that Prufrock's dilemma is the epistemologist's dilemma: how does one reconcile practice and theory, action and contemplation? On the one hand, Prufrock responds, or wishes to respond, to the exhortation to action ("Let us go then"), while, on the other, he contemplates—contemplates himself, that is, as though he were spread out upon an examination table. The disjunction is between the world as it exists according to Prufrock's practical point of view and the world as it exists beyond his immediate, practical interest—the world of theory, "spread out upon a table—simply there." The disjunction, in other words, is between the practical point of view interested in women "Talking of Michelangelo" and "Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)", and the theoretical or absolute point of view of "Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all"—presumably to tell of the absolute beyond the practical world.

Eliot also seems to have noted, while writing his dissertation, that the desire to contemplate the world spread out upon a table produces in both Bradley's and Prufrock's worlds a distinction between "you and I." In theory, Eliot notes (using the Prufrockian metaphor), "that which we know is merely spread out before us for pure contemplation, and the subject, the I, or the self, is no more consciously present than is the inter-cellular action." In practice, however, this preoccupation with a theoretical world spread out upon a table requires a relation between the world, as object, and the self, as object—"a relation which is theoretical and not merely actual, in the sense that the self as a term capable of relation with other terms is a construction." That is, the self that does not immediately live or feel its experience is an object; the self as object (the "patient under examination") is related to experience as object within the whole that is the self as subject. But "this self which is objectified and related is continuous and felt to be continuous with the self which is subject and not an element in that which is known."

Two selves, therefore, are necessary to any attempt to know the world that is simply there, spread out upon a table. And yet one must know more than one's objective and subjective selves before one can determine the nature of that world; one must also know other selves. On the one hand, granted, the self "seems to depend upon a world which in turn depends upon it." This is the substance of the quotation from Bradley's Appearance and Reality that Eliot includes in the infamous notes to The Waste Land: "My external sensations are no less private to my self than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it…. In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul." On the other hand, however, Eliot affirms that "the self depends as well upon other selves; it is not given as a direct experience, but is an interpretation of experience by interaction with other selves." We thus "come to interpret our own experience as the attention to a world of objects, as we feel obscurely an identity between the experiences of other centres [or selves] and our own" (143). It is this felt identity, Eliot suggests, "which gradually shapes itself into the external world."

It is presumably the defective relation of selves in "Prufrock," the defective relation between "you and I," that brought the poem to mind as Eliot wrote his dissertation. Prufrock's first distinction, between "you and I," is necessary and inevitable, according to both Bradley and Eliot. Ultimately, however, Prufrock's self, both "you and I," must interact with other selves—this is the "overwhelming question"—in order to begin to forge the identity of experience that will "gradually shape itself into the external world." In adapting the Prufrockian metaphor to the Bradleyan context of his dissertation, Eliot seems to realize that both the Prufrockian and Bradleyan universes depend upon the relation of selves within them. Ironically, then, Prufrock's "overwhelming question" is just as important as he thinks it is. The nature of the universe actually does depend on whether or not he disturbs it.

In The Matrix of Modernism, Sanford Schwartz suggests a similar approach to the poem. He finds that the self-conscious personae of Eliot's early poems "constantly agonize over their encounters with other persons." He explains the significance of the personae's confrontations with others in terms derived from Eliot's dissertation: "They are suspended between their external apprehension of others, whom they know directly through observable behaviour alone, and their internal apprehension of others as active centers of consciousness. These personae also experience a subject/object split within themselves. They are at once detached observers and conventional agents, spectators of their own participation in the social world." "Prufrock," Schwartz suggests, follows this pattern very closely. He warns, however, that "We should avoid the misconception that Eliot first formulated the 'half-object' [the Prufrockian object observed from both an internal and an external point of view] and then dramatized it in his poetry." "Long before he wrote his dissertation," Schwartz notes, "Eliot had composed 'Prufrock,' 'Portrait of a Lady,' and several other poems that exhibit the [dissertation's] internal-external point of view of the half-object."

But as Schwartz himself implies, that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" preceded Knowledge and Experience does not mean that there is no connection between the poem and the dissertation. In fact Eliot's recourse in his dissertation to certain Prufrockian metaphors suggests that he himself was aware of the connection. If in the usual chronology of cause and effect it would seem that Bradley did not influence the composition of "Prufrock," the poem certainly influenced Eliot's articulation of his philosophical point of view in Knowledge and Experience. The Prufrockian metaphors repeated in the dissertation signal not just a coincidence of phrasing but also a coincidence of thought and feeling. The Bergsonian exploration in 1910 and 1911 of the way the subject distinguishes itself from the object (and so creates reality) by means of contaminated categories of time and space is taken up again in 1915 and 1916 in order to sort out the overwhelming question once more, this time from a Bradleyan point of view. Eliot began "Prufrock" from the Bergsonian presupposition that the relationship between sky and evening, object and subject, and "you and I" is false if that which is nonspatial is defined in terms of that which is spatial. The conclusion Eliot reached was that the Prufrockian self was indeed a false self, a self estranged from itself by its displacement in a fractured social space. When he came to Bradley several years later, Eliot recognized a point of view compatible with that in "Prufrock," for Bradley's philosophic exploration of the relation between self and other selves articulated dialectically what Prufrock had articulated dramatically—that is, that self depends upon other selves, subject upon object, and "I" upon "you." According to Bradley, "man is a social being; he is real only because he is social, and can realize himself only because it is as social that he realizes himself. The mere individual is a delusion of theory; and the attempt to realize it in practice is the starvation and mutilation of human nature, with total sterility or the production of monstrosities." Prufrock, Eliot discovered in 1915 and 1916, is a monster accounted for by Bradley.

In the end, then, Eliot provides by means of his dissertation on Bradley a thoroughly modern map for reading "Prufrock." The resurrection of the Prufrockian metaphor of a patient spread out upon a table points the way to the passages in Knowledge and Experience most directly relevant to this reading. After five years, a poem born presumably of an almost inarticulable experience of self-estrangement became for Eliot an allegory of the epistemological dependence of reality upon a construction of self and selves—an allegory, that is, of the conclusions he was reaching in his dissertation. Insofar, then, as Eliot's work on Bradley in his dissertation seems to have prompted him to reread or reinterpret the poem from a Bradleyan point of view, Bradley does indeed seem to have influenced '"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." In effect, Eliot has taken his own advice and reinterpreted the lived experience he captured in "Prufrock" in the way he suggested, in his dissertation, that all such necessarily "partial and fragmentary truths" should be reinterpreted: "the finest tact after all can give us only interpretation [of lived truths], and every interpretation, along perhaps with some utterly contradictory interpretation, has to be taken up and reinterpreted by every thinking mind and by every civilization." Knowledge and Experience, I suggest, is in part a reinterpretation or rereading of "Prufrock." In the course of time, Eliot has "become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning—or without forgetting, merely changing." At the same time, "Prufrock" suggests a reading for the dissertation; indeed, it writes part of the dissertation insofar as its metaphors surface at important moments in the epistemological inquiry. If we attend carefully to the reinterpretation of the "world spread out upon a table" in Eliot's dissertation, in other words, we will perhaps find Eliot's final draft of the poem. At the very least, we will find that there is something of Knowledge and Experience in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Frederick W. Locke (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3690

SOURCE: “Dante and T. S. Eliot's Prufrock,” in Modern Language Notes, The John Hopkins Press, Vol. 78, 1963, pp. 51-9.

[In the following essay, Locke discusses Eliot's use of an epigraph from Dante in “Prufrock.”]

In the course of this essay I shall have occasion to refer to F. O. Matthiessen's work The Achievement of T. S. Eliot in several contexts. I would like to begin with a quotation from that book: “Eliot's conceits sometimes have the look of being too studied; that is to say, of coming into existence not because the poet's mind has actually felt keenly an unexpected similarity between unlikes, but as though he too consciously set out to shock the reader. Such an objection might be made against the opening lines of “Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I,
when the evening is spread out against the sky
like a patient etherised upon a table.”

Matthiessen continues: “Even though the reader can perceive wherein the comparison holds, he may still have the sensation that it is too intellectually manipulated, not sufficiently felt.”

I am not arguing with the contention that Eliot may be guilty of the defect pointed out by Matthiessen in even large areas of his poetry. I am concerned here only with the verses from “Prufrock”; which Matthiessen chooses to scrutinize in defense of his proposal that they are illustrative of a failure on the part of the poet to have created them out of a felt experience. I do agree with Professor Matthiessen's view that Eliot set out to shock the reader; where he might well have disagreed with me is in the nature of the shock that Eliot intended to produce.

The nature of that shock, and by implication a fuller interpretation of the opening verses of the poem, must take us back to the epigraph which heads “Prufrock.” Standing at the beginning of the poem are two terzine from the Divine Comedy (Inferno, XXVII, 61-66). Even Karl Shapiro has reluctantly admitted that many of the epigraphs to Eliot's poems are functional parts of the poems themselves. Matthiessen informs us unequivocally, “In each case the epigraph is designed to form an integral part of the effect of the poem; and in the most successful instances a subtle aura of association.” He offers two instances of such successful uses of the epigraph, “Mr. Kurtz—he dead” in the “Hollow Men,”; an evocation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the Dante verses which are prefixed to “Prufrock.” The cry of utter horror which climaxes Conrad's novel, says Matthiessen, “epitomizes in a sentence the very tone of blasphemous hopelessness which issues from the “Hollow Men.”

Of the epigraph to “Prufrock” Matthiessen writes: “… the closed circle of Prufrock's frightened isolation is sharply underlined by inscribing this speech from the Inferno … Prufock can give utterance in soliloquy to his debate with himself only because he knows that no one will overhear him. The point of calling this poem a Love Song lies in the irony that it will never dare to voice what he feels.” Evidently Matthiessen had failed to take his own advice and seek for “full understanding” of this allusion from another poet. For that is what the epigraph is, an allusion to an area of event in the Divine Comedy which, if it is truly and formally integrated into “Prufrock,” provides us with a means of reading the poem with greater understanding. What we should first do, then, is to explore more carefully the source of the epigraph.

The scene is familiar to all readers of Dante's poem. We are in the Eighth bolgia of the Eighth Circle of Hell, among the Fraudulent Counsellors. Guido da Montefeltro, who had given to Pope Boniface VIII evil counsel which had enabled this new leader of the modern Pharisees to capture a town on which his avarice had fixed, is punished, like Ulysees, by being enclosed in a flame. Guido, asked by the wayfarer Dante to tell his story answers:

If I thought my answer were to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would shake no more; but since, if what I hear be true, none ever did return alive from this depth, without fear of infamy I answer thee.

And with the setting down of these words of the Italian poet Eliot begins his “Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I …

It should not come with any shock to those of us brought up in the milieu of the New Criticism that even apparently very neutral pieces of philological material, such as conjunctions, have a way of being significant in our reading of a poem. But there are signs, and have been for some years now, that the Grammarian's funeral is in process and that more cases than hotis's have been settled. So, at the risk of being buried along with the Grammarian, I should like to suggest that it is precisely the conjunction in the first verse of Prufrock which should attract our attention. “Let us go then, you and I.” If we were to translate this into Latin we might have “Procedamus igitur.” Therefore, as a consequence of something, is the force of that then. It is connective tissue in an argument. What is the connection, to what does that then relate, what is the argument that is being developed? It would appear that we, the readers, have lost the first part of whatever it is of which this then is pointing to as a consequence.

But actually the then as consequential conjunction, is related not to anything we have not been allowed to perceive by the poet, but to something which lies in the very beginning of his poem. The first verse, “Let us go then, you and I …” is not so abrupt as it may sound on first hearing. Not, at least, if we grant to the epigraph a functional strategy in the structure of the total poem. If we can do this, then, we shall be able to see how that then of the first English words implies the continuation of something well known to the reader by the time he comes to them. If we were not familiar with the verses of Dante, it is true, we would have been forced to find out means of identifying them. But having identified the verses, what are we to make of them? We would have identified them as coming from Canto XXVII of the Inferno, and further have identified the speaker as Guido da Montefeltro. We would have read on, perhaps, as Dante himself suggests to us elsewhere in the Comedy, in that which follows. This might well have called our attention to the thematic aspects of the whole canto and invited us to look at the nature of the sin being punished in this area of Dante's Hell. Guido, like Ulysses, is among the Fraudulent Counsellors.

Of course, we come to our investigation of these matters after many readings of the poem. And after many readings, perhaps after very many readings, will we be prepared to stake much on the contention that Prufrock is engaged in giving fraudulent counsel? I think that no really sound defense could be given of that position.

Again I would invoke Matthiessen. He reminds us (with respect to Eliot's frequent use of epigraphs for his poems), that the “intention is to enable the poet to secure a condensed expression in the poem itself, as well as to induce the reader to realize, even from the moment before the poem begins, that in reading poetry every word should be paid full attention.”

To ask my question again. Is it Guido whose story condenses for us the structure of Eliot's poem? Is it his story on which we must focus? Is the epigraph formally integrated into the rest of the poem by means of what surrounds Guido (and then, of course, by implication, Ulysses, who is also a Fraudulent Counsellor and who is being punished in the same circle and bolgia in the preceding canto of the Inferno?) Would not Eliot have been asking more of a reader's patience than he might have expected, to have failed even to identify the Italian verses as coming from Dante, and then to have expected the average reader to have gone on to speculate about the full context of the words once they were identified for him?

I think so. And thinking so I would turn to another explanation in my attempt to demonstrate that the epigraph is functional to the poem. Perhaps we should consider not so much the speaker and the implications of his being where he is in Hell as simply what he says:

If I thought my answer were to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would shake no more; but since, if what I hear be true, none ever did return alive from this depth, without fear of infamy I answer thee.

Guido knows, he knew it before he came to the place, that no one leaves Hell alive. And since Dante is there, he assumes that his presence falls under the general case. Erroneously he is convinced that what he will tell Dante will never be repeated, for the poet will never return to the world above to rehearse his tale. And for that reason (peró che) he tells his story to Dante.

But as we continue to read on we find:
Let us go then, you and I …

Però che … ti rispondo. Wherefore … I answer you. Guido's narrative suddenly becomes a dramatic action. Let us go then you and I, And at the same time the then which might have perplexed a reader at first is clearly seen as a consequence of something that preceded. What that is, is beyond doubt contained in the epigraph. The words of Prufrock have a strange way of becoming the words of Guido da Montefeltro. Since, if I hear right, none ever did return alive from this depth, without fear of infamy I answer thee. Let us go then, you and I.

But if matters stand thus with J. Alfred Prufrock, if indeed by a kind of double vision, we are enabled, through the epigraph, to see him as Guido-Prufrock, can we hold with Matthiessen that the Love Song is a soliloquy? And, if we are forced to answer no, how do we account for the “you” in the first verse: Let us go then, you and I. The analogy Guido-Prufrock is firmly imbedded structurally. Is the corresponding analogy you-Dante? In other words, just as Guido addresses Dante does Prufrock—? And here we pause, for we perceive that we do not have the terms of a real analogy if we were to go on. Guido is to Dante as Prufrock is to Dante will clearly not work. And that is for several reasons. First of all we need to confront two figures outside Eliot's text and their relationship, and two others within the Eliot poem that bear to each other analogical relationship to the first pair. Guido in the 27th canto of Dante's Inferno is to J. Alfred Prufrock as Dante in that same canto is to whom? Our identification of Prufrock as Guido (with the reservations that are required by analogy) arose from our recognition that the epigraph is continued by the opening words of the Love Song. In short, the I of Eliot's opening verse is Prufrock, and he bears analogical relationship to Guido of Dante's poem. The difficulty would seem to lie in identifying the you. Then, of course that you would have to have an analogical relationship to Dante in the twenty-seventh canto.

It has been proposed that the you of the verse: “Let us go then you and I” refers to the alter ego of J. Alfred Prufrock. In this case we would come up with such a configuration as: Guido is to Dante as Prufrock I is to Prufrock II. And certainly it could be said that the terms for such an analogy are present. There would be, as in the Comedy one who tells his story and one who listens. Undoubtedly some such pattern was in the mind of Matthiessen when he observed that Prufrock in the poem delivers a soliloquy and that he “will never dare to voice what he feels.” My contention is that the observations of J. Alfred Prufrock are not delivered in the mode of a soliloquy, and that, indeed, the interlocutor, that you whom we seek to define, is in a most advantageous position to hear the words of Prufrock. What we are attempting to find is the fourth term of an analogical metaphor: Guido is to Dante as Prufrock is to you. And in specifying that “you” the nature of the analogy will reveal itself.

Let us remind ourselves of another of Eliot's poets, Baudelaire. In the first poem of the collection Les Fleurs du mal, Au lecteur, Baudelaire presents his reader with a frightening array of allegorical monsters, a Dantesque zoo of the vices. There are vermin, panthers, gorillas, tarantulas and gangs of boozing demons. But they are not in any Hell which Baudelaire has created; rather they are in the human soul. And there we would keep them—in that tidy abstraction called the human soul. But the poet will not have it so, will not allow us the luxury of our hypocrisy, will not permit us to make application of the allegory to others. Perhaps only when we have come to the last lines of the poem are we forced to admit that it is not the human soul that Baudelaire has been exposing for us, but our own—or even more concretely mine, the soul of this particular reader who hears the words shouted at him:

Hypocrite lecteur, —mon sembable, —mon frére!

Not the human soul knows Ennui, l'œil chargé d'un pleur involontaire, dreaming of scaffolds, but I know him, I the reader, I know this obscene beast. And I know that I know him because Baudelaire has told me so, because the poet has caught me playing the old game of rationalizing away my implication in the human situation. And there we are, caught by the net of the poet, and we shall not escape for as long as we travel with him through the world of Les Fleurs du mal. We have been addressed and in so being addressed, we cannot again forget (as long as we choose to be with the poet) that we belong in the world he has created for his poem—and for us. But had he not warned us from the beginning that this would be our place in his poem? Had he not spoken to us at the head of his poem and addressed us there —au lecteur. And yet before we had gone far in this dedicatory poem we may have forgotten that we were being addressed. At least this has been the experience of most readers coming to the poem for the first time. Only at the end, when we are addressed for the second time—Hypocrite lecteur—do we recall that the poem has been for us all along.

Perhaps, too, many readers of “Prufrock” come to the poem too suddenly, that is without reading the epigraph; without really reading it. Perhaps we pass it by after a glance in our haste to get to the poem by Eliot. And that is why, it may be, we never really become aware that we are in the poem, each reader in confronting that you on the terms provided for it by the epigraph, from the Inferno. In the Divine Comedy it had been Guido da Montefeltro and Dante; in “Prufrock” it is ‘you and I.' But Prufrock walks not with Dante, for the figure in the Divina Commedia lies within the poem the Florentine created. And Guido lies back there, too. Only an analogy remains to bridge somewhat that great distance. Something of Guido remains in Prufrock, something of that speaker in Dante's poem gets into the one by Eliot. And something of Dante also enters into that you which once we have learned the alchemy is transmuted into an I. When Prufrock says: Let us go then, you and I, we are caught up in a dramatic action, a dramatic action which moves us forward in our time (should I not say me in my time)? And yet, of course, just as Prufrock, the very type of the timid man is not Guido the warrior, so am I not Dante. I have never been to Hell: I am not Paul, nor Aeneas, nor Dante. But I am there with Prufrock and together we shall make our visit, for this is Hell nor are we out of it.

If we are to accede to the demands of the analogy completely (as completely as is possible, that is) shall we not have to take into consideration at least one more fact. Had not Guido (or rather Prufrock) informed us at the beginning of the poem, the one called “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” that it was his understanding that what he is about to reveal about himself will never be repeated, since he has it on good authority that Dante (that is, I, the reader) will never return from Hell to cast infamy upon his name! But just as Guido was wrong about Dante, so is Prufrock wrong about his interlocutor, about me. I, like Dante, come to this Hell where Prufrock speaks to me and takes me visiting, under similar auspices of grace, and I, too, shall return after a while; for in the reader this grace always abounds—to return from the longest voyages, to come back from the lowest depths of Hell.

It is now clear that even as Prufrock is wrong about me, Professor Matthiessen was wrong about Prufrock. Prufrock is not alone, he delivers no soliloquy, but rather a dramatic monologue, of the type of Dover Beach. And of course Matthiessen was equally wrong about the nature of the irony involved in the title of the poem—“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The irony lies not in the fact that what is called a song will never be heard, but rather in that it is called a Love Song. If we translate the title of Eliot's poem into Italian we get Cantica d'amore. And can we fail to notice how we are justified in so translating the Love Song as Cantica d'Amore? It has been Dante again who points the way to the nature of the irony in the poem's title. Cantica is the word that Dante uses to designate each of the three major divisions of his Commedia. But Prufrock is in no part of Dante's poem (to avail ourselves of the analogy)—which can be characterized by love. He is in Hell, and this would be the cantica di odio not amore—hate not love. The irony is that here in Prufrock's Hell, as in Dante's, there is no love. Here also the good of the intellect has been lost. Perhaps Dante's damned souls put to themselves and to each other questions such as those posed by Prufrock. Perhaps only once in all the eternity of Hell did they ever speak rationally, when for a brief moment we hear them in the recorded memory of the great poet.

And if the epigraph of “Prufrock” so stands with respect to the rest of the poem the allegation cited by Matthiessen to the effect that the image of the opening lines is too intellectual, “not sufficiently felt,” also falls. There, in those opening lines of the poem, evening is compared to a patient lying stretched upon a table under an anaesthesia. It is true that without consideration of the epigraph the image is too sudden, apparently coming from nowhere and articulating with nothing else in the rest of the poem. Seen in this way the criticism of Matthiessen holds, that the image is “manipulated.” But suppose we can grant to the image an existence that springs from the life contained in the epigraph. How would matters then stand?

Suppose we see the image thus: it is a preparation for the poem that is about to unfold, and which the epigraph gives us reason to suspect is itself derived from Dante. If the world of Prufrock is a kind of Hell then Dante might well be the source of the image of the hospital. For Dante too had compared one of the deepest regions of his Hell to a lazzaretto:

Qual dolor fora, se delli spedali
di Valdichiana tra 'l luglio e 'l settembre
e di Maremma e di Sardigna i mali
fossero in una fossa tutti insembre,
tal era quivi, e tal puzzo n'usciva
qual suol venir delle marcite membre.

In these verses of the Commedia, Dante compares the condition of the sinners in the Tenth bolgia of the Inferno to the state of the sick in hospitals in the malaria infested Maremma and Sardinia. In Eliot the opening verses metaphorize into the image of the sterile hospital, anaesthesia, and a patient being operated on. There are many Hells, and we may forget that Dante's is not the only one. The clear perception of where Prufrock is and where I the reader am (in reading the poem, that is) may help us to become more fully instructed as we visit with our host in his Wasteland.

I would conclude by observing that no where else in the range of Eliot's use of the epigraph is it more successfully integrated into the structure of a poem as here in “Prufrock.” In a very real sense, the six verses from the Commedia are as much the property of Eliot as they are Dante's. And the fact that Eliot does not give us the epigraph in his recordings of the poem, does not change matters. It is there, the poet put it there, and it forces interpretation in one direction rather than in another.

David Ayers (essay date October 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6703

SOURCE: "Two Bald Men: Eliot and Dostoevsky," in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, October, 1988, pp. 282-300.

[In the essay below, Ayers considers whether Dostoevsky's novel The Double influenced Eliot's writing of "Prufrock."]

Students of the influence that one author has had on the work of another have at all times had reason to be careful, not to give too much importance to the superficial resemblance, the odd verbal parallel, while seeking deeper structural affinities—without, that is, making one or two centuries of highbrow literary effort appear to have repeatedly produced the same thing.

In the case of Eliot, possibly the most influence-prone writer of an age, the scholar must be doubly careful. At all points Eliot seems to have anticipated the influence-hunter's search and to have laid false trails—I say "seems" because, once possessed of the notion of Eliot's duplicitousness, it becomes impossible not to take it into consideration at every stage—what started life as a phantom becomes an everyday reality.

The notorious "Notes on the Wasteland"—hard to take seriously, hard to ignore—are perhaps a prime example of this. Many of Eliot's essays, while purporting to be objective criticism seem, under scrutiny, to be oblique meditations about the influence that an author might have had on Eliot's own work. The 1918 Lecture, "From Poe to Valery", finds in the work of Poe "nothing but slipshod writing, puerile thinking unsupported by wide reading or profound scholarship, haphazard experiments in various kinds of writing …" Yet Eliot admits that he shall "never be sure" what influence Poe's work has had on him. The essay then proceeds effectively to mitigate the effect of this influence by refracting Poe through Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Valéry—far more elegant peers than the stylistically crude and obsessive Poe.

Examining the influence of Dostoevsky on Eliot might seem a potentially fraught task. The first attempt to do so was an article by John C. Pope, "Prufrock and Raskolnikov," which appeared in American Literature in 1945. Pope gives weight to some very slight verbal parallels between Eliot's poem and Garnett's translation of Crime and Punishment, and additionally points out parallels of symbolic language—fog, streets, stairs (fairly ubiquitous phenomena, on any account) and references to Hamlet and Lazarus.

While Pope's intuition was undoubtedly correct, he had made one fatal mistake, which Eliot himself pointed out in a personal letter. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" had been completed in the summer of 1911, several years before any English translation of Crime and Punishment had appeared. This made nonsense of Pope's verbal parallels, as Pope himself acknowledged. However Pope did draw from Eliot the valuable information that he had been reading Dostoevsky in French translation, under the influence of his French tutor, Alain Fournier, while writing "Prufrock", although Eliot carefully disperses the question of influence on the poem by pointing out that parts of the poem, including the reference to Hamlet, were written before he had encountered Dostoevsky. Further, in addition to Crime and Punishment, he claims to have read The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov.

A study of the possible influence of Dostoevsky's early novel The Double on "Prufrock" and later works of Eliot seems then to have a profound obstacle in its path—Eliot does not admit to having read the book. This at first seems disabling, but in fact it is liberating. It is possible that Eliot was misleading Pope while at the same time seeming to help the influence-hunters—just as the "Notes on the Wasteland" seem to do. The French edition of The Double, had already in the Winter of 1910 run to several editions, and would have been easily available to Eliot. Even discounting this possibility, The Double dating from before Dostoevsky's exile, had an acknowledged effect on the work of his later period, and indeed he was working on a revised version of The Double some twenty years after its first publication—working at the same time on Crime and Punishment. So the question of influence might then be a question of refracted influence. Just as Poe was received by Eliot refracted through the French symbolistes, perhaps he received The Double (a tale with gothic elements possibly drawn from Poe, and immature in style) refracted through Dostoevsky's later and allegedly greater works. Yet there remains the tantalizing possibility, that Eliot's silence about The Double, like his distancing himself from Poe, is the product of a guilty affinity.

The hero of The Double, Titular Councillor Golyadkin, Yakov Petrovich to his friends, is a balding civil servant who is every bit as belated, indecisive, evasive and impotent as J. Alfred Prufrock himself. The narrative of the tale, which playfully blends the comic and the Gothic, brings Golyadkin into collision with his exact double, who comes to work in his office, impresses himself on his superiors in a way that Golyadkin has never done, and finally drives Golyadkin to madness. The story of Golyadkin finds its ancestry in Gogol's The Nose, Pushkin's The Bronze Horesman, and Cervantes' Don Quixote, but in its narrative method it is profoundly modern, blending the comic monologue of Dickens—a style itself sometimes named as the precursor of the stream-of-consciousness method in English—with a prediction of Jamesian point-of-view narration. The result is that rather than witness the decline of Golyadkin into madness the reader is inextricably involved in that decline. Much of what occurs is presented in Golyadkin's own words. Even when this is not so, the narrative voice increasingly adopts Golyadkin's own phrases and expressions, and as the persecution inflicted on him by his double grows, there is no relief for the reader who would seek to distinguish the projections of Golyadkin's own fevered mind from a sober and objective understanding of events. Indeed, the status of the reader with respect to the reality of the narrative mimics Golyadkin's own relationship to his double—each is shown a reality which, however implausible, becomes the only possible reference point.

The Double opens with Titular Councillor Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin awakening from a long sleep, and finding himself unable to decide "whether what is happening around him is real and actual, or only the continuation of his disordered dreams". This blurring of the distinction between reality and fantasy, subjective and objective, is in its various forms the archetypal romantic legacy for both Dostoevsky and Eliot alike, refracted through Baudelaire, transported to Dostoevsky's Dickensian St Petersburg or Eliot's Dickensian London, and rendered ineluctable. Although Golyadkin quickly shakes himself awake to the grimy reality of St Peterburg, out of the "far-distant realm" of his dream, he will find the confusion recurring in his waking life, as he is forced to pinch himself to test his own wakefulness, considers pinching others also (but dare not), and is cruelly pinched on the nose and cheek by the taunting double.

For the moment, however, Golyadkin's possession of self and reality seems not to be threatened. He begins the morning by taking possession of his own image in the mirror. Considering what is about to happen, it is a greatly ironical moment, and one which enacts in microcosm the troubled heart of the Golyadkinesque dilemma:

Although the sleepy, short-sighted, rather bald figure reflected in the glass was of such an insignificant character that nobody at all would have found it at the least remarkable at first glance, its owner was evidently quite satisfied with all he saw there. 'It would be a fine thing if something was wrong with me today, if a pimple had suddenly appeared out of the blue, for example, or something else disastrous had happened; however, for the moment, it's all right; for the moment everything is going well.'

In the heart of the metropolis the individual is utterly anonymous, the civil servant like any other good Russian citizen must dedicate his life to the service of his country, and entrust his fate to the authorities as to the father. The self then can only be recognised as an individual in its own eyes, it can only possess itself as an image, a mirror-image perhaps, or an imagined one, but always one mediated by that of which it is an image. The self and the self-image can never coincide, just as the individual in the parental state must go always unacknowledged, and the result is an interminable anxiety which can only increase the more the incomplete and never self-sufficient self tries to cross the gap. This, roughly expressed, seems to be the Dostoevskian formula not only for Golyadkin—whose name is derived from goli = "naked"—but for mass urban man in general. The nakedness of Golyadkin is in his very typicality, a typicality arrived at by stripping urban man to a core of anxiety, stripping his language down to a mixture of state-inspired platitudes and romance-inspired desires. Indeed the self-satisfaction of Golyadkin contemplating himself in the mirror is presented in terms of a platitudinous satisfaction with reality which Golyadkin continually reproduces throughout the novel as his situation deteriorates with increasing speed.

Golyadkin's possession of self and reality alike appear, even at this early stage of the narrative, to be tenuous. On waking, Golyadkin had looked around his room at his furniture and clothes which "all looked familiarly back at him". After looking in the mirror he takes out a bundle of notes in a wallet, which also seems "to look back at Mr Golyadkin in a friendly and approving fashion". This is the pathetic fallacy—the objects in question look approvingly back at Golyadkin only as a projection of his own self-satisfaction. Yet a reality seen in this way can equally become a menace. What if the pact with reality is broken by reality itself, approval for Golyadkin withdrawn, and a pimple erupts or some worse disaster takes place? As if to underline this threat, Golyadkin's samovar is found "raging and hissing fiercely, almost beside itself with anger and threatening to boil over any minute, gabbling away in its strange gibberish, lisping and babbling to Mr Golyadkin." Yet perhaps this too is a projection of Golyadkin—during the course of the narrative he too frequently threatens to boil over with anger, is almost metaphorically beside himself, and is finally literally beside himself. Golyadkin's consciousness attempts equally to contain a potentially explosive reality and a potentially explosive self. When the attempt at containment fails, Golyadkin's grasp on reality and on his self-image depart together, the self-image conspiring with a malevolent reality to expose the thoroughly dispossessed Golyadkin to his own naked anxieties.

These first pages then present a microcosmic view of the whole tale, although it is not at first apparent how out of hand Golyadkin's affairs already are, let alone how far astray they are going to go. Indeed most of the action of the story has taken place already, and the narrative deals only with the final dissolution. The first incongruities emerge when Golyadkin looks for his servant, Petrushka. Golyadkin is only a minor civil servant in a dingy fourth floor apartment, yet his aspirations to social position, arising from his sheer lack of position, lead him to keep a manservant who must sleep behind a partition, and who accords Golyadkin no respect whatsoever, despite frequent admonitions that he should do so. This morning Golyadkin finds Petrushka joking with other servants, he surmises about himself, and dressed in a ridiculously ill-fitting livery for the purpose of a coach-journey which he is to undertake with his master. For someone of Golyadkin's status, a journey with a liveried coachman is inappropriate. One purpose of the journey is a shopping expedition at the fashionable Arcades of the Nevsky Prospect. It is a ghost expedition: Golyadkin orders many items, some destined for a lady, promises a deposit, and leaves without giving his address: in short, an almost maniacal social masquerade born of Golyadkin's deep-seated wish to be someone. Yet at the same time, an incident on the journey from his own home shows exactly the opposite impulse. First, Golyadkin sees two younger colleagues from his own department. They are surprised to see him dressed up and in a carriage, clearly beyond his station, and call out to him. He hides in the corner of the carriage but consoles himself with aggressive thoughts:

"I know them, they're nothing but schoolboys still in need of flogging … I'd have something to say to the lot of them, only …"

Golyadkin's self-communion of consolation rests on knowing the others already, feeling able to look down on and contain them in a fantasy of domination, and on the security that he would have something to say, even though he hasn't said it, if only … his remarks trail off in suspension points.

The suspension of "only …" serves to isolate the most common rhetorical device of Golyadkin's almost constant patter of self-justification. It is not suspended because Golyadkin is lost for argument—indeed later passages show that his rhetoric of the conditional provides him with an unlimited fund of argument—but that a second encounter provides a sharp intrusion into his interior monologue. He encounters his immediate superior in the Department, Andrey Phillipovich, in a carriage traveling in the opposite direction. He is in anguish trying to decide whether or not to greet the other, or to take refuge in self-effacement:

"… shall I pretend its not me but somebody else strikingly like me, and look as if nothing's the matter?"… "I … it's all right," he whispered, hardly able to speak, "it's quite all right; this is not me at all, Andrey Phillipovich, it's not me at all, not me, and that's all about it."

Once his boss has passed, Golyadkin is consumed by anger at his own pusillanimity, and directs "a terrible challenging stare at the opposite corner of the carriage, a stare calculated to reduce all his enemies to dust".

This is a fascinating incident, and a crucial one. The urge to self-effacement is born ultimately from the guilt of Golyadkin's desires, both for social status and for the respectable lady whom, it later emerges, he would like to marry. Thus the rhetoric of satisfaction and summary finality—"it's all right … that's all about it"—is an anxious attempt to contain the anxiety of an incomplete desire, one that is embarrassed by its own incompletion in the face of the seemingly self-sufficient other. Golyadkin's guilty reaction to his own embarrassment—a reaction he repeats several times during the course of the narration, always belatedly—projects enmity on to a reality which is merely uncompliant to his fantasy, and expresses a desire to exterminate that reality and replace it with fantasy. Indeed, Golyadkin's interior monologue throughout the narrative claims a knowledge, and very often a foreknowledge, of events, particularly of the thoughts and words of others, which it does not and cannot possess. In an effort to contain the other, the self attempts to substitute itself for the other—but only belatedly. In the face of an otherness which appears increasingly hostile to the desire of the self, the self steps sideways evasively—"this is not me at all".

Golyadkin is caught in an anxious oscillation between the wish to manifest his individuality—in whatever this may consist—and wish to conceal it—often expressed as the wish to hide in a mousehole, or as assertions about the normality and acceptability of his own actions or situation. This oscillation becomes a general indecisiveness on his part which almost entirely paralyses his will. This begins to become clear during the encounter with Andrey Phillipovich, and assumes its extreme form during Golyadkin's next encounter—with his new Doctor, Christian Ivanovich Rutenspitz. The visit to Rutenspitz is an impromptu one, impulsively decided upon after the encounter with Andrey Phillipovich and seemingly arising from that. On the way there, Golyadkin is tortured by doubts about the correctness and acceptability of his action, in that language of self-questioning which becomes the most persistent index of his character:

"Will it be all right though?… will it be all right? Is it a proper thing to do? Will this be the right time? However, does it really matter?" he continued as he mounted the stairs, breathing hard and trying to control the beating of his heart, which always seemed to beat hard on other people's stairs; "does it matter? I've come about my own business, after all, and there's nothing reprehensible in that … it would be stupid to try and keep anything from him. So I'll just make it appear that it's nothing special, I just happened to be driving past …"

It will be seen from this extended quotation that Golyadkin's habitual discourse with himself, the precursor of the staircase torment of Raskolnikov, is like a perpetual attempt to judge himself from an alternative viewpoint. He always wonders "what people might think", and substitutes his own voice for the voice of the imagined others. Yet while the later Dostoyevskian hero is troubled by issues that seem much weightier, Golyadkin's doubts are about almost nothing at all. That "almost nothing" is Golyadkin's own lack, that incompletion which is the anxious heart of urban man. This anxiety reproduces itself in an endless rhetoric of doubt. Indeed, it is about his state of anxiety that Golyadkin wishes to see his doctor. But the will to self-revelation is countered by the will to self-obliteration—to be no-one in particular, self-sufficient, seen by others to be merely going about his own business, as Golyadkin construes the self-sufficiency of others. What results is the paralysis of the will by choice, and this is dramatically enacted by Golyadkin at the door of his doctor's house:

Coming to a halt, our hero hastily tried to give his countenance a suitably detached but not unamiable air, and prepared to give a tug at the bell-pull. Having taken hold of the bell-pull, he hastily decided, just in time, that it might be better to wait until the next day, and that meanwhile there was no great urgency. But suddenly hearing footsteps on the stairs, Mr. Golyadkin immediately changed his mind again and, while still retaining a look of the most unshakeable decision, at once rang Christian Ivanovich's bell.

The self is both subject and object—its own object and the object of the other, menacingly present here in the footsteps of the doctor's footman, ready to answer the door.

It is Golyadkin's constant claim that he is not duplicitous, that he makes himself plain, that he does not beat about the bush, that he does not wear a mask like others and, in short, that his objective image and his subjectivity are entirely coincident. It is a claim which is manifestly untrue—the incident at the door of Christian Ivanovich portrays a dramatic rupture between the oscillating anxiety of the self and the mask of "unshakeable decision" which Golyadkin presents. More than this, when Golyadkin goes to his superiors to explain himself, first about his designs on Carolina Ivanovich, daughter of the wealthy Olsufi Ivanovich, and later about the outrageous activities of his double, his rhetoric of self-revelation serves to so far defer and delay the actual moment of self-revelation that he is dismissed with impatience before any revelation has been made.

To complete this picture of Golyadkin before the appearance of his double—and it is a picture which accounts for most of his activities after the double appears—it need only be added that Golyadkin's linguistic attempt to contain the other and bend it toward his self-completion and self-sufficiency in the eyes of others is bound to fail, and continued frustration develops into a paranoia which sees enmity everywhere. Indeed, Golyadkin's rhetorics of self-questioning and of self-revelation are accompanied by an equally prolific and self-sustaining rhetoric of enmity. Not satisfied with one enemy, the allegation of enmity slips from one to another, frustrated of a final object, as Golyadkin is frustrated of his final revelation, another endless rhetoric of incompletion.

This is the prelude to the appearance of the double. The final precipitation is an abortive sexual encounter at a ball thrown by Olsufi Ivanovich, whose daughter has been wooed by a younger colleague of Golyadkin's, and in whose person therefore the whole of Golyadkin's anxiety of incompletion is embodied. Golyadkin is definitively not invited to the ball, and after a first abortive attempt at entry he is politely ejected. Instead of going home, he goes around to a rear entrance, and stands for three hours "in the cold among every kind of trash and lumber" assuring himself that his presence there means nothing, he could go in if he wanted to, it is not that he dare not, just that he does not choose to at the moment, and so on. Having finally decided to go in and stepped up to the door, he retreats again into hiding. Having decided that he will go home, not only because he would like a warm cup of tea but also because his prolonged absence might upset his man-servant, Golyadkin states summarily "I'll go home, and that's all about it!" and steps straight inside the house. He proceeds to embarrass himself in the eyes of all present, and resorts to that device of self-detachment which enabled him to pretend not to be himself, this time to pretend to be merely a casual onlooker, and not a part of any scandal. Golyadkin's indecision and self-detachment, as well as his self-revelation when he tearfully tries to explain his presence in the sincerest manner, all reach their logical limit and, cast out on the streets of St Petersburg on a stormy night, Golyadkin first encounters his double, and follows him back to his own flat.

It should be apparent at this stage that while the doubling alluded to by the title of this novel is the eventual reduplication of Golyadkin himself, it might stand equally for a variety of reduplications at various levels which occur before the appearance of the double and which continue to manifest themselves after his arrival. From the first page where the fantasy of sleep and the reality of the waking world are confused, where everyday objects reflect back Golyadkin's gaze, and where a mirror offers him a specious moment of specular self-possession, doubling and duplicity become rampant. Doubling and duplicity, because every reduplication is seen to involve a treacherous loss. On his shopping expedition, Golyadkin takes his wad of high denomination notes to a money-changer. He comes away with a much thicker wallet—full of low-domination notes, having of course paid a commission on the exchange. Although he has lost by the transaction, it gives him the greatest satisfaction—the satisfaction, presumably, not only of appearing wealthier than he actually is, but also of a self-confirming exchange, the will to image the self and its true value being the same as the wish to image the true value of money in its bulk. It is a small moment, but one which neatly encapsulates the doubling process at work.

Perhaps this structural description of The Double has begun to hint too at aspects of Eliot's work—particularly "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock".

Prufrock in his balding and insignificant appearance certainly resembles Golyadkin far more than any other Dostoevskyian protagonist, least of all Raskolnikov, but it is parallels of structure rather than detail that most strongly suggest some kind of affinity.

The dramatic form of Prufrock, while it is drawn from a variety of traditions from the Elizabethan drama to Browning, serves, like the structure of The Double, to limit the perspective to that of the protagonist himself, a protagonist known therefore only by his language, his voice. What we learn about Prufrock's situation we know only from him, and his words seem often more symptomatic of his own malaise than indicative of any external reality—Prufrock imaging himself in his own discourse in that potentially endless exercise of attempted self-confirmation which constitutes the structural principle of Golyadkin's discourse. The opening words of "Prufrock", "Let us go then, you and I", while they speciously suggest a link with one English translation of Golyadkin's address to the double, "Let's go somewhere now, you and I", are, more importantly, a key to the structural affinities and differences which link the two works.

If the words are read as Prufrock's own, which they need not be if it is not assumed that the poem is a dramatic monologue, then they might equally be addressed to his author, his reader, or to himself. If to himself, they suggest the gesture of self appropriation in the mirror which opens The Double. To whomever they might be addressed, they suggest that tone of attempted familiarity which characterizes one aspect of Golyadkin's relationship to others and especially to his double, an attempt to equate others with himself and to fix others, or the other, inside his own discourse. But no comfortable reading of these words is possible, as they are positioned with such wilful obscurity. They might be taken equally as the words of the author (or of a narrator) as of Prufrock himself, addressed possibly to the reader or to the protagonist. Suggesting all of these relationships without favouring any, the words come to stand generally for a language which seeks to appropriate the other to complete and satisfy the self, and in which the other, conversely, acquires a power to menace the self with what it has once taken to be its own image. Reader, author, Prufrock, and anyone else for that matter, are trapped in relationships of guilty complicity, drawn on and paralysed by specular images amongst the tawdry rubble of the godless city streets. Something like this is evidently how Eliot would have things, following quite a different brief from Dostoevsky in The Double, where author and reader alike are, despite superficial narrative complicity, placed at an aloof distance from Golyadkin's encroaching madness. Here, despite the humour at Prufrock's expense, there is a significant degree of endorsement of the Prufrockian position, not least by Eliot himself who, in a later interview, identified Prufrock as in part himself.

Prufrock the frustrated prophet might not at first seem to have much in common with the socially unsituated Golyadkin, but on examination the similarities proliferate. In fact, Golyadkin fancies himself something of a prophet. Whenever he finds himself overtaken by some completely unpredictable circumstance, he offers himself the reassurance, manifestly untrue, that he has already forseen it all. For instance, when the engagement with the double is already well developed, Golyadkin arrives home in a spirit of self-torment, and finds an unexpected letter, one which is possibly an illusion but which seems tangible enough. It is from a friend at the office, in connection with the scandal of the double, and comes in reply to an earlier letter of Golyadkin's which the latter had foreseen that his manservant had not delivered. Golyadkin contains his surprise on finding the letter: "'However, I foresaw all this,' thought our hero, 'and now I foresee everything I shall find in the letter.'" Having read the letter, Golyadkin is dazed and uncomprehending, but continues to reassure himself that he has forseen it all while still puzzling the meaning of the words. Despite Golyadkin's puzzlement with the letter, in fact, there is no evidence that the letter is indeed real and not another projection. The language of the letter resembles closely Golyadkin's own self-dialogue and evasively accuses him of his most guilty action. Further, in the morning he looks again at the letter, and its meaning has changed in an unspecified way, somehow. Finally, looking in his pocket for the letter at a later stage, Golyadkin finds that it has disappeared, only to be replaced by a letter from the desired Carolina Ivanovna, rejecting her fiancé and inviting Golyadkin to elope; a letter which leads to his final destruction. The implication is that Golyadkin's self-proclaimed foresight is an attempt to contain a reality inimical to the self's desires, and perhaps a process of redefining that reality at first with subtlety and finally by outright alteration of the image of the world in the consciousness. On this analysis, the prime weapon of the self in its struggle with the other is its ability to substitute its own voice for the voice of others—a prophetic ability which Prufrock certainly shares, anticipating remarks about his hair and musculature, and anticipating also the scene of miscomprehension when his auditor remarks: "That is not it at all. That is not what I meant at all." At this point it is the voice of the other which rejects the appropriative strategy of the self and marks the self's inability to substitute its voice for the other.

Golyadkin too fears misprision, and is indeed always met by it in his attempted confidences, except for that single scene of the novel in which he finds himself contented, the night at home with the double, when the double, who comes to be known as Golyadkin Junior, unburdens himself to Golyadkin Senior, adopting the confidential and occasionally tearful manner of the latter. In the discourse of others, self-illusions have no purchase, and the romantic self is threatened with annihilation. It is the eyes of others which hold this power to annihilate the romantic self. For Prufrock there is the foreknowledge of "The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase" which pin him to the wall like an insect, and for Golyadkin, also compared to an insect in his moments of supreme abasement, there is the "annihilating stare" of Andrey Phillipovich for instance, and the recurrent fear of betrayal and loss of self possession in the conspiratorial words of others, words which he cannot hear. This fear is finally realized in the Judas-kiss of the double, and it is the person of the double who is finally construed as the enemy, a term which has to shift considerably in Golyadkin's discourse—he is at first sure that the double is the device of other unspecified enemies. But Golyadkin's social insecurity leads him to construe every social inferior as a betrayer, particularly as they never respond to his patronising manner, and Petrushka in particular will never show his master any respect. It is Petrushka who at the very opening of the novel is chatting and laughing with some other servants: Golyadkin fears that he has seen "sold for nothing", a fear which compresses anxiety about annihilation in the discourse of others with anxiety about his own exchange value, and reveals perhaps a desire to be exchanged, like the desire to be made fully manifest, if only for the right price.

For Prufrock too there is betrayal, and humiliation before social inferiors. Here the footman is given a capital and made 'eternal', not only because in his manners he might seem that much more assured than Prufrock, but also because he is the archetypal other which fixes the self under its stare, and representative too of that absolute of revelation to which the prophet Prufrock aspires. Betrayal is writ large in "Prufrock." While Golyadkin is implicitly compared to Christ, Prufrock explicitly compares himself to John the Baptist, imagining his head "brought in upon a platter"—perhaps a tidier analogy than that of The Double, evoking the sexual factor, present in both works, as the motive of betrayal. Further, it serves to put Prufrock in his self-romanticization at one remove from Christ himself. John the Baptist merely foresees the coming of the one who shall be revealed as the Son of God, but the power of revelation is not his. In "Prufrock" as in The Double, revelation is deferred or, as here, displaced, projected on to another. Revelation is the product in Eliot of a mystical timeless state, imagined as in many religions as a return to life from death, or a suspended state of death-in-life. Prufrock imagines himself saying "I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all. / I shall tell you all." Again, like Christ returning from the dead, but unlike Christ not possessed of any revelatory or prophetic power. Indeed, the Biblical Lazarus, anti-climactically, never says anything about having been dead. The possibility of Prufrock as prophet is all but obliterated by this deadening analogy, and in any case his wish to "have squeezed the universe into a ball" with its allusion to Marvell denotes a thorough confusion of the prophetic and the sexual urge to completion in a (Platonic and otherwise) ball. (For Golyadkin the wish to complete and summarize takes the form of a regret that he cannot cut off his finger as a means to settle the whole matter—a comically small sacrifice which nevertheless suggests castration and the mid-life impotence which the balding Golyadkin and Prufrock share—a diminutive version of Caligula's wish that the Roman Senate had only one throat which he could cut.)

Yet the possibility of the transcendent state is not dismissed in "Prufrock". It remains as an inaccessible possibility and recurs subsequently in much of Eliot's central work. The Double too deals with the death-in-life state, but does not offer it a refuge. Dostoevsky himself suffered from epilepsy, and Golyadkin is made to suffer bouts of epilepsy or perhaps madness in situations of acute stress. He is described as "more dead than alive" and in reply to questions from his doctor about his current abode he miscomprehendingly replies: "I was living, Christian Ivanovich, I was living even formerly. I must have been, mustn't I?" At the height of one of his attacks Golyadkin is "dumb and motionless, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, feeling nothing". When less overwhelmed, he becomes tremendously distracted, his thoughts and conversation digress fantastically, and his mind becomes fixed on isolated images, much like the "sordid images" which brokenly fixate Eliotic protagonists. Golyadkin's death-in-life moments resemble nothing more than that moment in "The Burial of the Dead" in the presence of the "hyacinth girl".

     'You gave me Hyacinths first a year ago;
     'They called me the hyacinth girl.'
     Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
     Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
     Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
     Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
     Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

This is a complicated moment which begins from that basic Romantic premise which makes the woman that object which completes the man and offers him transcendence—just as the ultimate object of Golyadkin and Prufrock was sexual. Here, however, the scene is passed, the girl has no subjective recollection of it, and seems therefore an inadequate object of the man's rapture, while what the man recalls might equally be a fit of madness as of rapture, while the "heart of light" borrows the ineluctability of the "heart of darkness" to further veil the moment of transcendence.

There is a crucial difference between Eliot and Dostoevsky on the point of romantic transcendence. For Eliot, while directing his full satirical tones against a weak romantic notion of transcendence in "Prufrock", there still seems to be always an escape clause. The possibility of transcendence is never disallowed—it is instead always deferred, delayed or otherwise displaced, remaining "a perpetual possibility/Only in a world of speculation." We know that Eliot in his early period at least was very close to the philosophy of T. E. Hulme, and belief in the desirability at least of the concept of an Absolute, even if it were to be an entirely inaccessible one. Politically this idea manifested itself perhaps in Eliot's royalism, the concept of a state where the monarchy in mystical fashion secured social meaning, much like the framework satirized in The Double in which Golyadkin looks on the state and the highest officials of the state as a father who should secure his individuality by preventing what he calls "substitution"—meaning the substitution of the double for himself—in a chaos of social and semantic slippage. While Eliot harbours mysticism, Dostoevsky blows it away. While "Prufrock" defers the moment of transcendence, doubts it, but leaves it possible, The Double displays a rhetoric of self-revelation in a transcendent moment which is given the chance to play its last card. As The Double progresses, it becomes increasingly desireable for Golyadkin to make plain his case to some higher power, and in a late scene, having entered yet another social gathering uninvited, the chance at last arrives for him to explain to a supremo of the Civil Service known only as "His Excellency". "Well, what do you want?" asks His Excellency: "As I say, it's like this: I look on him as a father; I stand aloof in the whole affair—and protect me from my enemy! There you are!" Golyadkin's reply ends with an exclamatory flourish which shows that he does indeed consider that he has made all plain. His Excellency of course is baffled, having heard nothing of Golyadkin's minor scandal, and in the face of incomprehension, Golyadkin breaks down and is taken away. When Golyadkin thinks he is revealing himself in a transcendent moment, all he reveals is that nexus of anxieties that has produced his discourse and actions throughout: his urge to completion and security, thought to be offered by the father: the repudiation of the self in the wish to stand outside it, elsewhere a wish to disappear or be annihilated: the fear for the safety of an incomplete self which, meeting only a hostile world which refuses it completion, projects enmity everywhere. It is a final testing of Golyadkin's rhetoric to which the subtler and more thoroughly scrutinized rhetoric of Prufrock is never subjected.

When Eliot selected a quotation from Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as the original epigraph for The Wasteland he was challenged by Pound that it could not bear the weight which its position put on it. Contemporaries considered the work light, an evaluation which Pound seems to have shared, although Eliot, who took from it the epigraph to "The Hollow Men", seemingly did not. It is an interesting disparity, because "Heart of Darkness" probably more than any modern work, relies on a rhetoric of ineffability which culminates in Kurtz's final words—"The horror! the horror!" For the early Romantic the transcendent moment might have been a union with God, but for Kurtz it produces a reduplicated vision of terror. At least this is what we are told by Marlow—for this is a displaced moment of vision. "Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?" It is an unanswered question, even though it strongly suggests its own answer. For Marlow himself, although he seems to have lived through Kurtz's "last extremity", the summary is impossible—"I was within a hair's-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. Through a host of rhetorical devices, "Heart of Darkness" suggests complete revelation and summation in a transcendent moment which is however always on the other side of a ghostly line. For all its seriousness, the rhetoric of "Heart of Darkness", which places the word "horror" at its abysmal centre, has a buried affinity with the literature of gothic horror, which must always employ a rhetoric of ineffability to maintain its power to horrify—it must in short refuse completion.

And in the manner of the horror fictionist—perhaps in that of his contemporary H. P. Lovecraft, whose language of ineffability owed much to Poe—Eliot deploys a rhetoric of displaced transcendence which has its roots in the first doubts of a Romanticism herded from the countryside and penned in the city, of which Coleridge is perhaps the earliest spokesman. Dostoevsky too deploys the Gothic—although never after The Double in the same unmitigated form—yet the notion of ineffability is demolished, the product of urban displacement and not its absolute though inaccessible meaning. It is a fundamental difference and one which makes the gap between The Double and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as wide as it could be. So finally, what is their subterranean connection?

     O keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
     Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!

Grover Smith (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2889

SOURCE: "'Prufrock' as Key to Eliot's Poetry," in Approaches to Teaching Eliot's Poetry and Plays, The Modern Language Association of America, 1988, pp. 88-93.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses how teaching students the underlying structure of "Prufrock" introduces them to the broader concepts of Eliot's later works.]

A strategy to identify the essence of Eliot beyond, as well as within, a single poem needs the right poem. To make "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" this poem, whether one is proposing to teach Eliot comprehensively or selectively, offers several advantages. "Prufrock" is familiar and is outstanding in interest and attractiveness; it comes near the beginning of the canon; it links in theme and technique with various other poems by Eliot; and, most useful, it anticipates certain equally familiar critical principles (two especially) that he was to declare. Those principles, though they only took shape ten years further on, in his most active period of critical theory, apply to "Prufrock" and other poems of the 1909–11 period because it was in these, as a practical exercise, that he discovered their necessity. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) he set forth a kind of theory of mutual adaptation between the poet and the cultural past; in "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921) he pointed to certain distinguished cases of poetic excellence achieved through unity of thought and feeling. (These papers, reprinted in Eliot's Selected Essays, are extremely interesting to read and are of value to the teacher. The best introductory summary of Eliot's critical theories is still René Wellek's 1956 essay in the Sewanee Review.) Tradition in the poetry of Eliot represents the impact of the past on the thought-feeling unity of the achieved work of art—the old renewing itself in the fresh and original. The two principles thus combine into one. Each entails for critics a kind of pons asinorum; for tradition to Eliot meant adapting the past, not copying it, and the unity of thought and feeling meant a poetic formulation, not a discharge of personal philosophy and passion—though indeed these might be sources for poetic transformation. The principles work in "Prufrock" by giving technical significance to what happens there, and they can help a teacher open up the poem for students. They also provide standards and a vocabulary for treating "Prufrock" as a touchstone—not quite in Arnold's sense—for Eliot's subsequent development. With them, the teacher of "Prufrock" can introduce Eliot as poet and theorist together and prepare students for dealing with poems, similarly grounded, that lie ahead. And since in teaching Eliot one teaches tradition or nothing, in a more Arnoldian sense "Prufrock" may become a touchstone for the work of other poets, even for the genuineness of a poem.

The teaching of poetry calls for a certain restraint. Interpretation is next to falsification: therefore it has no value (unless sometimes comic value) for its own sake. Yet we must confess that we are all tainted with it. The only expiation is to devote ourselves as far as possible to letting the poem reveal its true nature as we read and teach it—its own point of view, not ours. Pedagogically one is probably unwise to begin with theory in teaching a poem, for theory demands from the student prior knowledge of the object. If one sets out by establishing that "Prufrock" is a monologue, or more privately a spoken reverie, and one gets the class to recognize through the grammar and syntax that the persona's "visit" on that foggy late afternoon takes place in time, not space, in his projective imagination, then the remaining essentials should prove easy to explore. Why Prufrock revolves in his mind, assisted by his memories, a program of action that should lead to an amorous declaration but cannot even commence can be answered only by reference to his character. Partly he gains definition through his rhetoric of vacillation and diffidence, which the members of the class who have read the poem aloud to themselves, at home, will know is confirmed by the ruefulness of his tone. An unhurried reading of selected strophes in class, however, may be used to question the proposition that he only suffers, that mere ennui and frustration are his only portion. Partly he emerges through a rhetorical effect quite other than rueful, namely, his invocation of a personal mythology of power, according to which he transitorily takes to himself, soon after the middle of the poem, exaggerative guises such as "ragged claws," a great saint's severed head "upon a platter," the mana of the resurrected Lazarus, and the grave perplexities of Hamlet, and at last locates himself in the chambers of "sea-girls." The ambivalence of these images of power—images that he both dodges and embraces, illustrates the transformations of thought and feeling, their interpenetration. One scenario for the teaching of "Prufrock" will therefore involve an analysis of the persona's rhetorical division into a comically pathetic self and a boastfully poetic one, two selves that coexist. And Eliot's 1921 theory of a fusion of thought and feeling can, perhaps uniquely, provide the right clue to what is going on. Theory enters the scene precisely on time, its presence required and its message respectfully attended.

As likely as not, that scenario will fail to work in the classroom because the rhetorical effect fails to be noted before some different question intervenes. Unless one is simply lecturing, a student may short-circuit the line of development by asking, for example, what the Italian poetry, the epigraph, at the beginning of "Prufrock" is for. This is a fair question and provides a useful topic, which will guide one to the character of the persona by a different way, but hardly through the unity of thought and feeling. Either the epigraph, from Dante's Inferno 27, or the references to John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet can prompt a general explanation of the role played in Eliot by tradition. More urgently, a student may pose a question, based on outside reading or a detective instinct, that challenges Eliot as unoriginal, plagiaristic, or inaccessibly highbrow. To concede the reasonableness of these charges is good tactics; one need only show afterward that, once laid open to inspection, tradition is as accessible as anything else and that the originality of Eliot's recourse to it, for source material or whatever, lies beyond cavil. Meanwhile, as most of our students have no familiarity with Dante, Shakespeare, or the Bible, access should benefit them. It can make no difference whether, at any early stage, one introduces the principle of the enduring tradition or that of the unity of thought and feeling; indeed one may need to discuss them together, as accident or opportunity may suggest. Some teachers may be uneasy with this amount of improvisation and may wish to control the sequence of topics more strictly. On occasion I might agree; but among possible experiments the least promising appears to be that of teaching the theoretical principles as a separate unit while actually teaching a poem. One says enough about them in naming, explaining, and applying them. In a course where they can compose a unit apart from the poetry, poetry by Eliot might be instanced to explain them.

With "Prufrock" I prefer any scenario that deals with the man's character first and leaves until later the consideration of style in relation to the past and to literary models or sources. The epigraph from Dante suggests itself as a source of Prufrock's character as well as of his situation. (In Eliot the sources always furnish some essential fiber of significance.) Most students will admit to some confusion over the "I-you" question: to whom really is Prufrock talking? One may cut the Gordian knot by replying that he is talking to himself; but his reasons are not altogether simple. They seem to be involved with the answer to another question: what is Prufrock representing himself as? It may be expedient in teaching to note, with the help of a translation, the possible parallel between Prufrock and Guido. In Inferno 27, Guido speaks the lines of the epigraph to the poet Dante, who has "dropped in" and who, in a kind of treachery, reports (in the very poem they occur in) the secrets that Guido says can never leak out, from those depths, to the world of the living. An indicated corollary of the Dantean parallel is that Prufrock's treacherous confidant ("you") is (as it were) the poet Eliot. Like Guido, moreover, Prufrock is hoist with his own petard: not knowing that he is a character in a poem, he blabs. It is Eliot, not he, who doubles Prufrock with Guido and who offers himself ("you") as a double of the Dante with whom Guido converses; but since Eliot does not play a further role in the monologue, Prufrock has only himself to talk to, "after all." My account—an interpretation, the reader is warned—postulates a joke in the manner of Laforgue, played on Prufrock by his author; Eliot would again double himself with Dante in The Waste Land and in "Little Gidding". Prufrock's ambivalent assimilation to Guido, Hamlet, and others specializes Eliot's practice, in poems at every period of the canon, of fabricating poetry by means of transformed source materials bearing traditional weight. The models for Prufrock's character besides Guido illustrate the composite impact of tradition. Since some of them, furthermore, also derive historically from Hamlet, they show multiple linkage at work in the composite. (On this chain effect or "genealogy" of sources, see Smith, The Waste Land.)

A main source for Prufrock was Henry James's story "Crapy Cornelia," which I have briefly discussed elsewhere (T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays; the parallel was pointed out to me, in conversation almost forty years ago, by my then-colleague Richard Earl Amacher). In the middle-class would-be suitor White-Mason of "Crapy Cornelia," Eliot found a character that he endowed with certain pretensions to cultivation or dignity, as merited by Strether in The Ambassadors and overreached by the dithering Marcher in "The Beast in the Jungle." Besides manifesting a Jamesian mold, Prufrock seems to regard himself in a Jamesian light. Unlike other sentimental bachelors, from Charles Lamb's to Ik Marvel's, he introspects to break his way out, not wholly unsuccessfully. For at least he achieves a rhetoric of mythic grandeur, though of absurd components. The "mythical method" greeted by Eliot in writing of Joyce a dozen years later was already invented in "Prufrock." The important issue for this method, and for all Eliot's manipulations of received material, of tradition, consists in the changes made in the specific sources. The teacher of "Prufrock" may wish to press this point. It becomes ever more cardinal in the teaching of the Sweeney poems, of "Gerontion," of The Waste Land, and later work of Eliot. Prufrock is the first of Eliot's complex synthetics, his psychological lineaments along with his milieu being derived variously; and he seems too, as brought out, to feel that he is an artificial person, made by his tailor. He talks furthermore as if playing the part of a Henry James character, such is his mode of self-description. If so, he has obviously become entrapped in the role, so much so that he displays hardly any claim to natural as opposed to literary existence. Prufrock's artificiality results from literary artificiality and can with difficulty be separated from it. His effort to escape his role by finding his opposite does not deliver him from his antiheroic condition. An early text of the poem bore the title "Prufrock among the Women," perhaps in allusion to the least glorious stratagem of Achilles. The rhetoric with which Prufrock rehabilitates his vitality carries the general implication of heroic failure, death rather than triumph. Another model for him was the Hamlet of Jules Laforgue's Moralités légendaires, a very different personage from Shakespeare's, an alter ego of Yorick the fool and the living counterpart therefore of Death. Laforgue's Hamlet, in defiance of a really tender conscience, parades himself as antihero, antilover, and antinomian of a type that believes "anything is permitted" and hails the Unconscious as his liberator from the categorical imperative; in despair he plunges into cruelty. His nihilism resembles that of the unregenerate Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, another prototype of the solitary rebel for Eliot. (See John C. Pope's essays on Prufrock and Raskolnikov in American Literature.) Prufrock draws his urbanity from James, his bitterness and irony from Laforgue, his intensity from Dostoevsky; but the mixture is both unequal and innovative. Like the concoctions of mock epic, it leaves its originals undiminished but not quite the same—enhanced ever so slightly by feedback. Such is the possible reverse effect of Eliot's principle of tradition. In teaching, one can accordingly make "Prufrock" a touchstone for theory.

The unity of thought and feeling as a characterizing device brings singleness out of doubleness without blurring either. Prufrock is what he thinks in the course of the poem, but very little of his thought appears except as objective imagery, flashes of feeling. Before writing "The Metaphysical Poets," which speaks of "a direct sensuous apprehension of thought" and "a re-creation [hyphen mine] of thought into feeling," Eliot had ventured to term it "impossible … to draw any line between thinking and feeling" ("Prose and Verse"). Of course the two faculties work together: the thought apprehended by feeling is not eliminated by it. That no line can be drawn between them, moreover, does not imply that they are the same. Their difference becomes glaring when they do not work together, when in poetry they fail to combine or there is too much of either of them. Because "Prufrock" is a persona poem, the known interaction occurs at Prufrock's point of view, between his thinking and his feeling, and not in the poet's sphere of being. And it occurs constantly, but not in a constant form; one needs to keep students alert to the subtleties of the shift into feeling as the thought is phrased with overtones of irony, indifference, distaste, or desperation. Thus in the lines about the women and Michelangelo, used first as a focus for the proposed departure and later as a definition of the limits imposed by an arrival, the thought is stretched into more than one shape of feeling, dependent on connotations of the confined, the superficial, the pompous, the transient, the magnificent, the incongruous, which diversely collide. That it is not merely a thought is the main point. Up to the "lonely men" and "ragged claws" passages, Prufrock keeps reiterating his superiority to circumstances and then producing an imagery of his humiliation; but in the latter part of the poem the boasts take fanciful forms with imagery and are followed by more matter-of-fact observations. It is as if his mind were gradually convulsed with spasms of suffering and then were intermittently rallied with a mythology of self-esteem, only to succumb each time to more rational despair. The thought and feeling interact both in the reflective and in the fanciful utterances but are always shifting in intensity.

It is more important to get students to hear "Prufrock" than it is to get them to "follow" it. The teacher who does not manage to convey those apposite rhymes, those lovely cadences into the presentation of it misses a fine pedagogic exercise. But I do not know how to systematize that undertaking except by reading the poem aloud. Alas—because the unity of thought and feeling inheres in the delivery of the lines. It is possible, once again, to illustrate Eliot's recycling of tradition by citing from "Prufrock" a couplet that renews the past by transforming it, the couplet

     Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
     [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]

The contrast of coldness and warmth, artificiality and animal intimacy, sums up so much of the thematic essence of "Prufrock" that nothing more is called for. Yet behind these lines lurks a world of more solemn implication. If one can hear in them the line they primarily echo from John Donne's poem "The Relique,"

     A bracelet of bright haire about the bone,

and remember the significance of this emblem of passion and devotion (found also in "The Funerall"), the concentration of feeling in the couplet undergoes a heightening almost, even, to a sensation of physical pain, as intense as Donne's grim consciousness of love triumphant over charnel mortality. I do not say that Mr. Prufrock can hear this echo—though why not?—for he creates it, varying "bracelet" and chiming "white and bare" with "bright haire" and then near rhyming "downed" with "bone" and finally repeating the near rhyme and definitely rhyming, himself, with "light brown hair." And what is more he borrows from "The Funerall," which has "That subtile wreath of haire, which crowns my arme," a rhyme to prove his near rhyme a true one and adopts the essential word "arms" that denotes the objects of his attention and absorption and frustration. Perhaps it was Mr. Eliot that did and felt all this. He would often in the future raise voices from the grave (as one's students are pleased to discover), though none more comically sad and musical than Prufrock's own. In them nevertheless something from Prufrock would be blended, having in some manner joined a tradition perpetually to be enriched by his thought and feeling.

John Halverson (essay date 1968)

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SOURCE: “Prufrock, Freud, and Others,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 75, Autumn, 1968, pp. 571-88.

[In the following essay, Halverson provides a psychoanalytic reading of the sexual elements in “Prufrock.”]

It is hardly possible to find any criticism of Eliot's “Prufrock” that does not assert an important strain of sexuality in the poem. There is nearly uniform agreement that in the poem Prufrock wants to propose to a lady, or at least declare his passion, but is finally too timid to do so. “J. Alfred Prufrock is unable to make love to women of his own class and kind because of shyness, self-consciousness, and fear of rejection,” says Delmore Schwartz. And Grover Smith: “His object is to declare himself to a lady,” but he is beset by a “dread” of “sexual insufficiency”. Elizabeth Drew refers to Prufrock's “terror of social and sexual failure”. Roy Basler asks, “How should he begin to make love?” with “his adolescent fear of sexual failure”. Prufrock's “amorous self, the sex instinct”, is, according to George Williamson, “suppressed by the timid self” and “fear of the carnal”. Moreover, critics for whom sexuality is not central in the poem may yet observe in passing, as Morris Weitz does, “There are also the sexual experiences that prevent his asking the question.” Even A. C. George's recent and unfortunately rather cursory existential reading assumes Prufrock's erotic ambitions.

Now if we set aside for a moment this heavy weight of opinion and try to look at the poem again unencumbered, it is soon apparent that the received view rests on most remarkably feeble foundations. Whence comes the notion that Prufrock is meditating a proposal, proposition, or declaration? His destination is a room full of women. Does the mere presence of women suggest a sexual quest? At teatime? No, it is evidently the “overwhelming question” that we are to read as a sexual inquiry; it seems to be taken for granted that if a question is overwhelming and to be asked in a room where women are present, it can only be erotic. Yet this question is one of explicitly universal significance:

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
.....Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question. …

Granted every degree of irony and hyperbole, are we seriously asked to suppose that the Prufrock who can say wearily that he has “known the arms already, known them all—” can think of a minor erotic enterprise of his as a world-shaking event, even if it is only his own little world? He obviously has much too clear an understanding of the world, as does Eliot, to perpetrate an irony so heavy-handed. Furthermore, we are told what Prufrock plans to say to the woman: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead.” Not a very likely statement of desire, nor even a likely prelude to such a statement. The lady's anticipated reply—“That is not what I meant at all”—is meaningless as an answer to either a declaration or a proposal. To invoke the Marvellian source of the line “To have squeezed the universe into a ball” to justify “erotic connotations” is to make the elementary mistake of reading Eliot from his sources rather than from his own poem.

But perhaps we are over-literal. Perhaps there is a general tone, an atmosphere of sexuality pervading the poem, that might justify so broad an attitude toward the printed words. The following lines are called sensual:

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?

And the imagery is sensual. One might also point to such phrases as “smoothed by long fingers”. But unless there is no distinction between the sensual and the sexual, this is pretty mild stuff to pass for eroticism. Further (and further out) suggestions have been advanced: that, for instance, the mermaids are “here as always symbols of the preternatural power of sex”. There is a hoary joke that goes like this: “What did the Indian say to the mermaid?” Answer: “How?” One wants to ask Professor Basler the same question. George Williamson observes conditionally that even the fog-cat at the beginning of the poem “suggests sex”. What can one say to that? We would be as alert for the salacious as the next man, but Mr. Williamson's penetration in this case has left us groping far behind.

Even with the best will, it is hard to scrape up anything very sexual in the poem. The real cat, I think, was let out of the bag by I. A. Richards in 1934 when he announced Eliot's “persistent concern with sex, the problem of our generation”. The word “persistent” seems a hasty choice of adjectives to describe Eliot's concern, but there is no quarreling with the rest. Very likely sex was indeed the problem of Richards's generation, though politics no doubt ranked as high in general concern: Wilhelm Reich's Sexpol project certainly had some symbolic, if not much practical, value for the period. To be sure, the problem of sex is every generation's problem; what has distinguished it in recent generations is its particularly Freudian formulation; even now, to suggest the possibility of any other formulation would evoke blank incredulity from many. Of Freud's great discoveries, the concept of repression is probably the most central and far-reaching. Even the concepts of the unconscious and of infantile sexuality are, in a sense, ancillary; for infantile sexual desires gain their significance from being repressed, and a chief rôle of the unconscious mind is to provide a repository for repressed desires. Hence the sexual question becomes “to repress or not to repress”, a dialogue of Ego and Id; the theme and enterprise of sexual liberation have loomed especially large in the twentieth century. The concept of repression leads inevitably to a restatement of the long-acknowledged dualism of the outer, social self and the inner, natural self.

The general preoccupation of a generation with sexual problems would be sufficient to account for the specious attribution of a sexual theme to “Prufrock”, but it can only be the specific influence of Freud that is behind the critics' determination to explain the “you” and “I” of the poem as two voices of Prufrock himself in an internal dialogue. This approach leads immediately into a muddle about which pronoun refers to which “self”. Miss Drew, wisely, does not commit herself beyond “conflicting impulses”. But Williamson and Smith boldly contradict each other, as the former asserts, “It is to this buried self that Prufrock addresses himself,” and the latter, “He is addressing … his whole public personality.” Williamson's straightforward Freudianism (the poem is a “projection of a psychological drama”, in which Prufrock's “amorous self, the sex instinct”, is “suppressed” by the social, “timid self”) is excelled only by Basler, for whom the poem is an internal debate “in which a psychoanalyst would no doubt identify the struggle [as being] between the ‘I’ and the ‘It’ [i.e., Ego and Id]”. Only Brooks and Warren (followed by Weitz) seem to have dared advance the most obvious and least fogbound interpretation of the pronouns: that the “I” is Prufrock and the “you” is the reader.

Since the poem clearly does take the form of self-examination, it is tempting to regard the “you” and “I” as two selves of the speaker. But, though this interpretation will fit the poem in a rather loose way, it becomes pretty improbable at the line “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’”. Here a hardly credible split in the self is presupposed—as if one part of the self were going to spring a surprise on the other. Unless we are to go all the way and assume that Prufrock is dotty, such a remark would be, at the least, an extraordinary lapse in psychological verisimilitude: you do not pursue an interior dialogue in the form “I know something I'm not going to tell me.” The reason “you” are not to ask “What is it?” is probably given in the later line “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” (There is no refusal to identify the question, as Williamson asserts.) There is not a trace of anything like an internal debate, after the opening lines, and barely a trace of it there. The “you” and “I” do not contend; they are not in opposition. On the contrary, the evening is “beside you and me”, there is “some talk of you and me”, and “we have lingered. …” “We” are always quite amicably and unfortunately together. There is no playing off of one self against another as in Laforgue, and consequently no apparent purpose in doubling the speaker.

The “io”; of the epigraph (Guido da Montefeltro) is naturally linked with the “I” of the first line (Prufrock), and the person and situation of Guido correspond very well to Prufrock and his world. Prufrock's world is a kingdom of death, a hell, through which we are led by him on a visit; Guido is in hell because he was a giver of evil counsel, and Prufrock's final implicit counsel of inaction and despair is likewise, and more fundamentally, frodolente. The “you” of the poem need no more be a second self of Prufrock than the “ti” of the epigraph is another self of Guido.

Conceivably one might have it both ways, “you” meaning both the reader and an aspect of the speaker's self, but this does not seem a meaningful blending. The poem reads a good deal more coherently if taken as though addressed to the reader rather than as an overheard dialogue. When the evening sleeps “beside you and me”, we are reminded that we are still in Prufrock's company. The phrase “some talk of you and me” casually includes the reader in the milieu of “the room” and its society, as if he already belonged there. The “we” of the closing lines associates reader and speaker even more intimately, so that the situation and condition of Prufrock finally encompass the “hypocrite lecteur”; as well. This identification of “you” does not diminish the psychological content and intent of the poem at all; if anything, they are strengthened as the reader comes to realize he is not just a spectator but a participant in Prufrock's world.

There is a general movement to the poem plain to all: a movement to and away from “an overwhelming question”, a question that is never asked because not only would the action be painful—it would not be understood or accepted. The movement is accompanied by the imagery of somnolence, torpor, and domestic trivia counterpointed by references to the daring action: “Do I dare / Disturb the universe / … spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways / … force the moment to its crisis?” The climax is reached with the Lazarus image and “the nerves in patterns on a screen”. Then the movement dies away in muted talk of age, of resignation, and finally of death.

A sense of yearning hangs over the whole poem, a yearning for community and communication. Prufrock is isolated, as are the other persons; there is no real contact among them. The vision of lonely men in shirt-sleeves might serve as a prelude to the asking of the question, if it were asked. Prufrock sees the possibility of breaking through to meaningful existence; he sees that there may be something to break through to—though he cannot do it. What triggers his sense of the possibilities of existence is the realization of death, a realization which is at the center of the poem's movement.

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Though there may be some suggestion in “the eternal Footman” of social opprobrium (Williamson), he is primarily a striking and obvious image of death (Smith, Brooks, and Warren). A servant's contempt might well be humiliating, but that is very different from fear. The figure of death as something both sinister and rather shabby is particularly appropriate to Prufrock's sensibilities, as it is to Eliot's conception of man: the world of the Hollow Men ends in a whimper; death in The Waste Land is figured as “the rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear”. Here, most importantly, the vision of death is the basis of the climactic statement

          ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’—

There is a death in life, but here the speaker means that he has glimpsed the real thing, death itself. And the experience demands an appropriate response, the response of a free man, indeed of a hero, for whom death has a majesty and a meaning. As Eliot would later write: “the moment of birth / Is when we have knowledge of death.” But Prufrock is despairingly unheroic: he is no St. John the Baptist and no Hamlet. “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse”, he identifies himself rather with Polonius. The mermaids sing to a Siegfried, but not to a Prufrock.

Nor does he live in a heroic world. This is a world of teacups and novels and “skirts that trail along the floor”, where the titan Michelangelo is no more than the subject of teatime chatter. It is a world enclosed, a world of rooms and surfaces and artifice. And dress—“my morning coat”, “my collar”, “my necktie”, its “simple pin”, “braceleted” arms, “a shawl”, “white flannel trousers”. Prufrock is painfully aware that beneath his clothes his arms and legs are thin. That awareness is humiliating enough, but to go yet further and reveal his inner self, to expose his secret thoughts with “an overwhelming question”, would strip away everything to the very nerves and throw them “in patterns on a screen”. Far too painful, too heroic, this is a step Prufrock cannot take. Wrapped in his white flannel trousers, in bondage to his world, he will resign himself to watching the unencumbered mermaids “riding seaward on the waves”.

He has lived the narrow, constricted life of empty form, a meaningless existence that shuts out reality. Yet he also at least contemplates the possibility of freeing himself. It would have to be an heroic leap, that self-liberation, requiring nothing less than a complete revolution in his life; yet it might bring with it the possibility of meaningful existence, of communication and love. But he sinks at last into the bondage of the temporal. Ultimately he lacks the “courage to be”, authentically to be. This is the central crisis of the poem; it is a crisis of existence.

Not of sexuality. What eroticism there is in the poem is very minor. But of course the title is suggestive. Everyone agrees that “Love Song” is ironic, but is the irony that of an “anti-love song”? Not in any traditional way; for, to put the matter perhaps too crudely, while the traditional love song declares the lover's passion for his beloved, heart and soul, the anti-love song replies with Van Brugh, “Pox o' thy soul, give me thy warm body.” Clearly there is nothing of this sort in “Prufrock”. In erotic terms the irony would have to be that Prufrock loves a woman, but cannot bring himself to the declaration—he has an overwhelming timidity, an “adolescent fear of sexual failure”. But since there is not a word in the poem to indicate that Prufrock is in love, the irony must lie elsewhere. And I suppose the point is just that there is no love whatever in the poem. Prufrock does not love his world, nor the women in it, and he has no God to love. If he has a kind of love-longing for the mermaids, or a yearning for human communication—a form of love—he does not have the capacity to realize either. The irony of the title goes well beyond the merely erotic. That this is a poem of failure no one denies. But the failure is above all spiritual. The ability to love depends on a certain freedom, a freedom from things that do not matter. Prufrock cannot sing his love song because he is too bound to things that do not matter. He clutches fearfully at the meaningless routines and surfaces of life; he has no faith in himself, in reality, in existence, nor has he any hope. It is despair in which “we drown” at the end. The end of all the commandments is love, according to St. Augustine, and faith and hope are the preconditions of love. The irony of the title is that Prufrock, and not only Prufrock but the reader he assimilates to him—that “we” are so far from genuine love that we have not even the preconditions for it.

The climax of the poem is the contemplated scene “among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me”—the syntactical parallelism ironically indicates the triviality of the talk, no doubt sprinkled with the inevitable observations about how boring and empty life is. At this point the speaker thinks of biting off the matter with a smile and rolling the universe toward some overwhelming question. So expressed, the question must be about the universe. The overwhelming question about the universe is: What is it? What does it mean? Not a question to be brought up in polite society, obviously. Then Prufrock would go on to suggest that the ultimate fact of death ought to force a radical reappraisal of life. We must die and we haven't lived. The response “one” would make to this is negative: “That is not what I meant at all. …” One does not want the conversation clouded with any matters so fundamental and personal. With a little discomfort and pique—surely these are problems only schoolboys debate—she settles a pillow by her head, and, rejecting such a change in the level of discourse, turns away to the window. Prufrock anticipates, rightly, that his moment of prophetic greatness would elicit from his world little more than a raised eyebrow.

He also realizes that his own acceptance of authentic being would necessarily require a revolution of his “days and ways”, a completely uprooting change. He has seen a vision of freedom, but, unable to grasp it, he again sinks into the bondage of an artificial, empty life where everything is formulated and measured out, where you must “prepare a face” and meet other prepared faces, not people. In contrast to the prevailing imagery of artifice and voices, there appears once before the climax the fleeting image of natural “silent seas”, to be picked up again at the end and developed into an image of freedom. Deep, formless, wind-blown, the sea is the antithesis of the confined rooms and narrow streets of the rest of the poem. The elemental starkness of “the water white and black” contrasts to the soft dimness of the fog, smoke, dusk, and lamplight of Prufrock's other world. The mermaids are as alien as “the room” is familiar; he has not known their arms. They are unconstrained, singing, “riding seaward on the waves”, away from him, a fleeing image of everything his own world is not. Above all, they are free.

Yet, curiously, without pause or transition, the distance is closed; “we” are suddenly with the “sea-girls” and have been:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

This abrupt change from distance to intimacy, from the surface of the sea to its “chambers”, from the black and white of the waves to the soft red and brown of seaweed, suggests that the last three lines project us into a dream. Only in a dream, not in reality, are we free. When the chattering of the women who aimlessly come and go once more intrudes upon our awareness, the life which they represent, now made unbearable by the vision of the sea, suffocates us.

If Freud's influence has distorted the reading of Prufrock”, the same approach to “Gerontion” has produced plain bafflement. Although Grover Smith and especially Hugh Kenner have shown breath-taking ingenuity in finding sexual allusions in “Gerontion”, their enterprise being comparable only to that of Sandor Ferenczi, who almost admitted to seeing a vagina in every concave object and a phallus in every convex one, yet most critics, if willing to face “Gerontion” at all, have faced the unmistakable Christianity of the poem, albeit with some reluctance. And even then, the general trend has been to see another denunciation of the modern world, the disillusionment of one's generation. Nor is this view really wrong; it is only very off-center. The despair that permeates both “Prufrock” and “Gerontion” is indeed a modern condition, but it is also a permanent human condition attested to by men as distant historically as Augustine and Kierkegaard; it is by no means peculiarly, nor even especially, modern. In fact, the poem is so constructed as to be removed from any particular place or time; it is completely without contemporary allusions. Like “Prufrock”, it is a poem of despair and death; but the context and imagery are more openly Christian, and the provenance of death includes the universe as well as the individual. The epigraph suggests the same view of life as meaningless, as a living death, that permeates “Prufrock”; the figure of the sea and mermaids there may correspond in a way to “Christ the tiger” here, as Miss Drew suggests, both representing a potential way out.

The density of allusion in “Gerontion” is apparent at the outset in the person of the speaker. Behind the opening lines is a reference to the aged Edward Fitzgerald. The old man also reminds one of Prufrock, as if he were reappearing in a sequel, now indeed grown old. The echoes of the book of Job throughout the poem invite an identification of Job and Gerontion. As we shall see, St. Augustine is probably part of the composite, and St. Paul's vetus homo certainly is. (Smith thinks also, prodigally perhaps, of Gerontius, Géronte, Samson, Captain Whalley, and Kurtz.) This kind of blending of allusion and suggestion is typical of the whole poem, in which much of the vocabulary has multiple connotation, words have ambiguous syntactical function, and meaning shifts subtly in parallel passages. This technique, when successful, generalizes, even universalizes, the significance of the poem by blurring the bounds of semantic reference and by obliging the reader to grasp several concepts simultaneously. It also makes exegesis a laborious and difficult undertaking. The figure of the old man here is a successful and effective blend. The various allusions are held together particularly by the Pauline Old Man: our old man of sin, our old Adam, crucified with Christ that our new man might live free of sin and death.

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.

The insistent imagery of dryness (used again and again by Eliot—in “The Hollow Men” and The Waste Land especially) means spiritual dryness. It is a particularly Christian image: the most common Christian symbol for the condition of spiritual emptiness, which is the absence of God. It appears often in the Bible—for example, Psalm 63 (A.V.):

O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth
for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water
is.

And salvation, as is well known, is often represented by life-giving water. Gerontion is precisely in this condition of spiritual dryness, hoping for rain. His state is Prufrock's. Like Prufrock too he is no hero: he has not fought at “the hot gates”, has not felt “the warm rain”.

My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner …

This house suggests the house of the soul, as in St. Augustine—“Angusta est domus animae meae, … ruinosa est.” The owner represents the old dispensation, of death and the law. (The old dispensation and the chafing under it are the subject of the later “Journey of the Magi”.) As such, the Jew does not conflict with Miss Drew's identification of him with “international money power”, by which the modern world is enslaved—hence the dominating secularism and materialism of contemporary civilization. But he is not simply that; he is the world without Christ. In his unlikely position he blocks Gerontion's vision; owned and bound by the old dispensation, Gerontion has not received Christ—nor will he.

The next section brings Christ, potential redemption, coming as a tiger and as the word “swaddled with darkness”. To appreciate the resonance of these lines, we should listen to the God of Job as well as to Lancelot Andrewes (as Andrewes himself listened), for the Word is also the life-giving water:

… who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth,
as if it had issued out of the womb?
When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddling
band for it? … (Job 38:8-9)

The rain the old man has been waiting for has come. Christ's coming in the “juvescence” of the year recalls the “boy” of the second line of the poem and reinforces the contrast to the “old man”. The promise of salvation appears, but Gerontion sees its recipients as an unattractive international group, who partake of the holy sacrament “among whispers” and who have their minds on other things. They are “vacant shuttles”. Their “life is wind”, as the book of Job says. The “ghosts” Gerontion does not have may represent the meaningful past he lacks, but also include the Holy Ghost, i.e., grace.

From his observation that the Eucharist has become an empty ritual for decadent and unworthy communicants who have no spiritual involvement in the highest sacrament, Gerontion gains his “knowledge” of the barrenness of the Church. As his thoughts turn to history, he realizes the futility of human life. Man is preoccupied with the things of this world, but they are contrived issues, deceptive and vain; the rewards of worldly ambition come too late or too soon and can never satisfy. His knowledge is, finally, of good and evil; he discerns that our system of secular morality is only an accident of self-preservation “forced upon us by our impudent crimes” and that even the selflessness of heroism is productive of vice. The Tree of Knowledge is a “wrath-bearing tree”.

Gerontion is in Limbo, suspended between Christ and the world, believing in neither. But when the tiger springs, there is no escape: “Us he devours.” Yet the devouring is only an end, an arbitrary cutting off, not “conclusion”, a shutting-in-with or rounding off to completion. He has not been perversely contentious, merely rational and human.

I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.

The pronoun problem again arises in these lines. Who is addressed? “A woman”? (Smith); the other tenants? (Drew); or Christ? (Williamson). Smith himself seems to recognize his suggestion as far-fetched. Miss Drew, taking “my house” in the sense of “my contemporary world”, sees Silvero, Hakagawa, and the rest as fellow-tenants whom Gerontion addresses. This sense of the “house” is attractive, but it does not require Gerontion to address the others; nor is there any indication that the old man was ever near their hearts. Moreover, the appositional structure of the last two lines of the poem equates “tenants of the house” with “thoughts of a dry brain”, supporting the primary metaphor of “house of my soul”. Williamson is surely right. Like Job, the old man wants to reason with God; but no voice comes to him in the whirlwind to condemn his presumption. Nor does he share Augustine's self-effacement: “I contend not in judgment with Thee, who art the truth.” But he does share Augustine's cosmogony. He conceives of himself as originally near God, then separated from Him; at first terrified by the separation, he acquires rationality, which dissipates terror. He would meet God in reason, “inquisition”. But there is no intellectual way to God—“By love He may be gotten and holden, but by thought of understanding, never.” Passion is gone too, and the senses.

Nothing is left then but resignation to the material world, to “protract the profit” of it as much as possible. But it is a meaningless world, “a wilderness of mirrors”, exactly like Leibniz's world of monads (“toute Monade étant un miroir de l'Univers à sa mode”), which have no windows but only reflect one another endlessly (and since nothing exists but the monads, the reflections add up to zero). As likely then as “lascivious mirrors”, as Smith and Kenner inevitably suggest, are empty ones: Yeats's “Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show.”

The next group of images leads into a vision of the natural end of the universe through the principle of entropy, the final futility.

                    De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
In fractured atoms.

The Gulf devours, claiming gull and old man alike. The climactic image of the poem, it is the abyss of nothingness, the final and absolute emptiness of eternal death—which is the one alternative to eternal life in Christ. In an empty wind, in the dry season of despair, the old man perceives, as did Prufrock, the hopelessness of his condition and sees no way out. Or, rather, he sees the way, but cannot reach it. For you cannot will faith; it must come of its own accord. “Gerontion” is the record of a spiritual struggle for faith.

The archetype of this struggle is St. Augustine's as written down in The Confessions. The stages in the way from God in “Gerontion”—beauty, terror, inquisition—are, inversely, the same stages in St. Augustine's way to God. It was in the painful questioning and debating of the schools that Augustine first rejected Manichaeism and began to see, but not yet feel, the rightness of Catholic Christianity. “Soul-sick and tormented”, he tried to grasp the faith. “And again I tried, but I was a little lacking of being there, nor did I touch or grasp.” Then he felt the terror: “and at the very point when I was to become something other, the nearer it came toward me, the greater terror did it strike into me.” On the critical day, he says, “I threw myself down under a certain fig-tree, I know not how, and poured out my tears.” “I spoke much unto Thee: ‘and Thou, O Lord, how long, how long, Lord; wilt Thou be angry forever?' ” “I heard from a neighboring house a voice, whether boy or girl I know not, singing and often repeating, ‘Take up and read, take up and read.' ” (The echoes of this passage in “Gerontion” are evident.) Finally, he reads the passage in Paul “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and “instantly, at the end of this sentence, as if a light of serenity infused my heart, all the shadows of doubt fled away.”

Augustine was thirty-two when he was converted; possibly Eliot was thinking of him when, at approximately the same age, he composed “Gerontion”—it is difficult to doubt that the poem derives from the poet's own experience. In any case, the spiritual struggle in “Gerontion” is the struggle for faith, wherein Augustine succeeded; but the old man cannot grasp the faith, and grace does not come to him, and he must turn at last to despair.

Both “Prufrock” and “Gerontion” are religious poems. They have considerable psychological force and sociological interest, but the one is not Freudian and the other not Marxian. With the presuppositions and preoccupations of their generation (they are pretty much the same for the present generation), Eliot's critics persistently refused to see the religious nature of his poetry until he finally hit them over the head with Ash Wednesday, his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, and his well-known disavowal of any intent to express the disillusion of his generation. One result has been a frequent hostility to Eliot, especially to his later poetry, and a certain feeling of betrayal among earlier admirers. But there was no betrayal; critics simply read into the poems what they were predisposed to find there. And this is a betrayal of criticism. Now it may be argued, and indeed has been, that the pre-1930 poems have actually been read correctly as documents of social disillusion and sexual frustration, and that, after his conversion, Eliot chose to reinterpret his own earlier verse in accordance with his recently acquired faith—a devious form of retraction. It may be so. But when the poems themselves provide no support for received opinion about them, the argument loses credence. It may also be argued that it is merely hindsight that permits one to see “Prufrock” and “Gerontion” as statements of the struggle of religious faith and despair leading to the consummation of the later poetry. That is not at all unlikely, but it says nothing about critical responsibility or accuracy.

Certainly the writer who would go against the grain is in for a hard time. How often we hear the justification for poetic language that it surprises us into a new perception of reality, and how often the opening lines of “Prufrock” are quoted to prove the argument. But when are the critics ever surprised into such perceptions? They always know already. This reluctance to see beyond the range of one's own expectations is an enduring condition. A fairly recent illustration is the reception in this country of Pasternak's Doctor Žhivago. Our humanistic, political-minded reviewers, determined to read a humanistic, political novel, were generally disappointed, baffled, and irritated; they did not care much for the book. The distinguished exception was Edmund Wilson, who alone—or among very few—recognized Pasternak's transcendentalism and saw that, read for what it is rather than for what one might wish it to be, Doctor Žhivago is, in fact, a novel of major stature.

A great problem of modern criticism lies in the humanistic orientation of most critics. By “humanistic” I mean merely the world view in which man, particularly the individual man, has primary importance. There are many people, after all, who do not share this point of view, and Eliot is among them certainly; but many critics do not seem to recognize the possibility that their own predispositions are not universally shared by their authors. Thus the religious or mystical element in so much modern literature goes unnoticed or is misunderstood or dismissed. Among modern poets, besides Eliot, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost have particularly suffered because of this kind of critical blindness, which willfully refuses to see or accept “the more than human”.

The phenomenological problem of perceiving what is really “there” without projected coloration is enormous and perhaps insoluble. It nevertheless provides an ideal that criticism has again and again failed to approximate. The “New Criticism”, which seems now as moribund as it probably deserves to be, had, nevertheless, a salubrious point of departure. “Poetry demands,” said Allen Tate, “the power to detach one's needs from the experience set forth in the poem.” The great need of the professional critic seems to be the need to be always right; and he has less and less capacity to bracket his presuppositions, to leave himself open to the work of the poem, to let the words fall on himself, to understand before he judges.

Donald R. Fryxell (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4166

SOURCE: “Understanding ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,” in Robert Frost's Chicken Feathers and Other Lectures, edited by Arthur R. Husboe, The Augustana College Press, No. 1, November, 1969, pp. 33-44.

[In the following essay, Fryxell discusses major themes in “Prufrock.”]

T. S. Eliot is one of the best known poets in the twentieth century. And yet, when “The Waste Land,” which is Eliot's longest, his most difficult, and certainly his most controversial poem, was first published in the year 1922, T. S. Eliot was comparatively unknown, despite a volume of poetry he had written entitled Prufrock and Other Observations, which appeared in 1917, and which contained, among other poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the years after The Waste Land, Eliot's output was not particularly great in terms of the number of lines which he wrote or in terms of the number of poems which he wrote. And yet yearly his stature as a poet, as a critic, and as a dramatist grew so that today it has become almost heretical to say that he is not the foremost poet of the twentieth century. Eliot reached that stature partly because what he has had to say to the modern age seemed so peculiarly appropriate; partly because in his poems, in his plays, and in his essays, Eliot has traced the way out of the wasteland of the twentieth century; partly because the language of Eliot's poetry has come more and more to be the peculiarly appropriate idiom for the twentieth century; and partly because a host of critics and teachers have explicated Eliot's poems so frequently that what he has had to say has become reasonably well known and reasonably understandable. And this is what I am going to try to do with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I don't have the time to comment on every line or image within the poem.

All of Eliot's poems are essentially dramatic: they are either dramatic monologues, as is the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or dramatic lyrics, such as “Animula,” for instance. All his poems are intensely concentrated pieces of intellectual and emotional conflicts, in which as in the metaphysical poems of the seventeenth century poet John Donne, for instance, emotion and thought are fused and made one. The difficulty for the average reader in the twentieth century comes in part, at least, in Eliot's avoidance in his poems of the normal transitions found in the past and his dependence within them upon a whole host of allusions. Too often, as a matter of fact, in the highly touted “Waste Land” these allusions are so plentiful and so obscure that reading the poem is like solving a literary crossword puzzle. The result is that the essential meaning of the poem, I think, gets lost in the forest of allusions and the lack of transitions within the poem.

Eliot's poems certainly are complex poems; they're never simple ones, and Eliot himself justified their complexity by arguing that the poet, who is to serve as the interpreter and critic of a complex age, must write complex poetry; and certainly, I think, we would all agree that our age is a complex age. Eliot's constant use of allusions in his poems is based upon his theory that the poet of today should write as if all the poets of the past were looking over his shoulder. The modern poet, then, must be conscious of the tradition which he has inherited, and he must carry on that tradition himself. The Waste Land is a cluttered mass of altered quotations; Eliot alters these quotations deliberately in order to suggest the loss of the vitality of the traditions of the past: poetic, moral, aesthetic, religious, social. It is the debasement of that tradition which has brought about the spiritual and the intellectual sterility of the modern age. And it is this wasteland of the twentieth century, this intellectual, spiritual, moral, aesthetic sterility which is the theme of the poem.

Allusion-jammed, though Eliot's poetry is, and dealing with complex emotions and complex ideas as he does, the language of his poems is still concrete; the images which he uses are fresh; they are striking and never completely decorative. And so, for instance, in the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the evening is described as being spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. This image is fresh and striking; it is a most unusual kind of image, and the image is also functional: that image describes the passivity of the evening as Prufrock sees it. Of course, everything in the poem is seen through Prufrock's eyes. The image also describes something of the half-dead condition of Prufrock himself, who is helpless, finally, as is a patient who is etherized upon a table. Or take the description of the yellow fog as if it were a cat. That description is a striking, vivid image, describing the slow settling of the fog over the city, and it suggests possibly also Prufrock's renunciation of his decision to disturb his universe of dilettante ladies by bringing a breath of real life to them. “The fog,” we are told, “curled once about the house, and fell asleep.” And so, too, in the course of the poem, Prufrock allows his decision to fall asleep. The cat image, here, also, suggests sex. This is another desire of Prufrock which ends finally in inertia. Prufrock's failure in love is synonymous, you see, with the whole failure of society; his hopeless isolation is synonymous with the isolation of each trimmer from his fellow trimmers in Eliot's Waste Land.

The vocabulary that Eliot uses in his poems will range from the obscure or foreign word, including Sanskrit incidentally in The Waste Land, to the slang of the pub or to the colloquialism of the everyday man or woman in the streets. Occasionally, despite his occasional learned quality, that vocabulary is the idiom of the twentieth century, and Eliot's occasional use of a rare word or foreign expression, helps, I think, to shock the reader into an awareness of what Eliot is doing, because that rare word or foreign expression is usually placed near an ordinary word and sometimes near a slang expression. Eliot, like the French symbolists who influenced him greatly, experimented drastically in his poetry, but essentially Eliot still uses traditional rhythms and poetic devices; throughout “Prufrock” he uses the poetic refrain and repetitions with variations on the essential pattern. These are two devices which are nearly as old as poetry; however, in the hands of Eliot, they do take upon themselves a new vitality.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” concerns one of Eliot's Wastelanders. Prufrock is a member of the decadent aristocracy, just as Sweeney, in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” is representative of Eliot's proletariats in the Prufrock volume of poetry. The various characters that Eliot depicts in this, his first volume of poetry, are almost below the level, really, of animals and human beings. These characters seem to feel no real passions and they have no real thoughts; they are machines without the gas or oil that keeps a machine going. They run on momentum without a genuine spark of life within them. Prufrock himself is something of an exception, but not much of a one.

Prufrock lives in a world in which art and music have become the idle conversation of dilettante women, who are spiritually, sexually, and intellectually dead, who spend their lives in an eternal round of afternoon tea parties, who may talk of art because it is expected that the class to which they belong should know something about it, but for whom the meaning and the vitality of art have long since been drained in the cycle of their teacups. Prufrock is one of this group. Prufrock is a dilettante like “the women who come and go—talking of Michaelangelo.” Prufrock, we come to see, is as fastidious about his dress as they are, is as spiritually, sexually, and intellectually dead as they are. Like them, Prufrock has measured out his life “in coffee spoons,” and his life has been as empty, as meaningless as theirs has been.

Prufrock is a trimmer. I trust that many of you, at least, know that trimmers were those souls in Dante's Inferno who were condemned to the vestibule of hell because they had never really lived, although they were supposedly alive; but they never really did enough evil to be sentenced to hell, and they never did enough good while they were alive to get to purgatory to start their way up to heaven. The Trimmers were lifeless, spiritless, mindless people; and for the trimmers when the world ends, Eliot, in “Choruses from the Rock,” gives a fitting epitaph when he writes this:

“Here were decent, godless people.
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”

For the trimmers in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the last line of their epitaph would have to be altered slightly to read, “… and a thousand drained tea cups.” You see, we can't even imagine Prufrock playing golf.

Eliot uses Dante's trimmers in order to characterize the twentieth century. For Eliot, the vast majority of men and women of the twentieth century are trimmers: they are intellectually and spiritually dead, afraid of life, afraid of living, afraid of facing either good or evil and of experiencing really either, afraid of taking sides either for or against God, living in a sterile land; breeding spiritually and intellectually sterile children, slaves to the machine and conventions of the age, fearful of speaking out against either, fearful of taking either the way which leads to spiritual regeneration or the way which leads to damnation.

Prufrock and the women referred to in his love song are trimmers, who differ from others in the “Waste Land” in that their economic and social status is different from that, say, of Sweeney's. Prufrock himself differs from the women in two ways. The first is that his sex is different; after all, he's supposed to be a man, and apparently Prufrock has had at least a glimpse of something more vital in life than they have. And it's this glimpse, this insight into a different kind of life which he wants to give them and thus to disturb their universe. But before the end of the poem, Prufrock is emasculated, and he renounces forever his plan of disturbing the world that he knows.

The “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a song of defeat, of despair; it is the song of a man who gives up forever, knowing that although the mermaids who sing the song of life and of whom he has had a glimpse do not really sing after all to him. It is the song of a man who comes to see that he is only the Polonius of his little world, not its Hamlet. He is fit, like Polonius, to be an attendant lord, one that would do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous,
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
At times almost the Fool.

J. Alfred Prufrock is no Hamlet who will disturb and rectify the evil of his world, the evil which consists for Prufrock in its decadence, its spiritual, moral, intellectual, sexual, aesthetic sterility. Hamlet can cleanse the rottenness of Denmark; Prufrock can get only a glimpse of the sterility of this world, but he is helpless to do anything about it. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is thus his swan song to life, but it's also a song that he himself sings, for the poem is a dramatic monologue. He sings it in an effort to justify himself for not following the impulses, the suppressed desires of his alter-ego. And the effort damns him. But because the poem also shows that he has come to know his own inadequacies, to know that he is a trimmer, I think finally we do pity J. Alfred Prufrock. I always have.

Prufrock, the fastidious dilettante, shows not only his pathetic deadness but his cowardice, his fear of the eyes and the words of the women with whom he associates, his apprehension regarding the bald spot in the middle of his head, his concern with his digestion, his pride in his dress, his inadequacies as a prophet of the rebrith of life which his particular world needs. He is no John the Baptist who comes to see, to herald the coming of a savior. Instead he fears the remarks of the women about his bald spot, and he knows that their footman, like the eternal footman, Death, has looked upon him and snickered.

Eliot builds his poem around the repetition of three central themes or motifs. The first of these is the time theme. This is given in the refrain, “And indeed there will be time.” The time theme serves as an excuse for Prufrock for not disturbing his universe, for there is always time to put things off, as talking to his alter-ego—the “you” in the “Let us go now, you and I”—he shows that he will put off telling these women, and he will put off revealing his suppressed desires, apparently, for one of these women. There is always a tomorrow, there is always time, as Prufrock says,

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works of days and hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

And there will be time for Prufrock to change his mind about disturbing his universe; there will be time for Prufrock to put off doing it forever; there will be time to say farewell to the glimpse of real life he has had. There will be time for Prufrock to sink back eternally among the rounds of teacups.

The second theme of “Prufrock” is the “Do I dare” theme, in which Prufrock questions his ability to disturb his universe. This theme, allied as it is with the first theme and with the third theme as all three are allied one with the other, underscores the essential spiritual and moral cowardice of this man. Deliberately, Eliot has Prufrock begin this theme with a grandiose question when Prufrock asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” But before the end of the poem, this question degenerates into “Do I dare to eat a peach?” This symbolizes in its degeneration not only Prufrock's moral cowardice but also his essential concern with himself, from the outgoing desire to aid others in the question “Do I dare disturb the universe?” to the ingoing concern with his digestion.

The third theme is one of world weariness, which is begun in the line “For I have known them all already, known them all.” This theme underscores Prufrock's weariness with the life that he leads, which is shown most effectively in the line “For I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” As Eliot develops this theme, he shows also Prufrock's bondage to the life which he is so weary of and his inability to bring any life to the half-alive world in which he lives. This theme is modified to stress Prufrock's renunciation of his plan. Prufrock must find some excuse for not doing what he, or rather, I should say, what his alter-ego, had hoped to do; and so he finds it by rationalizing that it would not have been worthwhile after all to bring his breath of life into the sterile world, that he would have been misunderstood, that to bring life into this world he would have had to be like Lazarus come to life, “Come back to tell you all.” But he is not a John the Baptist, not a Hamlet. He is only, finally, a pathetic trimmer, J. Alfred Prufrock, growing old, with a bald spot in the middle of his hair, which he is going to try to conceal from the prying eyes of the women of his circle. He's only J. Alfred Prufrock, who has had a vision of life, but who comes to see that the mermaids who sing the song of life, of rebirth from the deadness and emptiness of his universe, do not sing to him. He is only J. Alfred Prufrock, who has lingered for a few minutes by the chambers of the sea, which could have brought a rebirth of life to him, which could have made it possible for him to be like Lazarus raised from the dead, but who has been awakened by the human voices of his women—that is, these half-alive, intellectually and spiritually sterile female trimmers—and who has been drowned by their voices commenting about the bald spot in the middle of his hair.

These interlocking and interweaving themes help to unify the poem. The epigraph which precedes this poem, unifies the poem also. As always in the poetry of Eliot, in the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the epigraph is important. And as is frequently true of his poetry, the epigraph here is taken from Dante. This epigraph comes from lines 61-66 of the 27th Canto of the Inferno, where the flame of Guido is asked to identify himself. The flame replies in this way, “If I thought my answer were to one who could ever return to this world, this flame should shake no more, but since none ever did return alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer thee.” If you remember your Dante, you will remember that the eighth bolgia or ditch, in the eighth circle of the Inferno, is given over to evil counselors, and their punishment is to be concealed in flames. Despite Guido's reluctance to name himself, he has just before this spoken rather rudely and rather harshly to the two travellers in Hell, Dante and Virgil, and Guido does tell his story to them. Eliot uses this epigraph, in part, to suggest the tone of this poem, which is at once mocking and serious. Prufrock is an inept ridiculous person—he is as ridiculous, by the way, as his name, and there are probably no more ridiculous names than “J. Alfred Prufrock.”

The ridiculous is part of the tone of the poem; on the other hand, it is true that the condition of this trimmer and the defense which he gives do reflect the sterility of the twentieth century. Guido's false counsel was to advise Pope Boniface to promise a great deal but not to fulfill many of his promises, and for this advice, this former friar and monk was placed in Hell by Dante. The “you” in Prufrock, like Guido, would be the counsellor in his world; however, as the “I” in Prufrock argues, his counsel would be as foolish, finally, as the advice that Polonius gives in Hamlet.

In the poem, Prufrock finds his excuse for not disturbing his universe, because in the words of Guido, “None ever did return alive from this death.” But Prufrock, in answering his alter-ego, his suppressed self—the “you” in “Let us go then you and I”—can answer the “you” without fear of being exposed, because none has ever returned alive from the depths of the psychological drama which is carried on in this poem between the “I” on the one hand of Prufrock and the “you” on the other hand. Prufrock returns from the depths of the psychological drama, figuratively speaking, dead, and the advice that he gives, you see, is locked up forever in himself.

The “I” at the beginning of the poem is the objective part of the duality which constitutes J. Alfred Prufrock; the “you,” as George Williamson has observed, “is the amorous self, the sex instinct, direct and forthright, but now suppressed by the timid self, finding, at best, evasive expression, always opposed by fear of the carnal which motivates the defensive analogy. It is to this buried self that Prufrock addresses himself and excuses himself. His love song is the song of a being divided between passion and timidity; it is never sung in the real world, for this poem develops the theme of frustration, of emotional conflict, dramatized by the “you” and ‘I.’”

Characteristic of Eliot's poems, the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” contains a number of literary allusions. Here, the literary allusions are far less numerous than they are in The Waste Land, but as in The Waste Land they function in developing the overall psychological drama found within the poem. Some of these allusions are very obvious, such as the reference to Hamlet or the reference to Polonius or the reference to John the Baptist. Other allusions, I think, however, are somewhat less noticeable, like the reference to Hesiod's book Works and Days, found in the line, “and time for all the works and days of hands.” Hesiod had addressed his book to his brother, Perses, urging his brother to toil; in Eliot, the reference becomes an ironic commentary upon Prufrock's inability to toil, to disturb his universe. And I trust that my students at least caught the reference to Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress.” It's found in these lines: “To have squeezed the universe into a ball To roll it toward some overwhelming question.” The lines of Marvell which Eliot echoes are these: “Let us roll all our strength and all Our sweetness up into one ball.” These lines are found in the conclusion to Marvell's witty and lascivious argument to his coy mistress not to be so coy, but to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh while they can because time is running out. In Prufrock, the lines end in frustration; it would never have been worthwhile for Prufrock, so he argues, to be like Lazarus, to rise from the dead to disturb the universe of his dilettante women. In Marvell, the lines suggest life and the pleasures of life; in Eliot, they suggest death, frustration, sexual repression.

Again, as is typical with Eliot's poetry, in the “Love Song” there is a pattern of images which run throughout the poem in order to help give unity to it. And so the cat image, which I have called attention to already, in the description of the fog—the cat which curled “once about the house and fell asleep”—is suggested later in the lines

“And in the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so
                    peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.”

A sea image is at least suggested in line 7 of the poem in the line “And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells.” Oysters become crabs, as later Prufrock incongruously wishes, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” And the sea image becomes dominant at the end of the poem as Prufrock fancies himself walking on the beach with white flannel trousers and sees that although he has heard the mermaids singing, they have not sung to him. Instead he has lingered in the chambers of the sea until he is jarred out of his dream world by the intruding reality of human voices which wake the “you” and the “I”; thus the desires of the “you” are drowned as Prufrock reveals his frustrations and his total inability to disturb his universe.

There are other patterns and images, such as the street image, for instance, but the ones I've mentioned will give you, I trust, an idea of Eliot's pattern of images. And finally, since my time is more than up, let me comment on Eliot's use of just one rhyme within the poem, found in these lines: “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” The two words which rhyme, of course, are “ices” and “crisis,” and the rhyming of these two words is deliberately ridiculous, as ridiculous as Prufrock is himself at times, as ridiculous as Prufrock certainly is here: he's a sexually repressed man, growing old, with a bald spot in the middle of his hair, who can't, you see, even rise to any kind of passion. Thus, his love song can never be anything but a song of frustration, of despair; it can never be sung to anyone except the “you,” and the wishes and the desires of that “you” lose to the “I,” who has revealed why the “you” in Prufrock's monologue can never dominate the man's actions.

James Ledbetter (essay date Fall 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1955

SOURCE: "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", in Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 41-5.

[In the following essay, Ledbetter asserts that a more accurate interpretation of "Prufrock" may be garnered by rethinking the roles of Lazarus, John the Baptist, and Guido da Montefeltro.]

The editors of anthologies containing T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" invariably footnote the reference to Lazarus as John 11:1-44; rarely is the reference footnoted as Luke 16:19-31. Also, the reference to John the Baptist is invariably footnoted as Matthew 14:3-11; never have I seen the reference footnoted as an allusion to Oscar Wilde's Salome. The sources that one cites can profoundly affect interpretations of the poem. I believe that a correct reading of Eliot's "Prufrock" requires that one cite Wilde, in addition to Matthew, and Luke, in addition to John, as the sources for the John the Baptist and Lazarus being referenced. Furthermore, the citation of these sources can help explain Eliot's allusion to Dante's Guido da Montefeltro.

By a correct reading of "Prufrock," I mean a reading consistent with the central theme of the poet's belief made mute because the poet lives in a culture of unbelief—that is, the "silence" of the poetic vision in modernity. Prufrock renounces his inherited, romantic role as "poet as prophet" and renounces poetry's role as a successor to religion. The future of poetry may have once been immense, but that future no longer exists for Prufrock, who is faced not only with the certainty of the rejection of his poetic vision but also with a situation in which there are no grounds for rhetoric: "That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all." Fear of rejection leads Prufrock to the ultimate silencing of the prophet and hero within himself, to being "a pair of ragged claws." He cannot share his poetic vision of life: to do so would threaten the very existence of that life. Paradoxically, not to share his light, his "words among mankind," threatens the loss of the wellsprings of his creative force.

Prufrock elaborates the extent of his renunciation of the romantic notion of "poet as prophet": Prufrock is no prophet—neither a John the Baptist, nor a Lazarus, nor is he even a hero.

     But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
     Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)
     brought in upon a platter,
     I am no prophet—and here's no great matter …

The reference is not only to Matthew 14:3-11, but also to Oscar Wilde's Salome, the play upon which Richard Strauss based his opera Salome. In the biblical account, no motivation is ascribed to Salome for wanting John the Baptist killed. In the versions by Wilde and Strauss, however, Salome is passionately in love with the imprisoned John the Baptist, who, because he will not let the temptations of the flesh corrupt his pure love of God, rejects her advances. Wilde's Salome, determined that if she cannot have John no one will have John, asks Herod for the Baptist's head on a platter. John the Baptist spurned Salome's affections while he lived; now that he is dead, Salome lavishes her kisses upon the cold lips of the bloody corpse-head.

Prufrock, too, has had his moments of temptation: he has "known the arms already, known them all—/ Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)." And these very sources of temptation, these "arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl", eventually emasculate Prufrock by rejection: "Would it have been worth while / If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, / And turning toward the window, should say: / 'That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all'." Prufrock has seen his "head … brought in upon a platter." Like John the Baptist, Prufrock has fallen prey to the seduction of an impious age. But, unlike John, Prufrock declaims: "I am no prophet—and here's no great matter."

John the Baptist lived in an age of belief: he felt a privileged claim to transcendent knowledge that assured the victory, even in death, of his holy prophecy over the vicissitudes of worldly evil. Prufrock knows that he is subject to the same temptations of the flesh, knows that he ultimately will succumb to the same death at the hands of evil; but Prufrock, if he makes claim to privileged, poetic knowledge, feels no imperative to share that knowledge with a society rooted in unbelief. The martyrdom of prophecy is untenable in a modernity in which "God is dead."

      And would it have been worth it, after all,
      .................................
      Would it have been worth while,
      To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
      To have squeezed the universe into a ball
      To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
      To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
      Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"—
      If one, settling a pillow by her head,
          Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
          That is not it, at all."

Prufrock's answer is a clear "No!" If he is not a prophet like John the Baptist, much less is he a Lazarusian savior.

In John 11: 1-44, Lazarus of Bethany is ill and dying, and Jesus promises Lazarus's sisters, Mary and Martha, that he will come and heal him. But Jesus tarries, and Lazarus dies. By the time Jesus and his disciples arrive, Lazarus has been dead four days. Martha laments that Jesus took so long, and Jesus replies, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." Martha misunderstands Jesus, thinking he is referring to the Judgment Day, and then Mary comes out and says, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." Jesus "… groaned in the spirit, and was troubled…. Jesus wept." Despite Martha's protestations that by now Lazarus must stink, Jesus orders the stone of the tomb rolled away and raises Lazarus from the dead. The chief priests of the Pharisees, hearing of the resurrection of Lazarus, resolve that "Jesus should die…."

This account of the resurrection of Lazarus is what Matthew Arnold, in Literature and Dogma and God and the Bible, calls aberglaube, or "after belief," superstitious accretions to the essentially ethical religious message of the historic Jesus: according to Jesus' own reaction, his weeping, the need to resurrect Lazarus to inculcate belief should have been redundant and is therefore pitiable. This account of Lazarus is irrelevant to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," except possibly as a foil to Luke's Lazarus; its very "aberglauberish" dramatics are antithetical to the central theme of a recalcitrant Prufrock. Furthermore, John's Lazarus never speaks, nor is he ever really expected to say anything. The account serves to demonstrate man's incorrigible obduracy to truth and to set up Jesus' Crucifixion and Resurrection as Christ, which would be irrelevant not only to the theme of "Prufrock" but, according to Arnold, irrelevant to the essentially moral message of Jesus as well.

The parable of Lazarus found in Luke, on the other hand, is relevant both to Jesus' moral teachings and to the theme of "Prufrock." In Luke 16:19-31, Lazarus is a beggar, "full of sores," who beseeches a rich man that he be allowed to eat "the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table." The rich man sends Lazarus away and sets his dogs on him. Lazarus dies and goes to the comfort of the bosom of Abraham; the rich man dies and is tormented in hell's flames. Seeing Lazarus in comfort, the rich man begs Abraham to allow Lazarus to bring him water, Abraham, however, reminds the rich man that in life he received "good things" and Lazarus received "evil things," and that it is fitting that Lazarus now be "comforted" and he, the rich man, "tormented." Seeing that there is no help for himself, the rich man entreats Abraham to send Lazarus back to life to warn his five brothers so that they will not end up in hell also.

  1. 29. Abraham saith unto him [the rich man], They have Moses and the prophets; let them [your brothers] hear them.
  2. 30. And he [the rich man] said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one [Lazarus] went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
  3. 31. And he [Abraham] said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

Prufrock knows that it would be futile to declaim, "'I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all'—." His audience—like the rich man's five brothers (and probably like the audience of Christ's parable)—would be deaf to the claims of any privileged knowledge of transcendent authority. Lazarus, had Abraham returned him from the dead, would have been wasting his breath—his exhalation and his spirit, and Prufrock feels that he, too, would be wasting his breath declaiming to a modern audience that which modernity not only will not accept but will not even allow a forum for refutation: "Neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."

Prufrock's renunciation of any role as "poet as prophet," either martyred or resurrected, climaxes in a resounding "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…." Not only is Prufrock not a prophet sent to save the human race, he is not even a hero, destined to purge the state of its ills. Something may be rotten in the state of Denmark, but her redemption rests with someone other than Prufrock. With this renunciation comes the capitulation of that which is most dear to Prufrock: with his renunciation of prophecy and heroism, Prufrock fears the loss of his poetic vision.

Prufrock does affirm the source of his poetic inspirations: "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each." The mermaids are the source of access to privileged, transcendent belief—to transmogrifying belief. However, Prufrock continues, "I do not think that they will sing to me." The hermeneutic circle—from transcendent inspiration, to poet, to audience, back to worship of that divine source of inspiration—cannot be broken without devastating consequences. However, Prufrock believes that he has no audience, and the consequences of his alienation will ultimately be, he fears, poetic sterility—the loss of the very source of his creative life.

The loss of Prufrock's poetic inspiration might explain Eliot's cryptic epigraph. The epigraph is taken from Dante's Inferno where the false counselor Guido da Montefeltro, enveloped in hell's flame, explains to Dante that he will speak freely only because he has heard that no one ever escapes from hell: "If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement. But since none has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy." Guido has no fear of answering all of Dante's questions—of letting his flame shine forth. Prufrock, on the other hand, lives with his light entombed in the dark hell of his own fear of rejection: he cannot share his "love song." He says, in effect, A prophet is never honored in his own time; therefore, this prophet shall remain silent. He says, in effect, Lazarus wasn't sent back from the dead—because you already have your prophets. So what need have you of me? The labyrinth of his own "love song" is the hell that Prufrock is certain no one of us will escape. His silence is assured.

Leon Waldoff (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: “Prufrock's Defenses and Our Response,” in American Imago, Vol. 26, Summer, 1969, pp. 182-93.

[In the following essay, Waldoff examines Prufrock's defense mechanisms of passivity and self-criticism.]

In The Dynamics of Literary Response (Oxford, 1968), Norman Holland writes: “the literary work acts out a psychological process which we introject. That process is the transformation of a central fantasy toward a central meaning” (p. 101). The key term is “introject.” With it Holland shifts our attention from the mind of the author and the supposed minds of the characters to the mind of the reader or audience. This shift, similar to the one toward the appeals of literature in Simon O. Lesser's Fiction and the Unconscious (1957), reminds us that in psychoanalytic criticism we very often read about the motives and actions in a literary work, but seldom about the psychological appeals of the work and our response to it. A good example is T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” generally regarded as one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century, and essential to an understanding of modern poetry. It has been read and reread by a variety of critics, often with sensitivity and psychological concern,1 and at least once with psychoanalytic insight,2 but never in terms of response. In this paper, I want to show how our response is controlled by the defenses in the poem. But before doing that we must consider what it is we are responding to—in other words, what psychological problem the poem handles.

“Prufrock” is a dramatic monologue that presents an inner conflict between the need to be loved and the failure to satisfy that need. Or, to be more precise, a conflict between the need for love and two paralyzing fears of acting on that need. When Prufrock asks “Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?,” he reveals ironically that his love song does not have the seductive aim of Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress” (to which he alludes in the line, “To have squeezed the universe into a ball”). Indeed, he reverses the traditional notion of the love song because his real aim is to defend against love's impulses. While his digression (which, in a larger sense, is the entire monologue) enables him to avoid love's impulses, it suggests to us that there is a deep fear of love. We see this fear in all the “visions,” “revisions,” and “indecisions,” in the hesitation to ascend the stair to the room where “the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” and in the repeated questions, “Do I dare?,” “So how should I presume?,” “And how should I begin?” His hesitation reflects a fear of acting on his desires and this fear is the reason he exaggerates the consequences of self-assertion: the call to act is a question of “daring,” the ultimate acts are to “murder and create,” a simple assertion may “Disturb the universe,” or call upon him to “force the moment to its crisis.” But beneath this hesitation and fear of self-assertion is the deeper anxiety over castration, an anxiety that is the source of several of the most important images in the poem: he sees himself “sprawling on a pin,” then “pinned and wriggling on a wall”; he has seen his head “brought in upon a platter”; he sees hostility in the Footman's “snicker”; and he continually fears rejection by women who might cut him off by saying “That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.” In short, his digression and hesitation over love may be traced to a fear of reprisal and rejection.

But Prufrock has a second fear that his impulse may overwhelm him. Anna Freud describes this fear as “instinctual anxiety,” or a “dread of the strength of the instincts.”3 Just as he exaggerates the consequences of self-assertion, so he exaggerates the threat that his desires will overwhelm (or “drown”) him. We see this anxiety in the very first stanza where the images and associations that “lead” us to “an overwhelming question” are, in a sense, a return of the repressed and lead inescapably back to an instinctual question. We wander, or we are unconsciously led, to an area where lovers rendezvous, or prostitution is found, with “half-deserted streets,” “muttering retreats,” and “restless nights” in hotels. But we also see in these images an anxiety expressed as suspicion and disgust. The romantic evening against the sky is spread out “Like a patient etherized upon a table.” The hotels are “one-night,” and “cheap,” like the “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.” The streets, and what is done in the hotels lining them, are like an unconscious “argument” leading him to satisfy his desires, but as these emerge into consciousness they are subtly denied. It is a “tedious argument” to Prufrock not only because of its relentless nature, but also because he wants to dismiss it as “boring.” In short, the argument of the instincts is seen as degrading and treacherous (“of insidious intent”) and the sexual urge, because it seems an “overwhelming question,” must be blocked: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.”

To summarize briefly: an important part of the appeal of this poem lies in its handling of two universal fears of love—the first a fear of a crippling reprisal and the second a fear that one's desires themselves are inherently dangerous. The other important appeal of this poem is in the way these fears are handled; that is, in the defenses used against them. Thus, although critics usually see Prufrock as a peculiarly modern anti-hero, his universal and timeless dimension as a man who fears to love is the poem's deepest appeal for the modern reader. Everyone has experienced the fear that his desires will bring upon him a terrifying reprisal and everyone knows the fear that these very desires may in the end betray and destroy him. In addition, we have all known the sense of emptiness and depression that results from a lack of love, the loss of self-esteem because of rejection, the alienation and meaninglessness of a world to which we are unable to attach feelings, a world which seems anesthesized, a life which is a living death. This is the reason the emptiness of reality is an important theme in this poem—indeed, the theme which most critics single out as an anticipation of “Gerontion” and The Waste Land—and this is why Brooks and Warren say Prufrock suffers from “modern damnation,” the “disease of loss of conviction, of loss of faith in the meaning of life, of loss of creativity of all kinds, of feeble purpose, of neurotic self-absorption.”4 The internal emptiness and deprivation are transformed into the theme of the cultural wasteland. While each of us may introject Prufrock's fears with varying degrees of intensity, the experience of deprivation and the cry against it are universal. We have all known during the early stages of growth, as well as in adulthood, the sense of self-annihilation that comes from real or imagined loss of love. At its most basic psychological level, this is what “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is about.

But how does the poem give us the feeling that his conflict is being mastered? First, by providing Prufrock with defenses and by acting out, both for him and for us, a resolution of the conflict. His defenses hold pleasure for us because they are, so to speak, a first line of defense, a basic level at which the feelings aroused in us by the conflict will be controlled or managed. This is particularly true of a dramatic monologue, where we read the poem aloud, for both the conflict and defenses are not only “taken in,” or introjected, but quite literally put in our mouths. In a certain sense, and for a brief aesthetic moment, we become Tithonus, Andrea del Sarto, or Prufrock. But at another level we have a second line of defense, for we never really identify with Prufrock. One part of us plays at being Prufrock, another part observes him. To identify with him would leave us in despair at the end since, even though he finds a temporary resolution of his conflict, as we shall see, his fate is far from enviable. No, we see him as he cannot see himself and this perspective gives us a defense Prufrock does not have—an ironic distance. Of course, there are many levels of irony in this poem, not the least of which is Prufrock's own, which is conveyed to us so richly in his self-mocking allusions to John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet. But there is a level of irony that is not his because it is unconscious. For example, when we see that behind his self-contempt is a good deal of self-pity, or when we see that it is he who rejects the world, not the world him, or when we see that his modesty is more defensive than virtuous. Here is the special advantage of a psychoanalytic approach, for it explores the unconscious depths of the poem and makes them accessible to us. It reaches the profoundest level of ironic meaning in this poem: that his very defenses are his defeat. In this poem, as in all great poetry, defense and response are subtly intertwined, and we must look carefully at both.

Prufrock's primary defense against the fear of reprisal and rejection is regression. There are numerous images and associations that express his desire to regress and that actually steer us away from the instinctual question. For example, Prufrock would rather “turn back and descend the stair” than enter the room where the women come and go. He also wishes he had been “a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” recalling Hamlet's comment to Polonius that a crab walks backwards (II, ii, 205-6). Even the digression caused by the perfume from a dress is really a defensive regression from adult sexuality. In short, he regresses from phallic assertiveness to oral receptivity. We know this because of the special use of oral imagery in all he says. He envisions himself and the “you” in the poem as passive to the “hands / That lift and drop a question on your plate.” Passivity is always “Before the taking of a toast and tea,” and when he thinks of having the “strength to force the moment to its crisis,” it is immediately “after tea and cakes and ices” (italics mine). Passivity is associated with a deep hunger, aggression with the “fullness” and confidence following oral satisfaction. When he says he has measured out his life with “coffee spoons” he reveals to us that his life has been an enervating oral quest. But even more significant is the fact that when he thinks of becoming aggressive and reversing his passive history he says that he might “spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways,” or he might “have bitten off the matter with a smile.” Hiding his phallic impulses with a smile, a deferential and obsequious act, becomes symbolic of his oral defense: he will “prepare a face” with a “smile” to “meet the faces” that we meet, but the fearful world is seen to act aggressively in the Footman's “snicker.”

However, not all of Prufrock's regression is from phallic assertiveness and adult sexuality. Much of it is a quest for the oceanic feeling of primary narcissism. Fenichel says that “There always remain certain traces of the original objectless condition, or at least a longing for it (‘oceanic feeling’).”5 We can see this quickly by putting the first words of the poem together with the last: “Let us … drown.” Another way this longing is expressed is in the difficulty (if not impossibility) of determining whether “Prufrock” is a monologue, with someone listening, or a soliloquy. We assume it is a monologue because of the “you” in the poem, yet Brooks and Warren say the “you” is the “generalized reader,” suggesting that there is really no one in the poem, or in the presence of Prufrock6. George Williamson, on the other hand, expresses the more common view that the “you” is the suppressed side of Prufrock, “the amorous self, the sex instinct.”7 But identifying the “you” in the poem is less important than realizing that the confusion is intentional and relates back to the quest for that first state when the external world was foggy and blurred, when object representation was either non-existent or vague. In discussing primary or narcissistic regression Fenichel says that “the object relationships are replaced by relations within the personality; the patient loses his object relationships by regressing into a phase where no objects yet existed. Depressed patients become aware of this withdrawal of object cathexes by the painful sensation of feeling the world and themselves as ‘empty.’”8

Still another way the oceanic longing is expressed is in Prufrock's quest for self-understanding, for it becomes an intellectually acceptable sublimation of the longing for a lost feeling of omnipotence. It is a substitute for the “fullness” and sense of self-esteem he would have if his oral wishes were “fulfilled.” As long as they remain unfulfilled Prufrock, like the “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows,” will experience regularly a crippling state of semi-severe depression common among orally dependent persons. The depression is a result of oral deprivation. He endures a sense of “emptiness” and a loss of self-esteem because he feels literally “starved” for love.9 In answer to the emptiness and depression Prufrock seeks a sense of mastery and omnipotence in self-knowledge. For example, in an almost methodical review of the doors now closed to him, he convinces himself that he has the self-knowledge he needs to gain this mastery:

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
                    Beneath the music from a farther room.
                    So how should I presume?

The idea that he truly “knows” his situation is repeated four times in this stanza, and twice more in each of the next two stanzas, all with the magical, reassuring effect of an incantation. There is a review of a number of possibilities, from being fixed “in a formulated phrase” to being rejected by one who is “settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,” and each one is comfortingly regarded as utterly futile. The frequent questions (“And how should I presume?”) are of course conveniently unanswerable and are asked with a certain smug contentment. Yet, in spite of the transparent self-deception, we see that Prufrock is able to gain some control over his situation. It is not the control we would wish were the situation ours, but it is sufficient to convince us that for Prufrock perhaps it wouldn't have been worth it after all.

In effect, he achieves through regression a movement away from the sources of anxiety to a state of some mastery over his needs and feelings. In our response we move digressively away from the anxiety and take in his defensive understanding of himself as one way of containing the conflict. Prufrock's withdrawal is presented attractively to us as a sophisticated skepticism toward (and distancing from) love's impulses. His understanding of himself, which is his way of answering his feelings, appears to us at one level as largely convincing because of the withering honesty and aggressive self-ridicule that accompany it. At another level, however, we are always aware that ironically he is establishing in himself and us the very sense of confidence and control he so pathetically lacks.

But Prufrock's honesty and self-ridicule are actually a second defense—a masochistic turning against the self. It is not self-punishing in pursuit of pain, but in avoidance of the greater pain of anxiety. Prufrock wants love, but because he fears it, he would rather tell himself he does not deserve it. He insulates himself from failure by never trying. He does this in several ways.

First we note his body-image because it stresses his physical deterioration. We have only his report of his body, but it is clear that he sees himself as a man whose sexual future is already behind him. He says he has “a bald spot in the middle of my hair;” he believes it is noted by others that his “arms and legs are thin;” he thinks of himself as growing old, and he makes himself seem physically ridiculous by suggesting that he will wear “the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” The white flannel trousers, baggy as they are, stress his sense of his thinness and his shrinking body. He sees his body as “empty” and its lack of a forceful physical presence is clearly linked to his view of himself as passive and dead. In short, his body-image serves him as an unconscious defense against the impulse to assert himself. He sees his body as pathetic while for us the real pathos is in his hopeless image of it.

Next we note his image of his relationship with others. Because he has withdrawn his feelings from the world he experiences it as empty. But in his relationship with others the responsibility for the resulting emotional gulf is projected outward. He confuses his defenses (his rejection of the world) with reality. The most prominent images of rejection and self-contempt are the cold, inattentive women who come and go throughout the poem. The first such image is in the line, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” Whatever else we may say about these shallow women, and their cultural litany, it is clear that they are cold and impersonal. To Prufrock they are les belles dames sans merci. He prepares a face “to meet the faces that you meet” because all faces are cold and rejecting. Such faces seem to say “How his hair is growing thin” and “That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.” In the end he is convinced that the mermaids, “singing, each to each,” like the women who talk of Michelangelo, will not talk to him. In effect, and in harmony with his oceanic longing, he reduces his world to its original objectless state.

At this point we begin to see that the structure of the poem, as well as the rhythm of our response, is partly governed by degrees of self-ridicule. Prufrock's self-ridicule progresses in intensity until it reaches a climax in the Prince Hamlet passage, which afterwards continues to ring in our ears with brutality and finality. Indeed, it corresponds to and replaces, as it were, sexual release. After it, come only images of isolation, withdrawal, and sleep. It opens with a thundering “No!” which we may take as an answer to the over-whelming question of gratifying the instinctual impulses:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

The negative has the flattering contrast with Hamlet (flattering because it nevertheless invites comparison on the grounds of indecision and the fear of acting) as well as the seeming virtue of modest self-appraisal. Aside from the timely nature of this decisive statement (after such a lengthy digression from the original instinctual question), it also tries to be an honest summary. It is brutally honest when Prufrock says he is “an easy tool,” “a bit obtuse,” “ridiculous,” and “the Fool.” The hesitation in the last two lines suggests the pain of admitting the truth, even in self-defense. Yet the cataloguing of personal characteristics and the unflinching honesty in all he says give the passage a firm and decisive tone, a tone that in turn gives us the feeling that the anxiety is finally being mastered. This is the reason the lines immediately following this passage, beginning with “I grow old … I grow old …”, have a soothing anti-climactic pull. In effect Prufrock has said, “Because I am not worthy of having my wishes fulfilled I need not continue to experience anxiety over them.” No matter how much futility there is in such a statement (and therefore how much potential anxiety), by controlling hope he will be able to control his instincts, the very basis of hope. There are other examples of pretending to self-knowledge as a means of anxiety mastery, but we need not discuss them all. Suffice it to say that the very poem itself, an interior monologue, tries to answer this need.

Finally, I think we can see that Prufrock uses his passive behavior as a defensive posture, as a reaction formation against his self-assertive impulses. We begin to suspect that it is more than just a result of his life's circumstances when we see how much he relishes it. Coupled with his passive attitude is a certain precious and leisurely indecision, a feminine and cat-like reclining into the corners of the evening, an intellectual malingering over literary and biblical allusions, a somewhat compulsive fondling of the same phrase over and over again. This verbal preciosity is part of an elaborate defense against self-assertion. His hesitation, his fear of having a challenge dropped on his plate, his fear of “daring” to act, or to “eat a peach,” or even to presume, all these are cherished ways of saying, “I will think and speak as if there were no reason to decide and act.” In short, his passive attitude is carefully maintained as a defense against any impulse to act.

We first see his passive attitude in the projection of it onto the evening sky, but he later acknowledges it when he compares himself to Lazarus: to face the overwhelming question would be the equivalent of his coming back from the dead. Rather than deal with the question openly, he has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed.” Here we get the suggestion of resignation and even asceticism, traditionally the two most appealing forms of passivity as resistance. But our awareness that this resignation is a somewhat self-pitying defense casts an ironic light on what he says. This is particularly true when we notice that his resignation is continually betrayed by anxiety—for example, in his image of a question dropped on his plate (or shoved down his throat, with the potential of being overwhelmed and drowned) and in his image of himself as “sprawling on a pin” and “wriggling on a wall.” When he says he has seen his head “brought in upon a platter,” the symbolic castration is obvious. What is not so obvious is that the passivity here and elsewhere is a mask behind which aggressions are acted out against the self. Passivity is only a front for self-ridicule and self-destruction, a final and ironic omnipotence over the instinctual life.

Of course, other defenses are used. We have already seen how he projects his self-hate onto others so that it seems they are rejecting him and how he projects his inner emptiness on the world around him. Denial is another defense for Prufrock. When he compulsively repeats “There will be time” we know that he means “I feel there will not be time, but I can still deny it.” Again, when he says “No! I am not Prince Hamlet …” he means that he feels an internal crisis moving toward a climax, but he can still deny it. Or, in his frankest admission, he says “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” But I think the main defenses are, as I have suggested, regression, a masochistic turning on the self, and passivity as a reaction formation.

These three defenses enable Prufrock to transform his hopes and fears of love into a narcissistic, introspective, sometimes painful act of self-understanding and self-love. In other words, an anxiety-ridden fantasy of love has become an act of self-love. Paradoxical as it may seem, his denial that anyone else would love him was from the very beginning a desperate act of self-love through self-pity. Prufrock has deftly said no to the overwhelming instinctual question, yet he has sublimated his desires and satisfied them in an intellectualizing and less frightening way. Here is double irony with a double reversal. We began by saying that one of the ironies of this love song was that it did not have the seductive aim of the traditional love song and instead actually sought to defend against love's impulses. But now we can see that the deeper truth is that while it has defended against love's impulses, it has also offered them subtle gratification. Prufrock has sympathized with himself, gained a sense of mastery over his desires and, like the catfog that licks its tongue into the corners of the evening and then falls asleep, has moved slowly toward an emotional sleep. He opened with “Let us go” and now ends with the suggestion, implicit in the word “wake” in the last line, that sleep follows the gratification gained from the love song. For us, on the other hand, a fantasy of love has become an act of self-understanding through the defensive perspective of irony. We gain an enriching sense of power and mastery over our own destinies through the well-protected and uplifting experience of understanding Prufrock's. In a sense we have regressed with Prufrock in the service of our own egos. This uplifting sense of mastery may seem difficult to reconcile with the seeming catastrophe in the last line, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” But I feel we have lingered near our basic need of love and effectively answered a transformation of it as self-understanding. The reason we will “drown” is because the objective world, the human voices that will break in on this delicate sense of mastery, will again present us with the instinctual question and the sense of being overwhelmed. So the mastery is by no means final, either for Prufrock or for us; inevitably it is as fragile as the defenses themselves. At some later time, we will again be faced with human emotion and we will again feel the threats of rejection and of being overwhelmed and drowned. But at least “Till human voices wake us” (italics mine), we will have a sense of mastery. And even then, “There will be time.”

Notes

  1. See, for example, George Williamson's psychologically alert reading in A Reader's Guide to T. S. Eliot, 2nd. ed. (New York, 1966), pp. 57-70, and Elizabeth Drew's Jungian reading in T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry (New York, 1949). pp. 31-36.

  2. Arthur Wormhoudt, “A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’” Perspective, II (1949), 109-117.

  3. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, trans. Cecil Baines (New York, 1946), p. 63f.

  4. Understanding Poetry, 3rd. ed. (New York, 1966), p. 396.

  5. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York, 1945), p. 39.

  6. Op. cit., p. 369.

  7. Op. cit., p. 66. Robert Langbaum seems to me to hold the best view of this problem in The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (New York, 1957): “Prufrock is clearly speaking for his own benefit. Yet he does not, like the soliloquist, address himself, he addresses his other self—the ‘you’ of the first line, ‘Let us go then, you and I,’ and the second party of the ‘we’ in ‘We have lingered.’ Prufrock's other self figures as the auditor who watches Prufrock's performance at the sea party and to whom Prufrock tells what he learns through the performance about his life. In introducing the speaker's other self as auditor, Eliot makes explicit what is implicit in all the dramatic monologues … that it makes so little difference, as long as the speaker's attention is directed outward, whether the dramatic monologue has or has not as ostensible auditor; for ultimately the speaker speaks to understand something about himself” (pp. 190-1).

  8. Op. cit., pp. 401-2.

  9. Fenichel explains the relationship between oral dependence and self-esteem in the following way: “The hungry infant remembers having been satisfied previously and tries to force the return of this state by asserting his ‘omnipotence’ in screaming and gesticulation. Later on, the infant loses belief in his omnipotence; he projects this omnipotence onto his parents and tries to regain it through participation in their omnipotence. He needs this participation, the feeling of being loved, in the same way that previously he needed milk. Now the succession of hunger and satiety is replaced by the succession of states in which the child feels alone and therefore experiences a kind of self-depreciation—we called it annihilation—and states in which he feels loved and his self-esteem is re-established. … A severe depression represents the state into which the orally dependent individual gets when the vital supplies are lacking: a slight depression is an anticipation of this state for warning purposes” (op. cit., p. 388).

Bruce Hayman (essay date September 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3206

SOURCE: "How Old Is Prufrock? Does He Want to Get Married?", in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 59-68.

[In the following essay, Hayman argues that two distinctly different interpretations of "Prufrock" develop depending upon how the reader interprets the character's age and intent.]

Before I try to answer the two questions which entitle this essay, I would like to pose a third question and try to answer it: what difference does it make? What difference does it make whether Prufrock is young or middle-aged, or whether he wants to get married or not? For a number of reasons, I think that it makes a significant difference.

First, it is a question of reading T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." What do we know about J. Alfred Prufrock, and how do we know that?

Second, depending upon how we answer these two questions, we have very different poems. A poem in which a young Prufrock desires to sexually proposition the poem's unnamed female is very different from a poem in which a middle-aged Prufrock desires to propose marriage. The difference between a proposition and a proposal is significant because there are two different sets of sensibilities involved. Such a difference tells us a good deal about what Prufrock thinks about the unnamed female and how he considers himself. Of course, there are not just two possible answers to these questions. It could be that a young Prufrock is proposing marriage or that a middle-aged Prufrock desires to make a sexual proposition. Still, the questions and their attendant sensibilities need to be differentiated.

Third, if Prufrock is a young man, then the poem takes on a much more autobiographical meaning. Eliot, after all, was a young man when he wrote the poem—about twenty-two or twenty-three in 1910–11. If Prufrock is middle-aged, we would likewise need to ask why a young Eliot was attracted to creating a middle-aged narrator.

Fourth, if Prufrock is a young man, then the structural and thematic similarities between Prufrock and the young narrator of "Portrait of a Lady" become striking—so striking, in fact, that it would be valid to argue that the Prufrock character narrates both poems. If Prufrock is middle-aged, the similarity between the narrators is different and less obvious.

Fifth, there is one final, intriguing possibility. If Prufrock is a young man who is interested in a one-night sexual fling with a woman whom he cares little about, then that situation is very similar to the mechanical, sexual encounter between the "young man carbuncular" and the "typist" in the middle section ("The Fire Sermon") of The Waste Land. The notes to The Waste Land tell us that "What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem." If Eliot was exploring the sensibilities of arbitrary sexual encounters in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," does that mean that he "had the experience but missed the meaning"—a meaning he realized a decade later in The Waste Land (194)? There is a possibility of a strong thematic connection here. On the other hand, if Prufrock is middle-aged and proposing marriage, such a thematic connection probably does not exist.

With this rationale in mind, we can turn to the original two questions, and I would like to examine first the question of whether Prufrock is contemplating marriage in this poem, because that is the easier question to deal with. Two critics, Elisabeth Schneider and Balachandra Rajan, have suggested that the "overwhelming question" is a marriage proposal, and while they have not enumerated their reasons, we can look to the poem itself for evidence.

What evidence is there that Prufrock wants to marry the poem's female? First, the title may offer two clues. A "Love Song" is usually sung to someone whom you know well and with whom you are in love. "Love" is more closely associated with marriage than with one-night sexual encounters. Also, the name "J. Alfred Prufrock" is about as asexual as one can find. One can more easily imagine someone named J. Alfred Prufrock being married than prowling the town as a sexual stud. The formality of the name suggests a more formal relationship like marriage. Second, Prufrock does not present himself as a sexual creature—far from it. His self-depiction is of a person who is prim, proper, fastidious—and fully clothed: "My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin." He also describes himself as thin and balding—altogether not a particularly seductive package. Third, Prufrock seems to come from an upper-middle class or upper-class environment, where marriage would be more the norm for love songs. He is well educated and articulate, and he seems to refer to drawing rooms where women discuss Michelangelo or from which music emerges. There are also a lot of proper, upper-middle class things in the poem: plates, toast, tea, marmalade, coffee spoons, cakes, ices, novels, dooryards, shawls, and terraces. All of these proper things suggest a proper environment where one has proper relationships. These are not the accouterments of seduction: there is not a lot of alcohol, loud music, or bawdy songs and conversation. Fourth, Prufrock is far more intellectual than physical. There are references in the poem to Dante, Michelangelo, Lazarus, John the Baptist, Hamlet, and Hesiod. Prufrock is a very bookish sort who seems more intent on writing a term paper than on seducing anyone. Fifth, Prufrock apparently feels that the question which he wants to ask the female is "over-whelming," that some sort of crisis is involved which may ruin the rest of his life. A proposition for a one-night encounter would not be so momentous, but an unreciprocated marriage proposal might be. Sixth, there is not much standard reference in the poem to the joys of sex. He does mention "one-night cheap hotels" obliquely, but there is no reference to beds, sheets, bodies, euphoria, or any other stock sexual symbol. Finally, we can compare Prufrock to Apeneck Sweeny, another Eliot character, who was very physical and sexual, and who rapes an epileptic and then calmly shaves. Such a comparison leaves Prufrock looking pale, prim, overdressed, intellectual, and therefore more probably singing a "love song" about marriage than about sex.

On the other hand, what evidence is there in the poem that Prufrock desires to make a sexual proposition rather than a marriage proposal? First, if Prufrock were trying to make a marriage proposal, he would know the female fairly well—well enough that her presence would figure in his imagination. But Prufrock seems to know very little about this woman. She does not even have a name. Second, there is no evidence in the poem that they have ever spent any time together, except for the fact that she allows him to be alone with her while she lounges on pillows on the floor. Had they spent any time together, those encounters would figure in his thinking, and he would have some indication that she might be receptive to his proposal. His rationale would be: because she smiled or laughed this day, or because we spent so many days or evenings together, or because we did this or that, this marriage proposal is at least plausible. But this is a couple with no past, which suggests that he does not have marriage on his mind. Third, he depicts her as lounging on the floor beside him among assorted pillows. This depiction suggests a more relaxed, informal, and sexual environment. It is, at least, more seductive than is necessary for a proper marriage proposal. Fourth, what Prufrock does tell us about her is almost exclusively physical. He concentrates on her body and says nothing about her mind or personality. He is aware of her arms, her bracelets, and her shawl. He does not even seem aware of her face—a standard poetic source for observations about complexion, eyes, lips, and hair. Prufrock's mind is telescoped toward the woman from the neck down. Fifth, while it is true that Prufrock is fastidious and proper, he is also sensually aroused in this poem. There is, for example, a long sensual depiction of the cat-like fog at the beginning of the poem: "The yellow smoke … rubs its muzzle on the window panes, / [and licks] "its tongue into the corners of the evening." He is also aware that her perfume is affecting his thoughts ("Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?"). And he does focus on her arms, which are "braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)." The focus on her arms may seem odd until we remember that a woman in 1910–11 would be more fully clothed than a woman today, and her arms would have been the only exposed part of her body. The focus on the arms has a strangely endearing combination of propriety and sexuality—as though Eliot wanted to write a poem about sexuality but was afraid his mother might read it. Sixth, it is true that Prufrock is prim, proper, overdressed, well educated, intelligent, articulate, and at least upper-middle class. He also has a funny name. But none of those qualities means that he is necessarily not interested in sex; certainly those qualities never held back Bertrand Russell. Prufrock may be, to use an overused twentieth-century word, "repressed," and he is certainly extremely introverted. But sexual repression was much more the norm at the beginning of this century, and in any event, repression does not negate the validity of sexual desire—in fact, repression indicates a desire is there to be repressed. Finally, if Prufrock desires a one-night sexual encounter and feels that the woman may decline, why is he getting so upset? Surely there must be many more women in the world whom he could quickly come to know as well as he knows this woman. But Prufrock sees this woman as a test case, a kind of conscious Rubicon. If he cannot force himself to make a sexual proposition to this unnamed, generic female commodity, he feels doomed to an asexual life of virginity—a devastating prospect if it is undesired. To him, she is, in a sense, all women. In other words, he is thinking: "I cannot succeed with this woman; therefore, I will never succeed with any woman, and my life will always be a lonely, asexual hell." That is the prospect which makes this encounter so crucial to him and which makes it appear, along with the other evidence, that Prufrock's question is a sexual proposition.

There are thus valid reasons for arguing that Prufrock's aborted question is either a marriage proposal or a sexual proposition. In my judgment, that question is a sexual proposition, and the most persuasive argument for that interpretation is the fact that Prufrock seems to know so little about the woman or even care about her. She has no name, no distinguishable face, no personality, and no past history. I do not think that it is persuasive to assume that Prufrock would propose marriage to such a nonentity.

The second and more complex question is whether Prufrock is a middle-aged man or a young man. By "middle-aged" I mean around forty or older; by "young" I mean in his early twenties. There is some disagreement among Eliot's critics about the age of Prufrock, but the consensus is that he is middle-aged. For example, John Crowe Ransom notes that "Prufrock is of middling age"; A. G. George agrees: "Prufrock is a middle-aged man"; Lyndall Gordon calls Prufrock "the timid, aging lover"; George Williamson refers to Prufrock's "unromantic middle-age"; and Grover Smith finds a possible source for Prufrock in a character from Henry James's "Crapy Cornelia" named "White-mason, a middle-aged bachelor of nostalgic temperament." Elisabeth Schneider disagrees, in part, saying that Prufrock is "a young man who has never been really young," and Stephen Spender calls Prufrock "a man of uncertain age." Late in his life, Eliot himself ambiguously split the difference by saying that Prufrock was partly a forty-year-old man and partly himself.

What evidence is there, then, in the poem to indicate that Prufrock is middle-aged? First, Prufrock refers to himself as aging: "I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." He also sees himself wasting away, growing slightly decrepit: "(They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!')." A young man in his early twenties would normally not make such statements or be thinking about growing old. Second, Prufrock describes himself with middle-aged characteristics. Twice he refers to going bald. "And indeed there will be time / … to turn back and descend the stair, / With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—/ (They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!')." Later, he says: "I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter." Worrying about balding is a normal preoccupation of middle-aged men, but not of young men. Third, Prufrock places repeatedly heavy emphasis on his considerable knowledge ("For I have known them all already, known them all"), which could probably only have been acquired during a more substantial life span. Also, his allusions to Hamlet, Hesiod, Lazarus, John the Baptist, and so on suggest a substantial education which would have required some substantial time span. Fourth, for me the best argument for his being middle-aged is a passage in the middle of the poem where he shifts into the present perfect tense and seems to indicate his past life:

     But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
     Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)
     brought in upon a platter,
     I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
     I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
     And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat,
     and snicker,
     And in short, I was afraid.

The reference to his past is mainly metaphorical, rather than practical, but it does suggest substantial elapsed time. It also suggests that he is already going bald and feels strongly the passage of time flowing through him. Finally, at the end of the poem, Prufrock sees himself as Polonius, a middle-aged character in Hamlet: "Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two." All of these repeated references to aging, balding, education, and middle-aged characters, combined with his use of the present perfect tenses, suggest that Prufrock is a middle-aged man.

What evidence is there, then, for Prufrock being a young man? First, there is a freshness and an innocence in his worrying about this woman, as though he were confronting the situation for the first time. The poem is loaded with questions: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" "And how should I presume?" "And how should I begin?" "Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?" "Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" This flurry of questions suggests the bewilderment of youth over a new situation—everything is new and puzzling. Second, Prufrock is a character largely without a past. A forty-year-old man would have encountered other women previously, and those experiences would give him some clues about this situation. But Prufrock seems never to have encountered a woman before. He is totally inexperienced. He has no past to draw from to help him say the right words or make the right gestures. He is a social tabula rasa. Third, Eliot explains in Four Quartets how past consciousness merges with the present and the future. But Prufrock's mind is focused primarily on the present and the future. In a mind as active and lively as his, the past would certainly keep appearing in his confused mental state; but there is no past consciousness here swirling into the present. Fourth, it is true that Prufrock refers to himself as middle-aged or elderly, but he usually does so in the future tense (italics mine): "(They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!')"; "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." Further, the heavy emphasis on the extraordinary amount of time which he has available to him is more indicative of youth than of middle age: "And indeed there will be time / … There will be time … There will be time." A middle-aged Prufrock would probably at least mention the time that has already been spent. Fifth, but why should a young man keep referring to himself as middle-aged or elderly? The answer is in the structure of the poem's argument. Prufrock is trying to understand, with all of his conscious knowledge and abilities, why he cannot sexually proposition a woman. Because he has looked at his problem theoretically and because he is intensely frustrated, he finds it easy to wallow in a kind of self-pity: I cannot succeed with this woman because of my particular structure of consciousness; therefore, I will never succeed with any woman, and my life will always be hell—from now until I am middle-aged or elderly. Life is over for me. But, of course, this sense of fatalism is really immature—much like the distraught teenager who feels that her life is ruined because her parents will not let her go to a party. Frustration, especially in the young, often multiplies monstrously of its own accord and causes one to rush to wild, negative, and illogical conclusions. Sixth, Prufrock's claims concerning his broad knowledge ("I have known them all already") would seem more characteristic of middle age if we believe those claims. But, in fact, his claims to knowledge are wildly exaggerated, and these exaggerations are more characteristic of precocious youth than of middle age. Youth is often overly impressed with what it knows "already" (a word Prufrock repeatedly uses), while maturity more often appreciates its limitations. Prufrock's heady claims are immature bravado. Finally, Prufrock suffers from a case of debilitating self-consciousness. But nearly every youth suffers to some degree from such self-consciousness, and nearly everyone gets over it and learns to deal with it be the time he is middle-aged. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" captures that youthful moment when life is being consciously born and is terrifyingly puzzling. Young Prufrock reminds us that "April is," indeed, "the cruelest month."

Those, then, are the major arguments for seeing Prufrock as either middle-aged or young. In my judgment, the evidence in the poem supports a youthful Prufrock. The major arguments which persuade me are that Prufrock has no past, that he is innocently and bewilderingly inexperienced, and that he immaturely leaps to the fatalistic conclusion that he will grow old unloved. I cannot see a middle-aged Prufrock having these characteristics. As I have indicated already, I believe that the questions of whether Prufrock is young or middle-aged and whether he wants to make a proposal or a proposition are important ones. Despite the wonderful complexity of Eliot's poems and ideas, and despite the wealth of entrenched criticism on those poems, we should never stop asking two basic questions: what do we know about Eliot's poems, and how do we know that?

Elisabeth Schneider (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: “Prufrock and After: The Theme of Change,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 87, No. 5, October, 1972, pp. 1103-8.

[In the following excerpt, Schneider discusses the role of “Prufrock” in Eliot's transformation from skeptic to religious believer.]

The transformation of T. S. Eliot from skeptic to religious believer was a public event and to the literary world quite a spectacular one. Criticism has been busy with it ever since, following often at considerable length—now and then at considerable distance too—the course of his journey from a view of the Church as Hippopotamus “wrapt in the old miasmal mist” to a Christian faith that “all shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.” The substance of his later belief he made explicit in his writing, and the change has been welcomed, denounced, scoffed at, and analyzed from many angles, with or without sympathy. Interesting as much of this subsequent discussion is, one element has been largely ignored that seems to me of even greater interest and certainly of equal importance to the reader of Eliot's poetry. It is his preoccupation, which appears markedly in the poems, with the process itself of subjective change. A concern, that is, not only with what one may change from or to but with change itself: how possible it is, how easy, how subject to the will; what the experience may be like of attempting to transform wish into will, will into belief and then dedication. Thinking of these questions, one realizes that the subject has not often been touched by other poets. Among the Victorian “poets of doubt” we do not find quite this; and one has only to think of Donne or Hopkins to realize how special the theme is in Eliot. “Batter my heart,” Donne will say; and Hopkins, “Thou heardst me truer than tongue confess / Thy terror.” But when Eliot says, “I rejoice, having to construct something upon which to rejoice,” though the mode of the paradox may remind one of Donne, the meaning does not. Here God does not, either, as in Hopkins, seize possession of man's self and will; in Eliot the “rejoicing,” such as it is, is willed within the human self. Change as process I am inclined to believe may have engaged Eliot at a deeper level even than did its content or result, that is, than the actual Christian view of life arrived at, in saying which I do not in the least belittle the importance or reality of his Christian commitment. The problem of change, at any rate, is consciously and intimately followed through a succession of major poems beginning, unpromisingly it might be thought, with “Prufrock.” There the question is first posed.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is many things, and it should not be distorted merely to prove a point. Yet at its most abstract level it does ask a central question, “Is inner change possible?” and answers No, not anyhow for Prufrock or his kind. Within the poem, the answer is final though ultimately it was not so for Eliot. In dramatic terms Prufrock's question is of course not nearly so broad, and his individual case is too sharply presented to be felt as the mere shell for a nut of abstraction. The poem is therefore not primarily a symbolic representation of this or any theme; on the contrary, it reads as though it has sprung directly from a wish to set down as precisely as possible what it feels like to be Prufrock; but as this does not feel comfortable, the question of possible change is inherent in the subject.

Prufrock speaks at a moment of decision. “Let us go and make our visit,” he says, and the Browningesque immediacy of time and place, given a new dimension by the foreshadowing image of the sky “like a patient etherized,”1 leads to the central question: Shall he or dare he propose to a woman? The answer being no, the title is ironic: he will never sing his love song, nor will the mermaids ever sing to him. The rise and fall of the merest possibility of action, dramatized through imagery and the changing moods and tenses of verbs, provide the structure of the soliloquy from the initial “let us go” through the hesitations: “there will be time … time to turn back … Do I dare disturb the universe? … And how should I begin? Shall I say …” With the shift in these last words to a future indicative verb a little more than halfway through the poem, Prufrock having now brought himself to contemplate action not as reverie but as actual possibility, the question of whether advances for a moment to the question of how: “Shall” he say he does not wish to spend a lonely life looking on at others’ lives from a window-ledge, an empty room behind him? His vacillations of will have moved cautiously toward this possible if still somewhat meager affirmation, the subjunctive should I giving way to the more vivid future, shall I. But the will's approach to action generates its own reversal and flight in the automatic reaction expressed through the grotesque central image of the poem, which embodies Prufrock's recognition of what essentially he is:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas—

a subhuman crustacean, doubly dehumanized by the synecdoche of claws even beyond its identity as crab or lobster, and moving, a cold solitary being, in armored solitude on the sea floor.2

From this point on, contemplation of change does not again enter the world of possibility in indicative verbs. Prufrock thinks in subjunctives and then in contrary-to-fact constructions: “Should I … have the strength …? … in short, I was afraid”; and then, “would it have been worth it after all …?” The question of possible action now answered negatively and for good (the answer is conveyed entirely by the moods and tenses of verbs), Prufrock turns to contemplate the twilight existence that such a man as he may look forward to: more of the teas, the white flannel trousers de rigueur for resort wear, the thinning hair (never thick), the care of digestion (in 1910 peaches were indigestible, to be eaten with caution). But love is not for him. He knows its lure, at a distance only, and with its back turned, for the mermaids are “riding seaward.” Below, in the chambers of his silent sea, he may still dream of “sea-girls” wreathing him but they are dreams; the reality of a human relationship he cannot stand: “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

The “Love Song” is more than a retreat from love, however; it is the portrait of a man in Hell, though until this truth is clearly realized, the hell appears to be merely the trivial one of the self-conscious individual in a sterile society. Prufrock does not analyze himself, and we are not led into peripheral guessing in Freudian or other terms about what may be wrong with him; we simply come to know directly what it feels like to be Prufrock. (The phrase is Eliot's in another context.)3 By certain critics the poem has been read, with a quite different emphasis, as an ironic picture of society presided over by ennui. Certainly trivialities abound: proper neckties, “artistic” small talk, and the rest. That is the kind of society in which Prufrock moves, and obviously there is boredom in the empty fullness of its life. Moreover, it suits Eliot's purpose to set the scene superficially on this level. But within the poem the most individually significant images are of a different order; they are violent metaphors which would be out of place if ennui alone were the theme. The social images are lightly ironic, but these extreme ones are not; they form a pattern of which the two main components are objective correlatives for a self-divided state and a state of paralysis or stagnation. Self-consciousness is a split state: descending a staircase, the painfully self-conscious man is both himself descending and those above observing his thin hair; and it is this double or split consciousness that is the center of his discomfort; he is simply not all in one piece. Acute self-consciousness, furthermore, through this division of the self, paralyzes the will and the power to act and feel, produces “the partial anaesthesia of suffering without feeling” of which Eliot speaks, in a different context, in the opening scene of The Family Reunion.

Perhaps never again did Eliot find an epigraph quite so happily suited to his use as the passage from the Inferno which sets the underlying serious tone for “Prufrock” and conveys more than one level of its meaning: “S'io credesse che mia risposta …,” lines in which Guido da Montefeltro consents to tell his story to Dante only because he believes that none ever returns to the world of the living from his depth. One in Hell can bear to expose his shame only to another of the damned; Prufrock speaks to, will be understood only by, other Prufrocks (the “you and I” of the opening, perhaps), and, I imagine the epigraph also hints, Eliot himself is speaking to those who know this kind of hell. The poem, I need hardly say, is not in a literal sense autobiographical: for one thing, though it is clear that Prufrock will never marry, the poem was published in the year of Eliot's own first marriage. Nevertheless, friends who knew the young Eliot almost all describe him, retrospectively but convincingly, in Prufrockian terms; and Eliot himself once said of dramatic monologue in general that what we normally hear in it “is the voice of the poet, who has put on the costume and make-up either of some historical character, or of one out of fiction.”4 As such a statement can be made only with considerable straining about Browning, who was his ostensible example in the passage where this sentence occurs, I suppose it to be one of the many indirect clues to his own poetry planted with evident deliberation throughout his prose. “What every poet starts from,” he also once said, “is his own emotions,” and, writing of Dante, he asserted that the Vita nuova “could only have been written around a personal experience,”5 a statement that, under the circumstances, must be equally applicable to Prufrock; Prufrock was Eliot, though Eliot was much more than Prufrock. We miss the whole tone of the poem, however, if we read it as social satire only. Eliot was not either the dedicated apostle in theory, or the great exemplar in practice, of complete “depersonalization” in poetry that one influential early essay of his for a time led readers to suppose.

Within the poem, then, are two distinct orders of imagery: there are the limited and literal details of Prufrock's daily concern, the neatly combed hair or the stylish trousers with cuffs;6 but against these stand out sharply the extravagant images to which I have referred—highly imaginative and for the most part violent images—and it is through these latter, which reflect back to the epigraph, that we know we are visiting a kind of hell. The once notorious opening simile is no proper description of any evening sky known to man; the “patient etherized upon a table” indeed extinguishes the sky, leaving only shock, with the residual thought of illness and paralyzed faculties, a thought evoked again, less spectacularly, by the stagnant smoke and soot, which are literal, and the afternoon that “malingers,” which is figurative. Literal and figurative are joined when the trivial self-conscious fear of servants' contempt is universalized into the “eternal Footman's” snicker.

But more violent images convey the extremes of self-shattering consciousness: “the eyes that fix you,” pin you to the wall like a specimen insect impaled, to be stared at in its death agony as it ejects its insides at both ends—“spitting out the butt-ends of my days and ways”; and the other image of exposure, seeing one's own nervous system projected “in patterns on a screen.” Most extravagant of all these images of the agonized split self is that of John the Baptist: Prufrock has “seen” his own head brought in upon a platter. And finally, there is the figure that recalls the epigraph from Dante, occurring just as Prufrock is thinking once more of how it might have been if he had attempted to establish an intimacy: “Would it have been worth while / … To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all.’”7 She would not understand: “That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all.” What have the dead to communicate that the living could understand?

The doom is real though the tone is dry, kept so by the absence of direct expressions of feeling, by the trivial details of life, by Prufrock's reminding himself that he is no great tragic protagonist (“I am no prophet,” “I am not Prince Hamlet”), and sometimes by undercurrents of other allusion, as when the lady's repeated “That is not what I meant at all” stirs (and very likely was meant to stir) an egregiously inappropriate echo in one's mind of Kipling's “rag and a bone and a hank of hair,” who “never could know / And did not understand,” for “it wasn't the least what the lady meant.” The poem is at once both a highly subjective and a fully dramatic portrait of a man who on the surface is correct, well-dressed, over self-conscious, a trifle pathetic, and a trifle absurd. Prufrock, however, knows he is all this, and the acceptance of this knowledge dignifies him; he is no figure of fun. And there is something of him in most of us.

“The whole of Shakespeare,” Eliot once wrote, “is one poem … united by one significant and developing personality”;8 the words characterize his own work more sharply than they do Shakespeare's. His recurrent imagery, of which there is more than in any other writer I can think of, repeated exactly or with variations, and his repeated observations (“Human kind cannot bear very much reality” is the first that comes to mind) may originally have sprung from a narrow range of sensibility but if so he made a virtue of the limitation, deliberately unifying his work by means of these “patterns in his carpet”; the repeated images enrich, rather than impoverish, his work by a concretion of associative values for the reader that carry from one passage to another. And the continuity derived from “one significant and developing personality” which he ascribed to both Shakespeare and Dante was certainly also a deliberate aim of his own work. His Christian commitment is the most obvious unifying factor in the later work, but through the related theme of change as process, the early and the later work are held in a single developing pattern. In the Prufrockian world, change, which there means becoming able and willing to enter into a living human relationship through love, is, as we have seen, impossible; the word love does not even enter after the title, and the hell is felt to be permanent.

Notes

  1. Quotations from the poems are from the Collected Poems 1909-1962 (New York: Harcour, 1963). As several other editions are widely used and as the bulk of Eliot's poetry is small, I have not provided page references. Occasional italics have been added in the quotations.

  2. I do not think the image represents, as some writers have maintained, the desire for instinctual or predatory animal life; it is merely a stronger poetic equivalent for the commonplace metaphor of a person's retreating into or being drawn “out of his shell.”

  3. From an uncollected essay, quoted in Kristian Smidt's Poetry and Belief in the Work of T. S. Eliot (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 58.

  4. The Three Voices of Poetry (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1954), p. 21. The whole passage, pp. 19-24, is of great interest in this connection. Laforgue, of course, provided part of the poet's “make-up” for Prufrock, but the tracing of sources is not my present subject. Laforgue's influence is treated extensively by Hugh Kenner (The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot, New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959), and by Herbert Howarth (Notes on Some Figures behind T. S. Eliot, London: Chatto and Windus, 1965); and Grover Smith, Jr. (T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays, 3rd ed., Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961).

  5. See his Selected Essays, 3rd ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), pp. 17, 137; also pp. 272-73, where he discussed the Vita nuova as neither strictly truth nor fiction.

  6. Referred to at the time as “rolled.” A trivial detail, but one that has led to some comically ingenious interpretations. Robert Llewellyn solved the difficulty some years ago in the Explicator. But notice also (near the end of the Lestrygonians episode in Ulysses) that Blazes Boylan was wearing “Tan shoes. Turnedup trousers.” Boylan, too, dressed well.

  7. Either of the two biblical Lazarus stories may be referred to, or the allusion may be composite, both having to do with the return of the dead. See Luke xvi.20-31 and John xi.1-46, xii.1-18.

Marcia Leveson (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ as a Cubist Poem,” in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1983, pp. 129-39.

[In the following essay, Leveson explains the influence of Cubist art on “Prufrock.”]

I

The year 1910-1911 in Paris marked the focal point of that extraordinary intellectual and artistic revolution of the beginning of the twentieth century known as Modernism. The unfamiliar sounds and rhythms of Stravinsky's music were heard from the stage where Diaghilev's Ballets Russes were performing the Firebird ballet. Poincaré introduced a fourth dimension to Euclidean mathematics. The philosopher, Henri Bergson, was attracting large crowds to his lectures at the Collège de France. Marinetti and others published a manifesto of Futurism in Le Figaro. Guillaume Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein championed the new school of Cubist painters whose exhibitions were shocking the public in two major Parisian salons.

Across the Atlantic, the poetically-minded student, T. S. Eliot, graduated from Harvard in 1910, having studied French, comparative literature and fine art. Bored with polite, effete Boston society, fired by his interest in the French Symbolist poets he had been reading, and lacking direction for his own original poetry, he considered living for a while in Paris. His mother was apprehensive. For the average decent American, France represented the unknown and decadent. “I cannot bear to think of your being alone in Paris”, she wrote to her son, “the very words give me a chill. English-speaking countries seem so different from foreign. I do not admire the French nation, and have less confidence in individuals of that race than in English.”1 But for Eliot, however, Paris represented romance and Bohemia, and above all, as he explained later, “France represented poetry”.2 In October 1910 he arrived in Paris and settled on the Left Bank.

He practised French conversation with friends, attended Bergson's lectures, frequented bars and nightclubs, absorbing the atmosphere and looking for some meaning behind the “sordid images” of the streets and cafés. Although we have no documentary evidence, it seems very probable that as a former student of art Eliot attended the Cubist exhibitions. There are striking correspondences between early Cubist art and the poems Eliot was working on at this time—“Prufrock”, the third and fourth parts of “Preludes”, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” and the almost completed “Portrait of a Lady”. One hesitates to insist on a direct influence, but there are always parallel lines of development, cross currents, links, both conscious and unconscious, between writers, thinkers and artists living at the same time. It is possible that in the canvases being exhibited and discussed in Paris at the time, Eliot found tendencies that chimed with his own. He certainly had not found any inspiration in contemporary poetry. Looking back on this period, Eliot wrote that he could not then think of “a single living poet, in either England or America … at the height of his powers, whose work was capable of pointing the way to a young poet conscious of the desire for a new idiom”.3 It seems therefore not unlikely that Cubist art suggested technical possibilities which reinforced those he had absorbed from his literary mentors, the French poets Baudelaire, Laforgue and Corbière, and the Elizabethan dramatists.

II

From about the beginning of the twentieth century, artists working in many fields sought to break down the barriers of conventional expression in order to reveal their new perceptions. A group of Parisian painters, headed by Picasso and Braque, developed a new style which fundamentally altered the direction of modern art. Dubbed “Cubism” in 1908 because of the geometric nature of the early paintings, it was more than a style. It was a profound and complex manifestation of a view of modern man, living in a world where the old moral and social orders had broken down, where all relations and values were problematical, where there were no longer any simple locations, where reactions were complicated, many-sided and illogical, where life was chaotic and frustrating. To a certain extent, the Cubists' artistic endeavours were underpinned by current philosophical concepts and by mathematical and scientific speculation. It is possible, for example, that they may have absorbed some of the ideas of the new ‘soft-edged’ physics—the belief “that matter is less solid, more transparent as it were, than it [had] been thought to be; that motion cannot really be frozen into a timeless instant; that a real body cannot properly be seen from any one perspective point, but that there are many spatial frames that may apply to it, and that these are of equal validity”.4 Poincaré's geometry, Bergson's ideas of free association and Einstein's theories of relativity are also evident in their art.

The Cubists broke for good with the classical idea of three-dimensional space constructed from a fixed point of view. They created a flat surface with no apparent source of light on which they spread objects on “tilting, shifting planes”.5 These objects assume a rhythmic structure of their own, and represent various views of the object depicted simultaneously, thereby demonstrating the belief that things exist in multiple relationships to each other and change their appearance according to the point of view from which they are seen. The Cubists may be said to have introduced time as a dimension, seeing that various facets and perspectives other than those which travel to the eye of the spectator are introduced at the same time. “To intercalate realities”, writes Balthazar in Lawrence Durrell's novel of the same name, (itself a Cubist structure), “is the only way to be faithful to Time, for at every moment in Time the possibilities are endless in their multiplicity.”6 In its simplest form, this “intercalation of reality” is evident in many of Picasso's paintings in the simultaneous presentation of a frontal and profile view. “Simultaneity” is the term used by Apollinaire, Delaunay and others to describe this method of showing objects from several different angles at the same time. No longer, as in traditional painting, did the artist abstract formal qualities of a subject. He now believed that by presenting various viewpoints of the same object simultaneously on a canvas he would have a more accurate method of representing the reality of that object. Cubist painting is therefore directed not so much towards sense perception as toward mental awareness, and the viewer has to reconstruct from the faceted, multi-planed surface an intellectual and imaginative concept of the object depicted.

Following Cézanne's observation that everything in nature is based on geometry, they constructed their art on the principle of splitting a three-dimensional figure into its geometric components such as the triangle, the square, the cube, and especially into the basic element, the facet, i.e., “a small area bordered by straight or curved lines, the tonal effect [suggesting] a … concave or convex surface … at a slight angle to the vertical surface of the canvas … overlapping and inconsistent, the edges [dissolving], allowing their contents to leak into each other”.7

The breaking of objects and the resolving of compounds into simple elements which can reconstitute the object analyzed into a new multi-dimensional form is like the analytic process of science and gave rise to the term Analytic Cubism.

The logical development of this multi-perspective (or possibly perspectiveless) structure is the dislocation and relocation in space and time found in the technique of Synthetic Cubism which evolved very slightly later. As the name implies, this took the form of synthesizing, ‘assembling’ or placing together objects in a collage to form multiple relationships with each other. Here again the artist is working with a different kind of logic from that of the traditional linear perspective. This new logic consists in juxtaposition, in which all the objects juxtaposed have a simultaneous existence and relationship with each other. “Cubism became the art of the close-up”, observed the critic, William Seitz. “The objects … depicted [by Picasso and Braque] no longer diminished in size or disappeared in light and atmosphere. Immediate and tangible, their subjects were pressed forward by the advancing real wall of the picture.”8 Some Cubist paintings were papiers collés—papers cut into shapes, assembled, and the picture completed with pencil or another medium. After 1911 the objects of collage became foreign materials such as wallpaper, old cigarette boxes, cane and newspaper (which in turn introduced a further dimension in images and words, and if the words were truncated, introducing further ironies, such as journal cut in half to spell jou, or coup de théatre as coup de thé).

These objects of collage provided in themselves, and through astonishing juxtapositions, a complex suggestion of different viewpoints, and a method of introducing into painting the dimension of paradox, ambiguity and wit. A parallel development in music is recorded by the French composer, Eric Satie, a contemporary of the Cubists. He wrote: “The noises of waves, revolvers, typewriters, sirens or airplanes are in music of the same character as the bits of newspaper, painted wood graining and other everyday objects that the Cubists frequently employed.”9

In Analytic Cubism the total effect is built up by fragmented and abstracted portions; in Synthetic Cubism extraneous elements retain their identity and are assembled in free association. This is the basic difference between the two. The Cubist style changed, developed offshoots, merged with other styles, but generally persisted until after the First World War.

III

When Eliot arrived in Paris, he brought with him the uncompleted manuscript of “Prufrock”. He had begun the poem in Boston, worked on it during the time he was in Paris and finally completed in Munich in 1911. It has generally been hailed as the first modernist poem. When Ezra Pound and Eliot met for the first time in London in 1914, Pound was amazed to find that Eliot had “actually trained and modernized himself on his own. … It is such a comfort”, Pound wrote, “to meet a man and not have to tell him to wash his face, wipe his feet, and remember the date on the calendar.”10 He raved about “Prufrock”, calling it the best poem written by an American, and promptly published it in the magazine Poetry in 1915.

It is demonstrable that much of the modernity of “Prufrock” is to be found in those aspects in which it has affinities with the Cubist aesthetic, in those structural and stylistic aspects of the poem which are analogous to Cubist art, and which have only briefly been suggested but never systematically categorized.

“Prufrock” is the portrait of a man of indeterminate age, partly Eliot himself, would-be lover, would-be philosopher. (We note that Eliot returned to Harvard in July 1911 to take a postgraduate course in philosophy.) He appears as a kind of ‘existentialist’ evading a confrontation either with love or the meaning of life (both subsumed in the “overwhelming question”), concerned with growing old, suffering from boredom, hypersensitivity, sophistication, evasions, vacillations, hesitations, trepidations, indecisions, delusions, embarrassments; all of which are paraded against a background of a vision of himself wandering fitfully through deserted streets, going up and down stairs, taking tea, uncomfortable and inarticulate in sophisticated company. A sense of depression, of melancholy even, pervades the poem, which echoes the sombre vision of the Cubist painters.

On reading the poem one notices immediately that the senses are subdued. Sound is muffled — the women are talking of Michelangelo in another room, the sound of music is heard from a farther room, even the one character who speaks has something very negative to say — “That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all’” (11.109-110). The mermaids have been singing, but it happened in the past and is not expected to be repeated. There is only one image of smell — “perfume from a dress”. There are few visual images, and of these the most striking are those of something or someone asleep or static. The patient is “etherised”, the fog (cat) falls asleep, the arms “lie across a table”,

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

(11. 75ff.)

Even the head is “brought in upon a platter”, and the lonely men are leaning disconsolately out of windows. Cubist painting is largely monochromatic, offering very little visual stimulation and hardly any sense of colour and plasticity. Picasso once said that “the senses distort, only the mind gives form”.11

Just as in Cubist painting, what is announced by the title and what actually materializes is difficult to correlate and we have to look very carefully for clues as to the nature of the subject; so too the title of the poem hardly introduces us directly to the subject. In an article in English Studies in Africa, Brian Cheadle has noted this aspect. He comments: “… the use made of the persona is itself ironic. The name J. Alfred Prufrock is perched above the poem at the distance of caricature, and it seems congruous with the elegant relish of the absurd that is the keynote of ‘Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?’; … By all these means the poem achieves a sly attrition of certainty.”12 The comparison with Cubist painting need hardly be stressed. (It becomes even more obvious when Cubist portraits are compared with photographs of the same subject.) It is interesting to note how often in his early poetry Eliot uses a persona, and how often the subjects of Cubist paintings are portraits of people, as if they were all involved in an attempt to stress the fragmentation of the individual in a world where values are problematical and life is perceived more strongly than ever before as being in a state of turmoil and flux.

Eliot's verse is ‘obscure’ in the same way that a Cubist painting is obscure, for as the poem progresses we become aware of a striking lack of narrative notation. There is no succession of governing episodes, and the structure, far from being logical or intellectual, is emotional and imaginative. On examination we find that the poem consists of an assemblage of Imagist-type fragments presenting a series of themes related and contrasted, which move in and out of each other, fusing into an ironic whole.

Just as in Cubist painting, the fragments are contained within a totality afforded by the tone and mood which is predominantly that of resigned melancholy. Speaking in terms of colour, the over-all effect of “Prufrock” is that of grey, suggested by the images of evening, ether, fog, smoke and soot. The predominant colour is yellow, the colour of the fog which has a peculiar murky emotional effect similar to that of the yellow ochre which is one of the favourite colours of Cubist painting. Generally, the Cubist palette consists of secondary colours, neutral or transparent tones, especially subdued tones of earth colours and the suggestion of shadows. The only colours mentioned in this poem are earth colours, with a flash of red, white and black, which can be compared with the connecting passages of primary tones used in Cubist painting. In fact all the poems Eliot wrote or worked on at this time reveal the same tonality sustained, in part, by the same subdued palette.

If one considers the beginning of the poem, it becomes evident that the patient etherized upon a table, the description of the sleazy streets, the women coming and going, the fog passage, seem at first sight to be totally unconnected. Slowly we realize, however, as Gertrude Patterson so succinctly expressed it: “Prufrock himself is in all the fragments”.13 Just as a Cubist portrait presents many facets or points of view in one complex whole, so is the reality of Prufrock the sum total of the emotional charge of each fragment. This was stated in a different way by Hugh Kenner: “What ‘Prufrock’ is, is the name of a possible zone of consciousness where all the materials (i.e. the subjects of the fragments) can maintain a vague congruity; no more than that; certainly not a person.”14 The dislocation of aspects of Prufrock only partially glimpsed in the various passages can be compared with the Cubist practice of either breaking a form and scattering it, as it were, on the surface of the painting, or at other times repeating the same form in different places in the picture, thereby giving the appearance of spatial and temporal interpenetration. Eliot was conscious of this process of fragmentation. One thinks of the “wilderness of mirrors” and “fractured atoms” of “Gerontion”, the “thousand sordid images” of the third “Prelude”, the “crowd of twisted things” of “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”, the “heap of broken images” and “fragments … shored against my ruins” of “The Waste Land”. The whole of “The Hollow Men” is an evocation of the sense of fragmentation.

In 1911 Eliot attended seven of Bergson's lectures, and it is probable that he drew on Bergson's methodology for the poems he was writing at the time. Bergson suggested that truth could be grasped, not through analysis, but by “casting oneself on a current of immediate perception as it flows through time”.15 In Matter and Memory he defined an image “as a perception or as the perceived thing itself … The perceiver, by coming into contact with the material world, absorbs images into his consciousness, where they persist as memories. In the aggregate, memories thus form a durée, considered by Bergson to be creative, since, as he explains in Creative Evolution, they affect the perception of things in the perceiver's future.”16 Intuition is the only valid means of access to Eliot's reality, which is a flux of sensory experiences and of perceptions. Eliot's “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” which was written at this time, is constructed on what seems to be a principle of free association, obeying these laws of “instinctive consciousness” according to Bergson. There is a passage in this poem which could almost be a paraphrase of Bergsonian ideas:

Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions …
The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things …

(11.2ff.)

The method of poetic composition which consists of the assembling of fragments, of changing from scene to scene, and of moving backwards and forwards in time through the use of allusion — the literary equivalent of a collage — was to be developed as one of the main technical devices of The Waste Land, but here we see that Eliot had arrived at this process through the inspiration of French poetry, Bergson and Cubist painting, and long before any influence was felt of Pound (whom he met only in 1914) or of the philosophy of Bradley (which he read for the first time in 1912).

The effect of the sudden transition in the poem from fragment to fragment is the verbal equivalent of the flickering movement of the eye in contact with a Cubist canvas. It can also be compared to the technique of cinematographic montage, where one scene is juxtaposed against another. And indeed, an awareness of the new art of film technique can be discerned in “Prufrock” where, at 11.104-105, it is stated: “It is impossible to say just what I mean! / But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”. In the third “Prelude” which was written at this time, there is another reference:

You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.

(11.3ff.)

Although, in “Prufrock”, Eliot does not use the highly allusive method of The Waste Land, the numerous references to other works or characters — the epigraph from Dante, the allusions to Michelangelo, to Hesiod's Works and Days, to Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress”, to the Old and New Testaments, to Shakespeare's Hamlet, King Lear and Twelfth Night—produce an effect of temporal dislocation or of different temporal points of view. This movement across times and cultures was later to be intensified by Eliot's study of Bradley and expressed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) as the “historical sense”, which involves “a perception not only of the pastness of the past but of its presence”.17

The odd juxtapositions and the fusion of the sacred and profane, the sublime and the ridiculous (“No! I am not Prince Hamlet” (1.111) “… Do I dare to eat a peach?” (1.122)) are here analogous to the collage of Synthetic Cubism, whose evocative potentialities foreshadow the exploitation of the illogical, the irrational, the dream, and the shock element (“bouncing the spectator out of his accustomed logical habits”18) to be developed more fully in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. In “Prufrock” and “Preludes” other proto-Surrealist aspects can be noticed in Eliot's practice of isolating aspects of a body or of clothes—arms that are “braceleted and white and bare” (1.63), “Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl” (1.67), the pair of “ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (11.73-74), the head “brought in upon a platter” (1.82), the skirts that “trail along the floor” (1.102). Although this foreshadows Surrealism, a similar practice can be seen in the Cubists' use of motifs taken from primitive Negro or Iberian sculpture, the primitive suggesting a sense of the mysterious and irrational, of the submerged, anarchic self. These images are even more insistent in “Portrait of a Lady” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”. Both poems refer to a drum or tomtom, and there are several references to automatic, subconscious actions.

In The Waste Land Eliot perfected the method of allusion and juxtaposition. It is very much an expression of those aspects of disjunction generally felt in the first part of this century and discussed earlier. It is interesting to note that as Eliot moved towards his own personal solution in the Anglican Church, his poetry became less allusive, and the phrases borrowed from other sources appeared, to use a metaphor from science, in solution in the poetry rather than as entities of their own.

In “Prufrock” the faceted, Cubist structure is further stylistically suggested by the complicated scheme of rhythm, rhyme, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration and the repetition of words and phrases, which produce the effect of a multitude of mirrors or which, by baffling the reader's expectations, suggest a series of “leaking” facets or “interpenetrating planes”.

In the first section of the poem we notice the repetition of the phrase “let us go” appearing three times as a motif at the beginning of a line. The rhyme scheme at the end of the lines consists of rhyming couplets followed at random by an unrhymed line which introduces a bathetic note—I, sky … table; streets, retreats, hotels, shells, argument, intent … question. In the second section a different pattern emerges. There is a repetition of words, particularly of verbs in the past tense, at the beginnings of lines, while the ends suggest a pattern of fractured couplets—panes (evening) drains, leap (night) asleep. The mock-heroic couplet, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” (11.13-14) forms a refrain which is detached from the rest of the poem, constituting a fragment on its own which reappears, in Cubist fashion, in another place in the poem. In the section starting at 1.37 “And indeed there will be time” we have three and then four consecutive rhymes—dare, stair, hair; thin, chin, pin, thin. The word “time” echoes through the section, as well as “Do I dare?” In the section starting at 1.75 “And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!” we have a pattern set up whereby one couplet intersects another—peacefully (fingers, malingers) me. The space becomes even wider from 1.87 “And would it have been worth it, after all” where two couplets intersect a third—all (tea, me) (while, smile) ball. At the same time the ‘all’ sound is repeated throughout this section. In the section starting at 1.111 “No! I am not Prince Hamlet” we find a complicated repetition of the ‘oo’ sound and associated near echoes—do, too, tool, use, cautious, meticulous, obtuse, ridiculous, Fool. Of course, the words are bound together in terms of sense as well. Thus we have a different pattern in each section, all connected by a series of repetitions or words and phrases which Eliot learned from French verse, but which he greatly heightened to compose a faceted, Cubist structure.

The use of a highly original rhythm, subtle and unanalysable, which approaches the iambic pentameter but “swerves away from it” reinforces the sense of bewilderment, bafflement and disillusion. In 1917 Eliot said that “[the] most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all and constantly approximating to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.”19

The importance of rhythm in creating an ambience both in verse and in painting cannot be underestimated. Eliot called it “the feeling for syllable and rhythm penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling”.20 In 1961 Raymond Williams commented:

We are only beginning to investigate this on any scientific basis, but it seems clear from what we already know that rhythm is a way of transmitting a description of an experience, in such a way that the experience is recreated in the person receiving it, not merely as an ‘abstraction’ of an ‘emotion’ but as a physical effect on the organism—on the blood, on the breathing, on the physical patterns of the brain.21

And in relation to painting, we have a similar observation from Gustav Metzger:

It is [the] complex of timing, rhythm, tempo, sensation and emotion which is of central importance in the system's relation to art. It is the counterpoint, feedback, and accumulation of process, temperature, time and tension in the autonomic system, that is opposed to or contradicts or is off balance with time, rhythm, tempo, tension, relaxation and character of the observed work which leads to a heightening, a stretching of complexity, to new depths of sensation and experience and including aesthetic, intellectual and other factors that have, as it were, been forced through wavelike contractions.22

Besides the faceted structure of Cubist painting, one is very aware of the rhythmic geometric lines which move one's eye up and down the picture. Eliot's verse echoes this movement. This is suggested in several ways. Firstly, we notice recurring images of movement (even if it is movement that leads nowhere), especially along a horizontal or vertical plane: “let us go”, “the evening is spread out”, the patient is “etherised upon a table”, streets “follow” and “lead” to an “overwhelming question”, “the women come and go”, soot falls on the back of a cat that “slips by a terrace”, smoke “slides along a street”, a question is “lifted and dropped”, Prufrock turns back and “descends the stair”, his collar “mount[s] to the chin”, he has gone “through narrow streets”, “arms lie across a table”, smoke “rises from the pipes”, “claws scuttl[e] across the floor”, a ball is “roll[ed]”, skirts “trail along the floor”, Prufrock “walk[s] upon the beach” and mermaids are “riding seaward”.

The sense of movement is also suggested by variations of pace, especially in the constant change of rhythm or locale. The restless movement of the streets “that follow like a tedious argument” and the women who “come and go” are contrasted with the lazy movements of the fog (cat) which falls asleep and is thus connected with the patient “etherised upon a table” and the later predominant images of indolence and sleep. This stop/start movement is crystallized in the lines:

In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

(11.47-48)

The temporal disjunction is further enhanced by the constant change of tense which ranges from past to future and back again every few lines.23 The discussion of time, the “visions and revisions” (1. 33) which are reversed and further punctuated by the suggestion of the passage of time being measured by the taking of tea and other social rituals, is the temporal equivalent of the maze of streets and the suggestion of wandering through them, up and down stairs, in and out of rooms, which permeates the poem.

Leavis considered that “Prufrock” constituted “an important event in the history of English poetry … [representing] a complete break with nineteenth-century tradition and a new start”.24 Harold Nicolson stated that Eliot “tuned [his] ear to new rhythms”,25 and Alvarez believed that Eliot “has improved the technical equipment of poetry out of all recognition”.26 It would seem that the year Eliot spent in Paris made him a modernist poet, and that Cubist art played a larger part in this modernization than has previously been noticed. Although Eliot himself gave little encouragement for an interdisciplinary study of his poetry, he does stand on record as having insisted that “an educated man should be as familiar with the latest findings of natural science as with the most recent style of Picasso”.27

Notes

  1. Eliot Collection, Houghton Library. Quoted by L. Gordon in Eliot's Early Years (Oxford, 1977), p.33.

  2. La France libre, 8, No. 44 (15 June 1944), pp. 94-99. Quoted in L. Gordon, op. cit., p.37.

  3. To Criticize the Critic and other Writings (London, 1965), p. 58.

  4. C. H. Waddington, Beyond Appearance (Edinburgh, 1970), pp.13f.

  5. W. Rubin, Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (New York, 1972), quoted by N. Lynton in Cubism (Bletchley, 1976), p.18.

  6. (London, 1958), p. 226. See M. Praz, Mnemosyne: The Parallel between Literature and the Visual Arts (Oxford, 1970), p.191.

  7. J. M. Nash, Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism (London, 1974), p.19.

  8. The Art of Assemblage (New York, 1961), p. 22. Quoted by G. Patterson in T. S. Eliot. Poems in the Making (Manchester, 1971), pp.98f.

  9. Quoted by M. Praz, op. cit., p.192.

  10. The Letters of Ezra Pound (ed. D. Paige) (London, 1951), p. 40. Quoted by M. K. Spears in Dionysus and the City (Oxford, 1970), p.138.

  11. J. Dixon Hunt, “T. S. Eliot and Modern Painting” in A. D. Moody (ed.), The Waste Land in Different Voices (London, 1974), p.174.

  12. “A Perspective in Modernism in English Poetry”, Vol. 19, No. 2, p.69.

  13. Op. cit., p.116.

  14. The Invisible Poet. T. S. Eliot (London, 1960), p. 35.

  15. Quoted by L. Gordon, op. cit., p.41.

  16. J. Grover Smith, “Preludes, Rhapsody on a Windy Night & Bergson” in B.C. Southam (ed.), Prufrock, Gerontion, Ash Wednesday. A Casebook (London, 1978).

  17. Selected Prose (Harmondsworth, 1935), p.23.

  18. P. N. Furbank and A. Kettle (eds), Modernism and its Origins (Bletchley, 1975), p.43.

  19. “Reflections on Vers Libre”, in Selected Prose, op. cit., pp.88f.

  20. “The Use of Poetry”, ibid., p.94.

  21. The Long Revolution (London), pp.88f.

  22. Auto-Destructive Art (no date). Quoted by J. Benthall in “Technology and Art” in Studio International, a Magazine of Modern Art, April 1970, p.148.

  23. I am grateful to Mr. D. McLoughlin for pointing this out.

  24. F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (London, 1932), p.66.

  25. H. Nicholson, “My Words Echo”, in N. Braybrooke (ed.), T. S. Eliot, A Symposium for his Seventieth Birthday (London, 1958), p.34.

  26. A. Alvarez, The Shaping Spirit (London, 1958), p.16.

  27. V. Cronin, “T.S. Eliot as Translator” in N. Braybrooke, op. cit., p.134.

Stanley Sultan (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5734

SOURCE: “Tradition and the Individual Talent in ‘Prufrock’,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 77-90.

[In the following essay, Sultan argues that “Prufrock”'s success is due in part to its role as a harbinger of the modernist movement.]

“The best known English poem since the Rubaiyat”; it was called in 1959, and probably both was so and is.1 Certainly no other one is more likely to be included in a collection of English poetry of this century; and two generations of teachers have introduced it to secondary-school seniors and college freshmen. Long before 1959 “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had achieved special canonical status.

One cause of that status was high regard for the poem itself. But I believe another was historical, and that the vantage afforded by the quarter-century since 1959 reveals “Prufrock” to be a most eloquent cultural artifact—both as harbinger of Modernism and as paleomodernist specimen. I also believe its special status persists, and a related essay, which will appear in the first T. S. Eliot Annual (London: Macmillan), will address its pertinence to the present situation in criticism. But my subject here is the advent in literary history of this particular one of T. S. Eliot's early poems.

A distinctive work of art can no more be accounted for by its historical context than a great political leader or scientist. It is act, not behavior. But the act of the young Eliot's individual talent occurred, as Taine put it, in a particular milieu, and at a “moment” when, on subsequent evidence, English poetry was ready for something new. In middle age, while discussing Ezra Pound's versification in an Introduction to a Selected Poems by his friend (London: Faber and Faber, 1928), Eliot distinguished “poets who develop technique, those who imitate technique, and those who invent technique,” then became more general:

When I say ‘invent,’ I should use inverted commas … because it is impossible. … The poem which is absolutely original is absolutely bad; it is, in the bad sense, ‘subjective’ with no relation to the world to which it appeals.


Originality, in other words, is by no means a simple idea in the criticism of poetry. True originality is merely development; and if it is right development it may appear in the end so inevitable that we almost come to the point of view of denying all ‘original’ virtue to the poet. He simply did the next thing. (9-10)

Eliot's understanding of originality, characteristically both shrewd and historical, indicates (as it endorses) my purpose: to describe the historical situation of “Prufrock” without making a singular creation appear “simply … the next thing” and its advent, to use his italicized word, inevitable; for that would be foolish history.

The first poem in every volume of Eliot's that included it, and his first to receive general publication, “Prufrock” also is almost the first poem he wrote “that he wished to preserve.”2 By his own apparently accurate account, it “was conceived some time in 1910”; he took “several fragments which were ultimately embodied in the poem” with him from Harvard to the Sorbonne “in the autumn of that year”; and it was finished (during a visit to Munich, actually) in “the summer of 1911.”3 Hence, Eliot had written “Prufrock” three full years before he met Ezra Pound and was introduced to “Les Imagistes” and Pound's campaign to “get Milton off the back of English poetry.” At a time when Yeats had just completed the first general revision of his “high romantic” early poetry, a really remarkable event occurred. An American graduate student barely into his twenties evolved for and embodied in a poem: focus on the process itself of consciousness; a formal strategy identifying the subject with the expression of that subject; complexity and flexibility of tone; fundamental reliance on allusion (he was to call this “the mythical method” when praising Ulysses); extreme heterogeneity of materials; discontinuity of discourse; and no less distinctly Modernist cadences, setting, and theme. In Pound's words and emphasis, in the famous series of letters prodding the reluctant Harriet Monroe to print in Poetry a poem apparently too “modern” even for her, the twenty-two-year-old T. S. Eliot had “modernized himself on his own.”

Eliot's reference to “several fragments … ultimately embodied” suggests that, unlike contemporaneous poems such as “Portrait of a Lady” and just like The Waste Land a decade later, “Prufrock” as we know it emerged out of a different and not very clear initial conception; poems so strikingly new when each appeared were new to their creator also. But while the poem that was to become central in Modernism was retrieved from Pound's collaboration and modulated into The Waste Land only in its final stages, Eliot made the early “modern” artifact Pound unearthed and wisely championed entirely “on his own.”4 To call his achievement remarkable is not to exaggerate, but to judge historically.

Prior to Pound's eventual success with Monroe, Eliot and the few fellow-poets who knew and liked “Prufrock” had failed to place it. Harold Monro not only rejected it for Poetry and Drama but, according to Conrad Aiken, thought it “bordered on ‘insanity.’” Pound could safely predict that his friend's “individual and unusual” poem would “at once differentiate him from everyone else, in the public mind”;5 but public reaction to it is less significant of its historical situation than the resistance of these and other editors of that era, some of whom are now renowned for their eagerness to promote new poetry, including other poems by the young Eliot. Perhaps the primacy he always accorded “Prufrock” in his volumes was more than pride of place—it was a declaration about the historical status signified by the resistance to it of such editors, as well.

If it was, his quiet declaration that “Prufrock” began something really new is congruent not only with his description of originality, but also with the careful attributions of debt to other poets in essays he wrote in all periods of his life; for the attributions do not express ostentatious modesty any more than the declaration expresses boasting. Both things proceed from his manifest, abiding interest in precisely the relationship his own and other poetry of his time had to “tradition.” “Tradition and the Individual Talent” says of “the new” that “its fitting in is a test of its value”; and the historical relations of “Prufrock” seem to confirm that. To have achieved his harbinger and archetype “on his own” was not to have created it ex nihilo: “True originality is … development.”

The most general of those historical relations should be mentioned first. The young Eliot's instinctive Modernism in “Prufrock” exemplifies the then-new art's undeniable filiation (though the degree is much debated) to Romanticism. Such romantic imagery as “sea-girls wreathed with seaweed” is exploited in the poem, not adopted, and its affinity with the romantic quest poem is an ironic one; yet its link to the romantic motif of the melancholy of inadequacy that has caused failed aspiration is direct.6 Furthermore, it exemplifies the Modernists’ perpetuation of a central romantic commitment from the time of Novalis. Strindberg and Yeats, Proust and Kafka, Joyce and Pound—and the mature Eliot: all had as their principal subject the psychic experience of the writer. In Eliot's Early Years (Oxford University Press, 1977), Lyndall Gordon calls “Prufrock” one of Eliot's “less obviously autobiographical” early poems (45). Her distinction is relative (she herself proposes autobiographical elements for almost two pages); the connection between the young poet's own situation and state of mind and the predicament and consciousness of his creature is indicated by Eliot's revelation to his friend Richard Aldington a decade later that abulia was “a lifelong affliction,” the later description of him as “Prufrockian” by most friends who knew him when young, and his reported reference to Prufrock, in a lecture, as a young man.7 The later poem after Edward Lear beginning “How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!,” whose conversation is restricted to “If and Perhaps and But,” may be a joke; but it cannot be totally alien to his perception of himself.

If the romantic elements in “Prufrock” are as relevant to its inchoate Modernism as are those that comment on romantic imagery and attitudes, its principal more remote ancestors also are relevant. Dante is important to Modernist writers from Joyce to Akhmatova. And the affinity Modernist English poets felt for the Renaissance dramatic and lyric poetry Eliot identified as models is partly his own doing. All this is familiar. So is the kinship of the dramatic-monologue portraits by Tennyson and Browning, which (possibly excepting Browning's ironic ones) is more obvious than close. However, direct links to other near-contemporaries have little relevant historical significance: Eliot's early poems are full of traces of poets ranging from Vergil to Swinburne.

Ironically, echoes of and (in Eliot's sense) thefts from the predecessor “best known English poem” have been proposed.8 Other manifestations of the Rubaiyat, its translator, and his biographer in the “English Men of Letters” series (A. C. Benson), long recognized in “Gerontion,” have been expounded by recent critics.9 With some justice, the ending of the poem is related to Arnold's “The Forsaken Merman” and details to Stevenson's “Crabbed Age and Youth”; with less, “title from Kipling” is proclaimed (presumably, from “The Love Song of Har Dyal”).10 These detections of the young poet's use of his reading, when valid, show Eliot anticipating the aleatory method that would become so prominent in Modernist art. But the sources themselves did not help him evolve into the creator of the “individual and unusual” poem.

Much more significant of that evolution are traces of two of Conrad's stories, Heart of Darkness and “The Return,” and of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal.11 We know that within a decade Heart of Darkness had affected Eliot sufficiently to provide the epigraph for “The Hollow Men” and (originally) The Waste Land; significantly, it has had a status in this century (including its classrooms) similar to that of “Prufrock.” And “from Baudelaire,” Eliot wrote late in life,

I learned first, a precedent for the poetical possibilities, never developed by any poet writing in my own language, of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis, of the possibility of fusion between the sordidly realistic and the phantasmagoric … that the sort of material that I had … an adolescent … in an industrial city in America, could be … the source of new poetry … 12

The words “possibilities” and of course “developed” are important, for he was familiar with recent treatments of “sordid aspects of the modern metropolis” by W. E. Henley, John Davidson, and James Thomson.13 The historical context of “Prufrock” encompasses their generally grim urban poetry; but it was by way of Baudelaire he realized “possibilities” to “develop.” The young Eliot learned “From him, as from Laforgue” that he could make “new poetry” about a world of one-night cheap hotels, soot and sewers—and have a vision of mermaids occur in his poem. Equally important, Baudelaire and on subsequent evidence Conrad (but not Laforgue or the minor British poets of the time) showed him the moving and profound art possible about what was to become a major Modernist preoccupation: the impress of urban industrial civilization on the human spirit.

The “Spleen et Idéal”; section of Les fleurs du mal has a sequence of four poems (LXXVIII-LXXXI) entitled “Spleen.” Despite the near-archaism of the word in English, Eliot published a poem with that title in The Harvard Advocate in January of his senior year, one month before he began “Prufrock.” In it the ideal of “Sunday faces,” “conscious graces” and “Evening, lights, and tea,” is splenetically subverted by “cats in the alley” and a personified Life who is “bald,” “fastidious and bland,” and “Punctilious of tie and suit.”

Laforgue also is behind the poem; and Baudelaire had not yet been digested, for the spleen recalls Laforgue's stance of ironic condescension to the futility of life.14 A satiric mask of romantic weltschmerz, Laforgue's flippant forbearance is very different from the “acedia, arising from the unsuccessful struggle towards the spiritual life” Eliot described in “Baudelaire” (Selected Essays, 1932 ed., p. 339). And Eliot's rapid movement from “Spleen” to his “individual and unusual” poem is from a more impersonal version (the difference is significant) of Laforgue's romantic irony to a poem in which the sort of spiritual crisis “universal in modern life” (“Baudelaire,” p. 341) that Baudelaire's poetry expressed is rendered dramatically (again the difference is significant).

The historical similarity between “Prufrock” and Conrad's story published the year before the century began includes not only the special status, but also the evolution of each. Conrad's “An Outpost of Progress” (1897) bears the same proleptic relationship to Heart of Darkness as “Spleen” does to “Prufrock.” In both cases the writer moved decisively from a thin if timely work to one of a totally different artistic order, a new creation that achieved great richness and power, and that did so by breaking new ground; yet in both cases the centrally important early Modernist work was essentially a realization of the earlier one's potentialities.

Despite Baudelaire's example of serious spiritual engagement with urban life, his less illustrious compatriot seems more instrumental in the evolution of the poet of “Prufrock” out of the poet of “Spleen.” It was as designated influence on Eliot's early poetry that most English-speaking readers first heard of Jules Laforgue (and Tristan Corbiere). But this history is of a particular, archetypal Modernist, poem; and Laforgue seems to be one of its two chief agents. The other, almost equally familiar as generalized Influence on Early Eliot, seems to be Henry James.

Exactly at the midpoint in time between his assertion about the Rubaiyat and “Prufrock” and now, Hugh Kenner published his imposing The Pound Era (University of California Press, 1971), with its account “of how our epoch was extricated from the fin de siécle”; (xi). Its first paragraph describes an elderly Henry James “en promenade” in London and its second, emblematically, Jame's encounter with the eponym of his book and its “era.” Following this protasis the chapter presents James as the forebear whose

great sensibility brought in a generation.


But for that sensibility “Prufrock” is unthinkable … (15-16)

By “sensibility” Professor Kenner seems to mean James's “attunement with the invisible,” his ceremoniousness, and above all his commitment to the precise rendering of an experience in every nuance of its complexity. In one of two pieces on James published in The Little Review in 1918, Eliot praised James for his ability to render experience directly, using a famous statement often quoted out of context. James had achieved “mastery over … escape from, Ideas”; “instead of thinking with our feelings … we corrupt our feelings with ideas.” The statement “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it” occurs in this context; hence, the sentence with which Eliot concludes the paragraph: “He is the most intelligent man of his generation.” In the other piece, he praised James for sharing with Hawthorne a concern for (in James's quoted phrase) “the deeper psychology” of characters; and writing during the time the great concern of Modernist fiction for precisely that had just begun to reveal itself, he declared that “in comparison with” those two novelists” almost all others may be accused of either superficiality or aridity.”15 Gordon cites his subsequent testimony of James's influence on him (46n; 49).

One of Harriet Monroe's complaints to Pound about “Prufrock” was that it was “too much like Henry James”; and a direct influence on that specific poem has been attributed to James by a number of critics, most of them citing characters in James's work as models.16 Whatever a reticent young Eliot may have owed for J. Alfred to romantically reticent or ineffectual James characters, the relevant—historically significant—influence concerns not a type of character, but an exemplary “sensibility,” which was manifested in a way of making art with characters. James's commitment to the precise rendering of experience and to “the deeper psychology” resulted in a fiction described in his own criticism, a fiction in which a subject's experience of reality is itself the reality portrayed, as though, in the words of Eliot's doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, reality “exists only as it is found in the experiences of finite centres.”17 As a result, the work becomes a hermetic (“dramatic”) object embodying the “reality” of its experiencing subject. Browning, for example, portrayed character—by relating the subject's reflections or discourse; but James portrayed consciousness—by relating the subject's experience. And then Eliot in “Prufrock” (and subsequently certain Modernist novels) presented consciousness—by relating a verbal record of the subject's (“finite centre's”) experiencing of her or his experience. Today all this is familiar (“it may appear … inevitable”); but to the twenty-two-year-old student in 1910 the fiction of James was a bridge. Eliot's subsequent interest in Bradley indicates the likely depth of his response to James's way of making art.

The other bridge was a poetic oeuvre Eliot believed himself to be the first person in the United States to own.18 And while the fiction of James, apparently even more positively than the poetry of Baudelaire, bore him to his subject, and to high purpose, Laforgue's poetry provided the access to his “development” of manner and method.19

The first book in English devoted to the French poetry that influenced such Modernists as Yeats, Stevens, Pound, and the Imagists was Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature, written with Yeats's close collaboration and dedicated to him. Eliot read it when an undergraduate and wrote in middle age, “But for having read his book I should not, in the year 1908, have heard of Laforgue. …”20 In his “Introduction” to the 1928 Pound Selected Poems, he made the familiar declaration: “the form in which I began to write, in 1908 or 1909, was directly drawn from the study of Laforgue together with the later Elizabethan drama” (8). The Laforgue connection was promptly established by two important early studies of his poetry, the chapters in Wilson's Axel's Castle (1931) and Leavis' New Bearings in English Poetry (1932). Leavis quoted Eliot's declaration, and both critics drew the connection between “Conversation Galante” and one of Laforgue's Complaintes, which was quoted in Symons' half-dozen pages.

For one who did not live quite to his twenty-seventh birthday, Laforgue left a respectable corpus of imaginative prose writings, criticism, and idiosyncratic poetry. Laforgue's urban imagery has been mentioned; and in his aleatory way, Eliot mined the poetry for “Prufrock.”21 It is generally agreed that Laforgue's characteristic tone, also mentioned, which different critics have described as “cosmic detachment,” “gentlemanly despair,” and “bittersweet dandyism,” affected all Eliot's early poetry; Eliot himself wrote in “What Dante Means to Me” of his “recognition of a temperament akin to one's own,” “like an admired elder brother” (To Criticize the Critic, p. 126). In discussions that illuminate the hoary subject of Laforgue's influence, two recent critics make the important corrective point implied in Eliot's simile and consonant with his view of originality as development. In A. D. Moody's words, “The effect of his reading Laforgue was that he was galvanized into being himself.”22

In the passage in “What Dante Means to Me,” Eliot subordinates his response to Laforgue's fraternal temperament to his interest in what he considers the “form of expression” corresponding to that temperament: Laforgue's combination of elegance and slanginess. Laforgue's “form of expression” “gives a clue to the discovery of one's own form,” to “the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech.” And that it was not the boulevardier's stance but the artist's “form”—not manner but method—that was of primary importance is indicated by his statement thirty years before in “The Metaphysical Poets” that Laforgue and Corbiere “are nearer to the ‘school of Donne’ than any modern English poet,” because all were “trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling” in a civilization of “great variety and complexity”: “The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning” (Selected Essays, pp. 248-49).

The idea is as familiar to us, near the end of the century, as that of the hermetic work whose subject expresses itself. But “Prufrock” was created when the century had scarcely begun; the “states of mind and feeling” it comprises have a uniquely wide range among Eliot's early poems; and—the significant point—we know so from its diction. Laforgue's poetry provided the young Eliot with the “clue” for evolving a language of his own which would be equal to the task, adumbrated for him by James's fiction, of precisely rendering in all its complexity an experiencing consciousness.

In the quoted attribution of debt to Laforgue in his “Introduction” to the Pound volume, Eliot uses the word “form” differently from “form of expression”: he derived “the form in which I began to write” not from “a clue to” diction (“idiom of speech”), but from “the study of” the “versification” of “Laforgue together with the later Elizabethan drama.” Laforgue increasingly in his poetry employed heavy rhyme, often to ironic effect (as in “Prufrock” far more than in other of Eliot's early poems), and combined varied line-lengths and meters with Alexandrines. “The vers libre of Jules Laforgue,” who was “certainly the most important technical innovator” in French poetry, Eliot wrote there, “stretches, contracts, and distorts the traditional French measure as later Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry stretches, contracts and distorts the blank verse measure.” His discussion of invention and originality, quoted from in the opening paragraphs, begins on the next page (9). A “technical innovator,” he declares there, does not “invent technique … because [in the phrase he uses in defining “true originality”] it is impossible.” But as with his functional diction in “Prufrock,” so with his elastic versification, Eliot did not merely “imitate technique” developed by the innovators he cites: his debt to Laforgue and the English tradition (respectively the “school of Donne” and the “later Elizabethan drama”) is for providing the “clue” his own authentic “originality” used precisely to “develop technique.”

Eliot insists that in poetry the true innovator never invents; instead, he or she “forces” and “stretches,” “dislocates” and “distorts,” what has been given into something new. But if what has been given is itself new, as James and Laforgue, for example, were new in his youth, then newness might be compounded—even, metaphorically, squared. Hence, the right individual talent could be devoted to tradition and vigorously decry “the poem which is absolutely original,” and yet could actually “develop” the harbinger of a wholly new English poetry. That is what the young T. S. Eliot seems to have done

The final element in this delineation of Eliot's achievement in “Prufrock” also involves Laforgue. He provided the clue for the narrative strategy Eliot developed to achieve his neo-Jamesian objective of rendering directly an experiencing consciousness. And the historical conjunction that occurred is especially significant of the place of “Prufrock” in the history of Modernism in English literature.

When Ulysses appeared in 1922, its most accessible part proved to be its most sensational: Molly Bloom's concluding chapter. Her stream-of-consciousness, uninterrupted inner (“interior”) monologue helped fix the new narrative strategy of representing consciousness as language—introduced to readers of avant-garde literature by the published earlier chapters of Ulysses and the first novels of Dorothy Richardson—as the most distinctive innovation of Modernist fiction. Ignoring Richardson and feasible antecedents in earlier English novelists, Joyce attributed monologue intérieur, as his friend Valery Larbaud named the new narrative strategy, to a novel by the still-living late nineteenth-century French writer Édouard Dujardin, and thereby made the old man famous and appreciative (“James Joyce, maître glorieux … qui a dit au mort … Reléve-toi Lazare”); the story is relatively familiar.23

However, Symons wrote “It is an art of the nerves, this art of Laforgue”; Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann's The Philosophy of the Unconscious (Philosophie des Unbewussten) “became a veritable bible to him”; and his friend Gustave Kahn drew attention to his attempts to reproduce thought, especially in Dernier Vers.24 These attempts usually take the form of sudden apostrophe or emotional interjection, as in the popular “Solo de Lune.” But however qualified, Laforgue's endeavor to supplant discourse with the direct verbal representation of a mental state is apparent. In his comprehensive essay on “Eliot and Nineteenth-Century French Poetry,” Francis Scarfe writes, “Laforgue invented a new kind of dramatic monologue, usually known as the interior or internal monologue …” and then mentions a little-known literary indebtendness which reveals the conjunction significant of the historical situation and role of “Prufrock”:

From Laforgue, his close friend, Édouard Dujardin, without acknowledgement, developed the technique of his short novel Les Lauries sont coupé. This technique was taken up by Valery Larbaud and James Joyce. … Eliot, long before them, had taken the form directly from Laforgue himself …25

What Eliot “had taken,” his originality metamorphosed in “Prufrock.” Other of his early poems, “Portrait of a Lady” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” especially, have a Laforgian-Jamesian focus on the speaker's experiencing consciousness; but only “Prufrock” is constituted by a direct verbal representation of the process itself of consciousness. “Prufrock” inaugurates the focus and the narrative technique that were to become so prominent in Modernist English literature. In fact, it anticipates the most sensational and famous instance of the use of that technique. The last chapter of Ulysses is precisely like “Prufrock”: 1) an uninterrupted verbal representation (“stream”) of consciousness that is simultaneously 2) a soliloquy expressing 3) a conflict between alternative attitudes the outcome of which is 4) fundamental to the character's destiny.

To attribute the origin of Molly Bloom's soliloquy to “Prufrock” would be specious anyway; but the historical concern of this essay is much broader than the attribution of sources. And evidence of the role of “Prufrock” in the advent of a new kind of literature abounds. For example, taking Molly's soliloquy as reference and looking backward, “Prufrock” has a special relationship to a story Molly's creator wrote in 1905 and to the portrayal of psychological bifurcation by various writers of the fin-de-siècle, more than once by both Wilde and Conrad. Eliot was to call the portrayal in Laforgue's poetry “a dédoublement of the personality.”26

In “A Painful Case” Joyce presented, in a dreary urban setting, an emotionally-blocked bourgeois, radically isolated as a consequence, aware of his predicament and suffering in it, who nevertheless himself has frustrated an opportunity for rescue. Joyce was twenty-three, Eliot's age when he finished “Prufrock,” six years later.

Implicit in the literary motif of doubleness is psychomachia; and its pertinence to the spirit of that time was exemplified in the creation by William Sharp of Fiona Macleod and in the mask preoccupation of Sharp's friend Yeats. Gérard de Nerval wrote (in Aurélia), “Une idée terrible me vint: ‘L'homme est double,’ me dis-je.” Among other writers of the time, that psychomachia was expressed by Laforgue himself in the phrase (in “Dimanches”) “Mon Moi,” in Nietzsche's “Ich bin ein doppelgänger”; (Ecce Homo, 1, 3) and in Rimbaud's “Je est un autre”; and that psychological situation, expressed by writers with whom Eliot recognized an affinity, is at the very center of “Prufrock.”

Like the final chapter of Ulysses, these examples of cultural and literary relationship are elements in the historical situation of “Prufrock,” further establishing the role it played as harbinger of, and archetypal “development” of the received tradition into, a new poetry—the role which helps explain its special canonical status in the literature that dominated most of this century.

Leavis' declaration in 1932 that it “represents a complete break with the nineteenth-century tradition, and a new start” is a symptom of its role, as is G. S. Fraser's in 1948 that “As the Russians all came out of Gogol's Overcoat, we might say that we all came out of Prufrock's drawing room. Nearly every important innovation in the English verse of the last thirty years is implicit in this poem.”27

But Fraser's allowing the declaration to stand in a book published in 1977 is historical confirmation more than symptom. In the alembic of “Prufrock” Eliot distilled ingredients he found about him into something new and intoxicating.

Notes

  1. Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot(1959;rpt. Harbinger-Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969),p.3.

  2. “Conversation Galante,” the first two “Preludes” and “Portrait of a Lady” antedate its completion. See also The Invisible Poet, pp. 33 and 35; and Grover Smith, T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays (University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 9. The quoted phrase is from the flyleaf of Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963).

  3. John C. Pope, “Prufrock and Raskolnikov Again: A Letter from Eliot,” American Literature, XVIII (1947), 319. For general confirmation of Eliot's dating see, for example, the chronology, facing p. 17 in A. D. Moody, Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

  4. For an account of Eliot's fashioning of The Waste Land out of the drafts, see Stanley Sultan, Ulysses, The Waste Land and Modernism: A Jubilee Study (Kennikat Press, 1977), pp. 20-28.

  5. Letter to Harriet Monroe, dated December 1, 1961. The Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907-1941, ed. D. D. Paige (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), p. 66. The previous quotation is from a letter to her dated September 30, 1914, and printed on p. 40. Monro changed his mind when he read “Prufrock” again in Poetry; see Ellen Williams, Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance: The First Ten Years of Poetry, 1912-22 (University of Illinois Press, 1977), p. 127. The testimony of Aiken is from “King Bolo and Others,” in Richard March and Tambimuttu, eds., T. S. Eliot: A Symposium … (Books for Libraries Press, 1968), p. 22.

  6. For instance, in Chapter XIX of Shelley's novel, Frankenstein's creature says,

    For a moment my soul was elevated from its debasing and miserable fears … For an instant I dared to shake off my chains and look around me with a free and lofty spirit, but the iron had eaten into my flesh and I sank again, trembling and hopeless, into my miserable self.

    Mary W. Shelley, Frankenstein (London: Dent, 1963), p. 171. Other instances are Werther, Heathcliff, Julien Sorel, Peer Gynt, and even to an extent Stephen Dedalus. In T. S. Eliot and the Poetics of Literary History (Louisiana State University Press, 1983), Gregory S. Jay argues for the gradual development of failed aspiration (by way of Browning) out of “the Greater Romantic Lyric” (94-99).

  7. See, respectively: Sultan, p. 73; Elisabeth Schneider, T. S. Eliot, The Pattern in the Carpet (University of California Press, 1975), pp. 27-28, 31-32; and The Invisible Poet, p. 40. The letter to Aldington is quoted in T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile …, ed. Valerie Eliot (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. xxii. See also n. 30 to “Ghostly Selves” (241-42), in Ronald Bush, T. S. Eliot: A Study of Character and Style (Oxford University Press, 1983).

  8. Leonard Unger, Eliot's Compound Ghost: Influence and Confluence (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981), pp. 29-30. For one attribution to the Rubaiyat, the Marvellian “To have squeezed the universe into a ball,” Professor Schneider instead proposes a passage in Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature (13n).

  9. See Schneider, p. 46; and Eliot's Compound Ghost, pp. 22, 23, 27-28.

  10. See Moody, p. 36; Darrel Abel, “R. L. S. and ‘Prufrock,’” Notes and Queries, CXCVIII (1953), 37-38; and T. S. Matthews, Great Tom: Notes Towards the Definition of T. S. Eliot (Harper & Row, 1973), p. 36. Kipling's poem is in “Beyond the Pale,” a story in Plain Tales from the Hills.

  11. Regarding Conrad, see B. C. Southam, A Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, 3rd. ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 102; and Eliot's Compound Ghost, pp. 65-55, 108. Regarding Baudelaire, see, for example, Schneider, pp. 12-13; and Moody, pp. 29-30.

  12. Quoted from To Criticize the Critic (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965), p. 126. The passage occurs in “What Dante Means to Me,” first published in 1950. His statement in the title essay, published eleven years later, “the modern poet who influenced me was not Baudelaire but Jules Laforgue” is in the context of his observation that a great poet “can hardly influence, he can only be imitated” (18). See also Moody, pp. 4-5.

  13. See Schneider, pp. 10-13; Herbert Howarth, Notes on Some Figures Behind T. S. Eliot (Houghton Mifflin, 1964), pp. 106-07.

  14. See, for example, Moody, p. 20; and Leonard Unger, T. S. Eliot: Moments and Patterns (University of Minnesota Press, 1956 [1967]), pp. 10-11.

  15. Quoted from Edmund Wilson, ed., The Shock of Recognition (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975), II, pp. 856-57, 861.

  16. See, for example, George Fraser, Essays on Twentieth Century Poets (Rowman and Littlefield, 1978), p. 105; The Pound Era, p. 16; F. O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot, 3rd ed. (1958; rpt. Galaxy-Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 70; Moody, pp. 30, 37; Smith, p. 15; William York Tindall, Forces in Modern British Literature: 1885-1956 (1947; rpt. Vintage, 1956), p. 278; Moments and Patterns, p. 12; Eliot's Compound Ghost, p. 9. For Monroe's remark, see Stanley K. Coffman, Imagism: A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry (University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), p. 43.

  17. Quoted from J. Hillis Miller, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers (1965; rpt. Atheneum, 1969), p. 134. Professor Miller discusses Eliot's early poetry, including “Prufrock,” as “more or less contemporary” with his dissertation, although he began graduate study in philosophy after “Prufrock” (as well as other poems) was written, and “there is no evidence” that he had “been acquainted with Bradley's work” when he wrote it (Eliot's Compound Ghost, p. 11). For a more persuasive attribution of intellectual indebtedness to Henri Bergson, see Piers Gray, T. S. Eliot's Intellectual and Poetic Development: 1909-1922 (Sussex: Harvester, 1982), pp. 52-84 passim.

  18. Howarth, p. 105.

  19. “But even Baudelaire had not aroused him to the intuition of a form and a voice in which he could make poetry of his own knowledge of the city. … Then Laforgue came to him, revealing form, voice, stance” (Howarth, p. 107).

  20. Quoted from The Criterion, IX (January 1930) in Eliot's Compound Ghost, p. 97. The statement occurs in a review of Baudelaire and the Symbolists by Peter Quennell.

  21. See, for example, the pair of “declamations” by “Le Monsieur” and “La Dame” in “Le Concile féerique,” and “Solo de Lune”; see also Howarth, p. 196.

  22. Moody, p. 18. Professor Schneider writes, “the mask that Laforgue had devised fitted Eliot nearly enough to point the way to his own” (13).

  23. See Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, rev. ed. (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 520n.

  24. Symons, p. 60; Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue (Grove Press, 1956), pp. 6, 84; see also p. 21.

  25. In Graham Martin, ed., Eliot in Perspective: A Symposium (Humanities Press, 1970), pp. 45-61, p. 53.

  26. T. S. Eliot, “A Commentary,” Criterion, XII (1933), 470. Quoted in Gray, p. 68.

  27. F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 1960 [1964]), p. 75; “A Language by Itself,” in T. S. Eliot A Symposium …, p. 175; and Fraser, p. 106. The essay and statement also appear in Fraser's Vision and Rhetoric (London: Faber and Faber, 1959).

Mihai Spariosu (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5916

SOURCE: “Games of Consciousness,” in Auctor Ludens: Essays on Plays in Literature, edited by Gerald Guinness and Andrew Hurley, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 157-69.

[In the following essay, Spariosu examines the “modern crisis of consciousness” in “Prufrock.”]

The arts without intellectual context are vanity.

—T. S. Eliot

In what follows I shall discuss the ways in which Eliot addresses the problematic of consciousness in “Prufrock,” a problematic which has preoccupied thinkers at least since St. Augustine, but which has resurfaced with renewed vigor in our age; in other words, I shall attempt to see Eliot's poem in the intellectual context of modernism, in terms of the so-called “modern crisis of consciousness.”

The poem has the form of a dramatic monologue or, rather, if I may coin the phrase, “interior dialogue,” in which the self of Prufrock appears as divided and disrupted or in a state of despair. Prufrock's “sickness unto death” becomes manifest as he is confronted with imminent action: he is about to go for tea at a lady's house and considers the possibility of propositioning her. However, he does not so much as leave his room, engaging instead in a subtle game of rationalizing his lethargy.1

The “you” and “I” of the poem, as introduced in the first line, “Let us go then, you and I,”2 are the two components of Prufrock's self, that is, the subject which is conscious (the “I”) and the object of which the subject is conscious (the “me” which in the poem becomes “you,” since Prufrock dramatizes himself). I am using here St. Augustine's description of the self (in De Trinitate, Book IX) which also includes a third level of awareness, that of the “I” being conscious of being conscious. This level of awareness, however, is only partially achieved by Prufrock, who, after a brief moment of recognition, relapses into self-delusion, and starts “cheering himself up.”

From the very opening of the first section it is obvious that Prufrock is reluctant to act, though he tries to convince himself he is not and, in this sense, the entire poem can be read as a modern equivalent of consolatio. The self-persuasive “then” in the first line, the fact that “Let us go” is repeated three times, his “Oh, do not ask what is it,” and, later, the images of sordid love, suggested by “one-night cheap hotels” and “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells,” all point to this action-shyness. Prufrock's unwillingness to leave his room controls the particular kind of images or “objective correlatives” that take shape in his mind. The image of “the evening spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table” establishes the mood of Prufrock's monologue. This mood can best be described, I think, as lethargic, being somewhat similar to the first part of Keats' “Ode to a Nightingale.”3 The streets are “like tedious arguments” leading insidiously to “an overwhelming question” (italics mine), therefore, they appear as another “objective correlative” of Prufrock's resistance to action. The need to act here arises from inside him, being his “project”; but in his mind it takes the objective form of the streets “leading” him into action and as such the inner drive becomes something imposed from outside, something that should be resisted. This is a characteristic instance of how Prufrock, throughout his monologue, devises an elaborate game of self-defense against what he perceives as a menacing “outside world,” but what is ultimately a mere projection of his divided self. “Let us go and make our visit,” which seems more resolute (but is in fact only a means of evading the “overwhelming question”) is followed by a “visualization” which can be seen as another example of self-deception, disguised as self-defense:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo. (lines 13-14)(4)

This scene which Prufrock imagines taking place at his lady's house appears distasteful to him, and as such, it provides another “rationalization” for inaction. His self-consciousness takes here a somewhat aggressive form as he looks down on the women who are prattling fashionably about Michelangelo, presumably thrilled with his “manhood.” But also, Prufrock implicitly deprecates “beefy” Michelangelo in the sense that he “looks down” on what he thinks must be an ideal in the eyes of women, unconsciously setting up against it another “ideal,” that is, himself. As we shall see later, Prufrock constantly contrasts himself, playfully, to such heroic characters as Michelangelo, Hamlet and St. John the Baptist, presenting himself as an anti-hero (or a mock-hero), but his motive is again “to take in himself.”

Prufrock seeks to escape even further the “necessity” of his visit by taking refuge in the palliative image of the soporific fog, appropriately associated with a big, lazy, yellow cat which, having made its rounds about the house, curls up to sleep:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house and fell asleep. (15-22)

The fog “curled” about the house becomes a sort of protective cotton-soft wall between Prufrock and the outside world. The ambiguous use of the present and the past tenses here indicates (besides the fact that he has not left his room) that he projects himself into the future so that he can contemplate the present as something already past (note that he is “talking” of the October night though we are only at dusk; cf. “And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!” later in the poem). He does this with the same purpose of evading action, for if the present has become the past, he has transcended the necessity of making a decision. Unwilling to recognize this projection into the future as self-delusion (i.e., an attempt to escape necessity), Prufrock pretends to use “time” as an argument for action, but soon turns it into an argument for inaction:

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. (23-34)

“And indeed there will be time” is made by Prufrock to sound as if it were the logical conclusion derived from the previous section, while, in reality, the opposite would be the case. Returning to the present (where the smoke still rubs its back cat-like upon the window-panes, etc.), Prufrock pretends that everything is all right, that “indeed” there will still be time for him to make his visit and that there is no harm in a little playful day-dreaming or in “visions” and “revisions” before the decisive moment comes. The repetition of “there will be time” in line 26 indicates Prufrock's impatience at having to deal with time, marking the change of the argument for action into one for inaction. The taking of toast and tea is facetiously associated here with communion, which is an action, therefore a form of self-commitment. By associating communion with tea and toast, Prufrock minimalizes the significance of his would-be act by the same mechanism of self-defense he had employed in the couplet “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” which he repeats here again, quite appropriately.

But the next “And indeed there will be time” (line 38) is itself a complete “revision”:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

(38-49)

Here time becomes a sinister element, and from this point forward Prufrock is no longer pretending that he is going to make his visit.

Prufrock extends the casual meaning of “having time” into the generalization of time as an inescapable finite of human existence (time as death or the “eternal Footman”), and as such he uses it as an argument against action. This is the old Ovidian theme of tempus edax rerum (present in the Elizabethan sonnet and in Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress,” the poem Prufrock alludes to later in his monologue) which is cleverly used by Prufrock as an inverted argument not for carpe diem (a suasio urging to action) but against it.

The act of “turning back” and “descending the stair” is given here, by Prufrock, a symbolic meaning, being man's journey in time. Seeing himself as reaching “nel mazzo del camin di nostra vita”; (symbolized in the poem by the top of the stairs) Prufrock visualizes his descent towards death so that the literal turning back and descending of the stairs becomes, by a trick of reasoning, a “necessity.” The logical outcome of Prufrock's argument is that since the end of action or movement in time is inaction, lack of movement, or death, and since “in a minute there is time / for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse,” why should one act at all, why “dare disturb the universe”?

Appropriately enough, when there is time for him to descend the stair of life, young Prufrock “becomes” a middle-aged man with a bald spot in the middle of his hair. This whole section is again a projection in time, wherein Prufrock playfully visualizes the future as something already “past,” thus evading the present.

The parenthetical remarks in the quotation above offer further “good” arguments against action, which would mean imminent collision with the other. Sartre's theory of self and other is by no means irrelevant here. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre, largely following Heidegger, makes three ontological distinctions: being-in-itself, being-for-itself, and the Other.5 Being-in-itself is being complete in itself, without any potentiality or movement. Being-for-itself is presence to itself or consciousness which implies a separation or “fall” from being-in-itself. With the Other, being-for-itself finds itself in the presence of others and experiences itself as an “object-to-be-looked-at.” Through this “look” the Other annihilates my world, by drawing me into his orbit and depriving me of my possibilities. Beneath the Other's look I experience my alienation. This is precisely what Prufrock is talking about in lines 56-62:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
And when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
                                        And how should I presume?

I can affirm my freedom only by dissociating myself from the Other, but this is impossible, for the existence of the Other is the only proof of my own existence. I can affirm myself only by transforming the Other into an object and the Other can affirm himself only by doing the same thing to me. It is this irreducible agon with the Other that Prufrock calls “presumption” and uses, in his consolatio, as a further argument against action.

In his projection as a middle-aged man, Prufrock has already “experienced” that which he is going to experience; he has already known all the “decisions” and “revisions”:

And I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons:
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
                                        So how should I presume? (50-55)

Likewise, he has already “experienced” love, which here is associated characteristically with the presumably distasteful image of a braceleted, bare, white arm appearing “downed with light brown hair” in the lamplight. By this impersonation Prufrock tries ironically to evade necessity by a retreat from possibility and this results (as he himself seems to be aware), in a complete denial of the self:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. (74-75)

At the same time, Prufrock tries, paradoxically, to evade the present or necessity by finding refuge in it. He argues as to the uselessness of action on the basis of his “past” experience, which becomes a sort of fate which determines his future. Thus, Prufrock ultimately seeks refuge in fatalism or determinism. He sacrifices his self to finitude, to the external circumstances of his environment—in other words, he “measures out” his life “with coffee spoons.”

The prevailing mood of this section is boredom or ennui. Since Prufrock denies his self-actualization he is confronted, like “the hollow men,” with emptiness or nothingness. So even if he were to “presume” to propose love, Prufrock argues, what could he say to the lady: That he has “gone at dusk through narrow streets / And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes / Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?” In other words, should he start his suasio by invoking not the tempus edax rerum but the ennui or the emptiness of life? But this would be useless since love, like the tea party, to Prufrock seems only another means of distraction or diversion which, once consummated, leaves the soul as empty as before. With Prufrock the classical rhetoric of action becomes a rhetoric of inaction and his so-called “love-song” turns into an unequivocal rejection of love. “And would it have been worth it, after all, / … / To have squeezed the universe into a ball.” (89; 95) This is a sour reply to Marvell's gleeful entreaty to his coy mistress:

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.(6)

Eliot's comment on Romeo and Juliet is relevant to what Marvell implies here and also to the kind of character Prufrock is: “In Romeo and Juliet the profounder dramatist shows his lovers melting into unconsciousness of their isolated self, shows the human soul in the process of forgetting itself.”7 Prufrock's problem is that he can not “forget himself” though he aspires towards it, but in the wrong way, wishing to be no more than “a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” This image is the objective correlative of a sort of emotional climax in Prufrock's monologue, being his complete denial of the use of consciousness. It is the logical outcome of the kind of despair he seems to be in, the “despair of weakness” or the “unwillingness to be one's self”:8 Prufrock eschews once more the “overwhelming question,” taking refuge in the image of the cat-like afternoon sleeping peacefully, “smoothed by long fingers.” But Prufrock does not let himself be “pinned down” quite so easily, because, a little later, he describes the afternoon as “malingering beside you and me,” and admits of being afraid at having seen “the greatness of his moment flicker,” thus showing that he is fully aware of his predicament. He turns his “despair of weakness” into “despair of defiance,” because, as Kierkegaard points out, it is ultimately “consciousness which makes the difference between despair and despair.” If the self

becomes conscious of the reason why it does not want to be itself, then the case is altered, then defiance is present, for then it is precisely because of this a man is despairingly determined to be himself. … First comes despair over the earthly or something earthly, then despair over oneself about the eternal. Then comes defiance, which really is despair by the aid of the eternal, the despairing abuse of the eternal in the self to the point of being despairingly determined to be oneself. … In this form of despair there is now a mounting consciousness of the self, and hence greater consciousness of what despair is and of the fact that one's condition is that of despair. Here despair is conscious of itself as a deed, it does not come from without as a suffering under the pressure of circumstances, it comes directly from the self. And, so after all, defiance is a new qualification added to despair over one's weakness.9

This is precisely the reason for Prufrock's defiant attitude throughout the last section of his “love song,” once he has seen “the greatness of his moment flicker” and “the eternal Footman hold his coat, and snicker.”

But before proceeding with the analysis of the last section, let us turn for a moment to the epigraph and examine its relevance to the situation in the poem. As critics have pointed out, the epigraph is taken from Dante's Inferno (XXVII, 61-66). It is the reply of Guido da Montefeltro, tormented in the eighth circle of Hell for the sin of perverting human reason by guile, to Dante's question about who he is:

If I thought my answer were to one who ever could return
to the world, this flame should shake no more;
But since none ever did return alive from this depth,
if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer thee.

Montefeltro's situation is relevant to Prufrock's in several ways. For one thing, Prufrock perverts human reason by guile which, just like Montefeltro, he ultimately practices upon himself.10 Also, Prufrock, since he is addressing his own self, speaks “senza tema d'infamia,” without fear of being overheard and judged by the outside world, by the Other. But there are further, less obvious, implications in the similarity of their situations. In Little Gidding the speaker remarks about prayer in words which also remind us of the Inferno:

                                                   … And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language
                                                  of the living.(11)

I think the key words here are “communication” and “language.” Being dead, Montefeltro can speak to Dante whom he supposes also to be dead. In a sense, Prufrock, like the “hollow men,” is dead, too. By refusing to act, he retreats from possibility and self-actualization, therefore from existence itself. Moreover, he “communicates” with the “language” of the dead, that is, with no language. We do not learn of his situation from him but through him. He, too, lives in hell, being tormented by self-consciousness. I use the word “self-consciousness” primarily in the sense of “being aware of oneself,” though the secondary sense is also relevant here: being aware of oneself impedes self-expression, whether it is speech or action. Prufrock's problem is also one of self-expression, including the linguistic level (note, for instance, his “That is not what I meant at all! / That is not it, at all”, or “it is impossible to say just what I mean!”). In hell, which is the realm of despair, consciousness becomes perverted, stinging itself to death like a scorpion. Prufrock has no speech for what he is trying to say because his thought reaches a point where it annihilates itself. For Eliot, as for Kierkegaard, human consciousness is a reflexive act, and as such it must be put to use, it must reflect something other than itself. And this other ultimately relates to God which is precisely consciousness free of necessity or finitude. Kierkegaard's description of the predicament of modern human consciousness which attempts to set itself up as infinitude, as origin of all things, but ends up as despairing finitude, applies word for word to Prufrock's own situation. In this light it is only appropriate that Prufrock should want to become a “pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”12 However, ironically, Prufrock does not understand the full implication of this “recognition.” From this point forward, he tries to forget himself, but in the wrong way. Dismissing the kind of despair in which, according to Kierkegaard (and St. Augustine), by the aid of the eternal the self has the courage to lose itself in order to gain itself (a recurrent theme in Eliot's later poetry), Prufrock plunges into the kind of despair in which, on the contrary, the self is not willing to begin by losing itself but wills to be itself. So Prufrock starts to “cheer himself up,” a process that continues to the last line of his monologue. I think that what Eliot says about Othello in his essay on “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” applies to Prufrock as well:

Othello is cheering himself up. He is endeavoring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona and is thinking about himself. Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatising himself against his environment … the human motive is primarily to take in himself?13

Indeed Prufrock suffers from the same kind of bovarysme, defined by Eliot as the “human will to see things as they are not.”14 His game of cheering himself up differs, though, from that of Othello. Appropriately, Othello cheers himself up with the rhetoric of the heroic. No less appropriately, Prufrock uses the playful rhetoric of the mock-heroic, or that of the eiron:15

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)
                              brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter; (82-85)

Adopting the characteristic self-effacing attitude of the eiron, he says that though he has seen into his future as a middle-aged bachelor victimized by women, “here's no great matter,” for he is hardly a prophet who, by his visionary gifts, acquires heroic stature. The specific reference to St. John the Baptist carries a further implication related to the parenthetical remarks earlier in the poem (“How his hair is growing thin,” etc.) and therefore to the theory of Autrui. Prufrock is symbolically (as St. John the Baptist was literally) “murdered” through women who “pin him down,” “wriggling on the wall.” By their supposed unwillingness to “sing” to him, that is, make love to him, they represent the Other or the concealed death of his possibilities.16

Prufrock is a special type of eiron, a sort of “bully of humility.” An unmodified type of eiron pretends to be less than he is. Prufrock pretends to be less than he thinks he is (and so, ironically, he turns into an alazon). This becomes obvious when he compares himself (unfavorably) with Hamlet but nevertheless eventually ascribes to himself the role of the Fool, a much respected type of eiron:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool. (115-123)

Prufrock derives a great deal of rhetorical delight from seeing himself as playing second fiddle, but he still has the vanity to cast himself in the role of the jester. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, and in this respect he can also be compared to Guido da Montefeltro: they are both in “bad faith,” in the full sense of that phrase.

The character of Prufrock has been described as tragic. I do not think this is the case, as the tone of the poem works against such an interpretation. Perhaps Eliot himself supplies us with an answer here. In his essay on “Rhetoric and ‘Poetic Drama’” he states that “the really fine rhetoric of Shakespeare occurs in situations where a character in the play sees himself in a dramatic light.” Prufrock has, too, what Eliot calls a “dramatic sense,” “a sense which is almost a sense of humor for when anyone is conscious of himself as acting, something like a sense of humor is present.”17 By virtue of his “dramatic sense,” Prufrock belongs in the gallery of Romantic heroes of the Cyrano de Bergerac or Laforguian type, verging more on the comic than on the tragic. But one should nevertheless point out that, despite his sense of humor and his intellectual games, Prufrock cannot be described as truly playful; he hardly ever forgets himself, taking himself far too seriously, even in his self-deprecating moods. In other words, he lacks that quality of sprezzatura that his Renaissance and Baroque models display so brilliantly. And it is perhaps this quality itself that generally separates a Romantic or Modernist “self-conscious” hero such as Prufrock from its Renaissance or Baroque counterpart.18

The last stanza of the poem seems to be another dramatic recognition, but it is again a false one:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown. (134-136)

The syntax here is again ambiguous, like Prufrock's divided mind. The normal sequence of tenses would have been as follows: “We lingered in the chambers of the sea till human voices woke us and we drowned.” Thus read, the sentence would have implied that “we” (Prufrock's self) “drowned” because “we” “lingered by the chambers of the sea” (in the world of dreams). By using the present tense, Prufrock completely turns around the relation of causality in the sentence, implying that “we drown” because “human voices wake us.” Note that in this case “we” and “us” no longer represent the two components of Prufrock's self, but become impersonal, sententious. Changing his mind half-way through the sentence, Prufrock actually ends up protesting against the human voices (the outside world), viewed as the Other, as la mort cachée de possibilités. Thus, by a last twist of rhetoric, he “chooses” to deceive himself to the very end.

By remaining blind to the double nature of human consciousness, Prufrock throws himself into a double-bind, denying existence itself and becoming a “hollow man.” Viewed in this light, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” prefigures the ampler existentialist descriptions of the predicament of modern consciousness in The Waste Land, “The Hollow Men” and, in part, the Ariel Poems. This predicament will eventually find its resolution in Ash Wednesday and The Four Quartets, and Eliot will follow a spiritual path similar not only to that of Kierkegaard but also to that of Heidegger, where the deceitful game of consciousness finally dissolves into Being or into the eternal, ecstatic play of the world.19

Notes

  1. Regarding the “plot” of the poem, critics usually refer us to Henry James' story, “Crapy Cornelia” (1909) in which a middle-aged bachelor, White Mason, visits a young widow named Cornelia Washington in order to propose marriage but changes his mind, because of differences in their ages and temperaments. However, there is nothing in the poem that might indicate that matrimony is on Prufrock's mind. I raise this seemingly trivial point because it is of some consequence in the light of the present interpretation. If Prufrock intended to propose nothing less than marriage, the mood of the poem would be inappropriate. His inability to choose would have had a well-grounded psychological support inasmuch as even staunch spirits have been known to shy away from matrimony. But as Prufrock himself says, “here's no great matter.” Moreover, as will become apparent in this essay, I take seriously Eliot's statement, made casually in one of his lectures (as Hugh Kenner reports in “Bradley in T. S. Eliot,” A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Hugh Kenner, New York, 1962), that Prufrock is a young man and not a middle-aged bachelor.

  2. “You and me” would have been correct in a strictly grammatical sense. Actually, Prufrock's grammar is rather erratic throughout the poem. This linguistic imprecision or vagueness, besides rendering the monologue “plausible,” testifies to Prufrock's chronic incapacity to “make up his mind.”

  3. Despite the obvious dissimilarity between the two poems as far as “poetic diction” is concerned, I think that their themes are closely related. The speaker in Keats' poem, whose sense is “pained” by “drowsy numbness” (a good phrase to use in describing Prufrock's own state) is sinking “Lethewards,” i.e., he seeks to escape from “the fever” and the “fret” of “reality” into the realm of dreams. And he achieves this through “fancy.” Towards the end the speaker becomes “undeceived” for a moment, the word “forlorn” acting like a “bell” to toll him back to his “sole self.” He seems to be able to transcend his fantasy by being aware that “the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is famed to do, deceiving elf” (cf. “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea,” etc.). However, the poem ends like “Prufrock” on an ambiguous note, a sort of reluctant acknowledgement of the “on-handedness” of the outside world, but seen negatively as a limiting factor of the self.

  4. All citations from “Prufrock” will be from T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc.: New York, 1958).

  5. For the ensuing discussion see J. P. Sartre: Being and Nothingness, an Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes, (New York, 1956), Part III, Chapter 7, “The Look,” pp. 252-300.

  6. Andrew Marvell, “To his Coy Mistress,” Seven Centuries of Verse, ed. A. J. Smith (New York, 1957), p. 202. Here Prufrock has lost his game sense and is taking himself too seriously. For Marvell's playful spirit in this poem, see Frank J. Warnke's essay on “Amorous Agon, Erotic Flyting.”

  7. Selected Essays (New York, 1932), p. 29.

  8. In his book, The Sickness unto Death (trans. by Walter Lowrie, Princeton University Press: Princeton, N. J., 1954), Kierkegaard elaborates a phenomenology of despair which I have used as background for the discussion of “Prufrock” in this essay. According to Kierkegaard, despair is a disruption or disproportion of the two components of the self. The two components are necessity (the determinant of self as having been) and possibility (the determinant of self as being not yet). There are two primary forms of despair: the despair of not willing to be one's self (the despair of weakness) and the despair of desperately willing to be one's self (defiant despair). In the “despair of weakness,” necessity outruns possibility. In the “defiant despair,” possibility absorbs necessity and finitude is lost in a continuous striving after infinity. Both these types of despair have in common the desire of the self to get rid of itself.

  9. Sickness unto Death, p. 201.

  10. Guido da Montefeltro, according to his own account in Canto XXVII, was a counselor to Pope Boniface VIII who asked him for advice about how to deal with an enemy. In return for the Pope's promise of divine absolution for his evil counsel, Montefeltro advised lunga promessa con l'attender corto (long promise and short observance) not realizing until it was too late that the Pope had employed the very same trick in his own case. Montefeltro also attempted to cheat his way into heaven by turning from a soldier into a Franciscan monk just before his death. Despite St. Francis' plea in his favor, “one of the Black Angels” won the argument and seized his soul, with the ironic comment that he was as good a “logician” (sophist) as Montefeltro was. Prufrock also seems to be a perverted logician or sophist who drives himself into the double-bind of (in)action (all inaction is already a kind of action) and thus ends up in a hell of his own making.

  11. Complete Poems and Plays, p. 139.

  12. At this point I should remark that there were at least two (logically opposed) concepts of consciousness available at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the one hand there was consciousness as part of the universal spirit (Hegel and the whole Hegelian tradition, including Kierkegaard) and, on the other hand, consciousness as an instrument of the will and, consequently, as a historical, non-transcendental category (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, etc.). Eliot's concept is clearly the Hegelian one. For a useful review of some of the contemporary theories of consciousness see Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Princeton, 1978). Jaynes' own theory is a provocative combination of the two main traditional views. I may add that what we have come to call “modern consciousness” or what Eliot himself calls “dissociation of sensibility” is placed by various thinkers at various historical moments, ranging from the “Fall of Man” to the Renaissance, the eighteenth, or even the twentieth century. For a full discussion of the theoretical implications of the “fiction of the golden age” (Vaihinger) for modernism, see my review-article on “Matei Calinescu: Faces of Modernity,”; in Comparative Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Winter 1981), pp. 79-83.

  13. Selected Essays, p. 111.

  14. Ibid., p. 111.

  15. I use here Northrop Frye's classification of comic characters in Anatomy of Criticism (New York, 1969), pp. 171-173.

  16. Here Prufrock also alludes, in all likelihood, to the Sirens episode in the Odyssey, again “measuring” himself up against a traditional hero. The allusion gains further significance from the fact that Dante himself contrasts Ulysses to Guido da Montefeltro. For an excellent discussion of Ulysses as a heroic figure in Canto XXVI of the Inferno, see Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert (Princeton, 1979), Chapter II, “Rhetoric and History.”

  17. Selected Essays. p. 26.

  18. Gerald Guinness makes a somewhat similar point in this section, when he presents Donne as a self-conscious but playful virtuoso. If Donne is “playing for life,” surely Prufrock is playing for death, thereby turning into a “hollow man.”

  19. In the present essay I have examined only those aspects of the problematic of consciousness which appear in young Eliot and I have tried to show that Eliot saw this problematic in terms similar to those of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and, to some extent, Sartre. Another essay would be needed to look at Eliot's solution to this question in his later work, where, like Heidegger, he advocates a melting of the self into the ecstatic movement of the world or the play of Being. In fact one may argue that in his poetry Eliot provides a link between Kierkegaard and twentieth-century existentialist thought. However, this does not necessarily imply that Eliot was “influenced” by or consciously used existentialist concepts, nor, conversely, that Heidegger or Sartre were “influenced” by Eliot. On the contrary, the main thesis underlying my study is that “Prufrock” and Eliot's work in general can be seen as an instance of how literature may go hand in hand with philosophy and other fields of knowledge in creating a certain cultural paradigm in the Western world. For further elaboration of this thesis as well as for a full presentation of the concept(s) of play that I have employed in this essay, see my book Literature, Mimesis and Play (Tubingen, 1982).

Joseph Bentley (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Action and the Absence of Speech in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,” in Yeats Eliot Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 145-8.

[In the following essay, Bentley argues that Prufrock's failures are the result of his inability to articulate his needs.]

Late in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the demoralized persona sums himself up with the poignant line. “And in short, I was afraid.” Commentators on the poem usually assume that he is afraid of women, afraid of people, afraid of life itself. He is thus regarded as a pitiful neurotic and a failed dandy. I do not wish to dispute these commentaries. As far as they go they are correct even though they fail to see the aspect of Prufrock which can almost be called heroic. But when we read the poem with an awareness that Eliot was an apprentice philosopher when he wrote it, we cannot easily ignore the presence of arguments, questions, descriptions and other modes of verbal activity which occasion and give form to Prufrock's fear. In what follows I will argue that the cause of Prufrock's misery is the necessity of existing through the medium of speech.

Two preliminary points must be made before considering the poem as a set of variations on the fear of language. First, we must note that language is traditionally the means to both contemplation and worldly action. In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt distinguishes between the life of contemplation devoted to the discovery of eternal truth and the life of worldly action. The medium of worldly action is self-assertive speech, a sequence of verbal renditions which reveal an individual's essential being. Dante, in the Vita Nuova, had worldly speech in mind when he wrote the following passage:

For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer, whether he acts from natural necessity or out of freewill, is the disclosure of his own image. Hence it comes about that every doer, in so far as he does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desires its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows … Thus, nothing acts unless [by acting] it makes patent its latent self.

Prufrock, we must note, rejects both action and contemplation. The opportunities for “making patent his latent self” are there in the rooms full of eyes and voices. The language of action fails him, and he has also evaded those “overwhelming questions” which might have led him into an alternative mode, the life of contemplation. By abandoning both thought and social action, he loses his chances of participating in the two categories of existence provided by western tradition.

The second preliminary point concerns the nature of philosophy in the early twentieth century. The emergent concept in 1910 was that philosophy was obliged to become a self-referential activity if it was to maintain its authenticity. This means, in simple terms, that the language of discourse was a problem of greater concern than any of those subjects philosophers traditionally discoursed upon. An overwhelming question like, “What is the value of life?” was no longer the first stage in a quest for an answer. It was itself the object of study, a study which quickly revealed that the question was only verbal behavior of an eccentric and confused sort with no recognizable meaning at all. It was a pseudo-question because its terms could not be defined. As Nietzsche pointed out in The Twilight of the Idols, the only useful response to it was to speculate on what kind of diseased mentality would take it seriously. “The value of life,” he says, “cannot be assessed by the living because they are interested parties and thus not fit judges.” It cannot be assessed by the dead either—“for a different reason.” To put it briefly, answers no longer overwhelm us by being difficult and uncertain; questions overwhelm us by being impossible for a judicious person to ask.

On a fundamental level “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a dramatization of the impossibility of asking questions—both in the realm of contemplation and the realm of action. On a more generalized level it presents a vivid rendering of the fear that all language evokes in those who, like Prufrock, sense that it is no longer a valid medium of self-assertion and self-disclosure. The poem suggests, illustrates, and evades such language modes as love song, confession, argument, explanation, and description. In the process the poem calls into serious question the truth of all assumptions about the formal coherence of speech, speaker, and subject of speech. “It is impossible to say just what I mean,” says Prufrock. If we are to have a chance of understanding him, we must understand the exact nature of his inability to find words and a syntax adequate to his message. We must note that language is the substance of Prufrock's inner self and thus the necessary means of acting out, maintaining, disclosing and even having more than an inchoate inner self. When we feel Prufrock's sense of a dissonant relation between himself and his verbal renditions of himself, we must also feel with him that language is an inevitable covering up of reality, not a disclosing from which “delight necessarily follows.” Speech is a set of falsifications like clothing, grooming, perfume, fantasizing, and elegant phrasemaking, not a sequence of enactments of one's true being emerging at the center of an on-going drama which is the essential self.

We can now proceed to clarify and demonstrate these assertions by looking closely at the text: Before the poem begins we encounter two examples of language denying itself. The title announces a love song by someone whose way of giving his name defines a remote formality that clashes with the mood of a love song. Al, Alfie, Fred, or even Alfred Prufrock may sing such a song, but “J. Alfred Prufrock” can only conjure the image of a public functionary. Those who part their names on the left do not suggest intimacy. The epigraph from Dante denies language in another way. Guido will confess because no one will hear him. He communicates his terror, even in hell, of what people will think of his inner being. Already condemned by God, Guido still fears the condemnation of men. In the poem to follow no love song is sung and a confession is heard only because we are, like Dante, temporary residents in the speaker's hell.

The poem opens with symmetrical tropes which change the free-floating insubstantials of evening and sky into the hard substantiality of patient and table, followed by a reversal of rhetoric which changes the substantiality of streets into the insubstantiality of an argument. We discover a dialectic of abstract and concrete with the speaker's mind functioning as an unstable synthesis. We must consider what happens here carefully, for it established the concept of what follows. The first trope begins with the second line: “When the evening is spread out against the sky …” Evening is neither a thing nor a time of day; it is a quality of light, grammatically a noun but actually an adjective. The same must be said of the sky; it is a quality of light and the illusion of a shape. It is also an adjective. The two terms are in fact synonyms, but they are connected by a verb phrase, “spread out against,” which is appropriate to the contiguity of two solid objects, like a body on an operating table. Quite simply, the opening lines of the poem cannot be accurate descriptions of the world. Adjectives do not relate to each other in a manner appropriate to the relations of nouns to each other. The emotional power of resonances emanating from the figure etherized on a table is such that we are apt to miss the fact that it is a metaphor of an environment which cannot exist at all.

In passing we must recall that this kind of linguistic dislocation occurs frequently in Eliot's early poetry. In “Morning at the Window” the fog tears the smile from a woman's face. The smile then hovers in the air and vanishes behind the roof tops. And in “Preludes” we encounter the line, “His soul stretched tight against the sky.” In such cases we are in the presence of a need to describe the world as it cannot exist, to substitute a verbally conjured actuality for the actuality that we have in common. Language thus creates a private world not only unique to the speaker but unique to his moment. Speaker, speech, and things spoken of all have different forms; they are isolated from each other in a world where the power of contrast obliterates the power of similarity. In such a context metaphor is present to dramatize the inauthenticity of metaphor.

In the lines following the first trope “Prufrock” continues the process of illustrating the lack of coherence between describer, description, and things described. The streets, we learn, are retreats which “mutter”; they speak, after a fashion, but say nothing we can understand. Also, the hotels, which we wish to regard as low rent retreats, themselves somehow use the streets as places into which to retreat during restless nights. As readers we want the text to make sense of some kind, so we usually try not to read too closely at this point. As critics we may try to make sense of it by showing that some sort of synecdoche is functioning in which streets contain hotels which contain retreats which contain muttering. Both readings falsify the text. Let us accept the fact that it makes no literal sense at all to evoke “half-deserted streets / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.” It is in that lack of empirical precision that the poem's identity and meaning reside. It is not the elegantly balanced nonsense that Elizabeth Sewell found borrowed from Lewis Carroll; it is the nonsense that arises when language is exposed as an autotelic structure with only accidental relations with the realities it attempts to capture.

From this perspective we are ready to perceive that the “argument of insidious intent” and the “patient etherized upon a table” are parallel, symmetrical tropes. One masks an impressionistic evening and sky, while the other rescues us from a surrealistic jumble of streets, hotels, and other urban bric-a-brac. The “argument,” however, is an on-going process with its own tendencies which will not allow it to remain locked into a balanced position opposite to that patient on the table. It leads to an overwhelming question that we are requested not to ask about. Language about qualities has led to language about objects, but that has quickly reverted to language about language the speaker prefers not to specify. Note that the sequence of argument and question has been reversed. Traditionally, a question leads to an argument. Here the question is the dead end of speech as a mode of knowing.

The most distressing aspect of this opening part of the poem will be manifest if we see it as a monologue emerging from the philosophic traditions of Europe. Descartes, to use the most famous and accessible example, wanted to answer the question, “What can I know?” His answer was the well known cogito ego sum. The fact that he is processing data (thinking, as he quaintly put it) proves that he exists. The existence of thinking demonstrates the existence of a thinker. In syntactic terms this means that a predicate cannot exist without a subject. Although this may be true when the concern is declarative sentences in the Indo-European languages, it is not a valid assertion about human or any other kind of existence. Nietzsche summed up the problem with one vivid sentence: “Perhaps we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” We and the rest of the world seem to be a predicate, so a metaphysical subject has to exist—if the universe wishes to satisfy our desires for syntactic decorum. Once philosophical enquiry focused itself on its own tools, the chances for demonstrating any absolutes, including both God and an essential self, vanished. No serious thinker was likely to require either himself or the universe to conform to the customs of a notoriously finite syntax. For Prufrock this means that the cogito must work as follows: I think—but only about insubstantials; therefore I exist—but only as an insubstantial. I use metaphors to change them into solids; therefore, insofar as I am a substantial entity, I am only a metaphor that masks rather than reveals my existence.

Here, then, is the guilty secret Prufrock carries and wishes at all costs to conceal. He is a tangle of metaphors pretending to be a person. He is the opposite of a solipsist. Other people exist, or appear to exist, whereas he cannot escape the knowledge that he is an emptiness hidden by talk, clothing, a body, and a repertoire of prepared faces. His proposed visit to the salon where women speak of Michelangelo is an attempt to find a refuge from the overwhelming language which arises in the streets. In the salon big issues are drained of importance. Questions are lifted and dropped on a plate, like bitten macaroons. They are used as material to be shaped into playfully motivated verbal structures, phrases valued for their symmetry, their form rather than for their content. Prestige in the salon is awarded to those most adept in using elegant self-referential language. This does away with the anxiety questions in a straightforward speech inspire. But Prufrock fears the use of this language aimed at himself. When someone says, “How his hair is growing thin!” or “How his arms and legs are thin!” he quickly shifts the focus to his clothing: “My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to my chin / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.” Clothing and grooming are used here as they were used by Swift in A Tale of a Tub. An emphasis on surfaces hides the painful facts which lie beneath them. Decoration deflects attention from the fact that there is nothing to decorate beyond a pattern of nerves. Prufrock realizes that the evasion will not succeed among people who use language to fix, formulate, and trap people as though they were objects. In the salon discourse is a contest of phrasemakers in which the loser is exposed as less than a person.

The salon offers insulation from the consequences of using language seriously, but in doing so the salon transforms language into an arsenal of aphoristic weapons. The cost of this insulation from reality is too great for Prufrock to pay. The price is nothing less than the reduction of language and selfhood to a parody of quotidian labor. Hannah Arendt's analysis of worldly activity is indispensible here. She notes that the western tradition defines three types of behavior which constitute the Vita Activa: labor, work, and action. The first is quotidian, daily, in need of endless repetition. Labor includes such necessities of nature as cooking, cleaning, farming, and so on. It is cyclical. Work is different in that it produces durable objects. It attempts to create a permanent environment of artificial things that stand in contrast to the tedium of nature. Action, in contrast to both labor and work, is political and social speech which takes for its purpose nothing more than the assertion of the actor's essential self. Action is an attempt to imprint the essence of a temporary individual upon the permanent assemblage we call humanity. It assumes the unfolding through speech of a story that has the private self as its public central figure.

With these distinctions in mind we can see the implications of Prufrock's refusal to join those who reduce action to repetitive labor in an environment of artificial works. The allusion to Hesiod's Works and Days is also clear: the Greek epic of agrarian existence evokes the life of labor that by definition must be locked into the quotidian cycles of nature. In a catalogue of activities for which there is time. Prufrock includes “time for all the works and days of hands that lift and drop a question on your plate.” The life of ancient farmers is superimposed on the high bourgeois salon to drive home the point that an escape from language through stylized chit-chat is an abandonment of the possibility of self-disclosure through action. In his chapter on Petronius in Mimesis, Auerbach makes a valuable point. The Trimalchio episode, he argues, is dominated by the imagery of dailiness, triviality, and the merely repetitive. When the scene is permeated with such things as coffee spoons, neckties, tea, cakes, and ices, the message, Auerbach suggests, is the condition of being confined within one's own time in history, blocked from any sense of contact with tradition. Such images he therefore calls “intrahistorical,” for the sense of intrahistoricity precludes any activity behind the rhythms of birth, copulation, and death.

Prufrock is caught between two painful choices, the streets where serious questions assail him and the salon where no serious questions are permitted. It is a brilliant irony that language is reduced to intrahistorical labor in the salons of the leisure class while language strives to emerge as contemplation in the proletarian environment of “lonely men in shirt sleeves leaning out of windows.” Prufrock, however, cannot appreciate the irony. He can accept neither choice, so he moves into a mental terrain made up of failed fantasies, literature, and myth. Here he can measure himself in contrast to Lazarus, John the Baptist, Hamlet, and the sea-girls of myth. He cannot be Lazarus because there is no life suitable to be brought back to, he escapes the fate of John because he does not commit the social error of getting serious at a tea party, and he is not like Hamlet because he cannot become the selfdisclosing central figure in his own story. He is only “an attendant lord,” a peripheral presence in the psychological misadventures which cloak and conceal his existence.

This series of contrasts leads him first into self-mocking trivializations of questions—“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”—and then into the poem's final locations, beach and “chambers of the sea.” Realizing that he is blocked from both the language of contemplation and the language of social action, he withdraws from the world altogether and moves into the realm of myth. It is plain that he is fantasizing the refuge of unconsciousness in the womb of an archetypal sea. He is neither the etherized patient nor the pair of ragged claws evoked earlier; he is more like the “irresponsible fetus … submarine and profound” from “Mr. Apollinax.” It is also plain that he still fears language, for the intrusion of human voices will wake and drown him. What is not so apparent, however, is that he has identified mermaids with sirens and reversed the positions of myth and reality. The song of sirens is an irresistible death trap; it lures men to death by drowning with the mirage of safe harbor and home. When Prufrock hears them singing to each other, he does not believe they will sing to him. If we do not recall the deadly effect of siren songs, we are apt to mistake this passage for one of Prufrock's self-fulfilling prophecies of failure with women. Exactly the opposite is the case here; after Ulysses and the argonauts, he is the first man to hear such a song and survive. Only human voices are a deadly peril. The women of the salon have changed places with the sirens of myth.

When seen from the perspective I have offered, Prufrock is something more than the pathetic and ridiculous figure usually discussed by critics as a case history or a symptom of decadence. He has good reason to fear the language patterns available in the world. Those patterns are threats to his life and to ours. He rejects the world—in the manner of the central figures in both satire and hagiography—and reverses the positions of reality and myth. By so doing he creates a new kind of reality. He is certainly not a conventional hero, but because he does not accept what is available, and because he finally tries to invent a fresh alternative, he deserves some measure of respect.

Donald J. Childs (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Knowledge and Experience in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,” in ELH, Vol. 55, Fall, 1988, pp. 685-99.

[In the following essay, Childs discusses the influence of the philosophy of F. H. Bradley on Eliot and “Prufrock.”]

But what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning—or without forgetting, merely changing.

—T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Although scholars and critics became aware of F. H. Bradley's influence upon T. S. Eliot at a relatively late point in the latter's career, the relationship between the two writers has now been extensively documented. The studies of Kristian Smidt and Hugh Kenner led to a number of books and articles on this subject in the early sixties.1 This research culminated, largely through the efforts of Anne C. Bolgan, in the publication in 1964 of Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley—in effect, Eliot's 1916 dissertation on “Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley,” supplemented by his articles on Bradley and Leibnitz in The Monist (1916).2 Not surprisingly, the publication of Eliot's dissertation only increased enthusiasm for research into Bradley's influence upon his criticism and poetry. Indeed, so much has been published on the subject throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties that a recent reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, perhaps intimidated by the sheer amount of such research, attempted to dismiss most of it as unimportant. Reviewing yet another book on Bradley and Eliot, he suggested that “The pioneer work on Eliot's philosophy and its pervasive presence in his poetry was done by Hugh Kenner in The Invisible Poet and there is not a very great deal of importance to be added.” He did allow, however, that the book he was reviewing had advanced the subject beyond Kenner in providing “a much stronger sense than we had before of how profoundly imbued with philosophy is Eliot's imagination, both as critic and poet.”3 This, in fact, has been the general achievement of the research that the reviewer so easily dismissed; one can no longer hope to comprehend Eliot's imaginative achievements without also comprehending Bradley's pervasive influence upon them.

In the end, then, scholars and critics have been trying to prove what Eliot announced in the very beginning:

Few will ever take the pains to study the consummate art of Bradley's style, the finest philosophic style in our language, in which acute intellect and passionate feeling preserve a classic balance: only those who will surrender patient years to the understanding of his meaning. But upon these few, both living and unborn, his writings perform that mysterious and complete operation which transmutes not one department of thought only, but the whole intellectual and emotional tone of their being.4

Those who have taken Eliot's implied advice here and studied Bradley (and studied him with Eliot in mind) have concluded that virtually everything Eliot wrote after encountering Bradley's philosophy is colored by it. The metaphor here is Kenner's: “It is precisely as a stain, imparting color to all else that passes through, that Bradley is most discernible in Eliot's poetic sensibility.”5 Eliot's first important poem, however, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” would seem to be uncolored by Bradley's thought, for the poem was completed between 1910 and 1911, and Eliot apparently did not begin his study of Bradley until 1913. As Kenner observes, “there is no evidence that Eliot paid [Bradley] any attention until after he had written ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady.’ (He did not buy his own copy of Appearance and Reality until mid-1913).”6 In fact, Eliot may have been reading Bradley before 1913, but it is not likely that he was reading him before he composed “Prufrock.”7 Granting all this, however, I would nonetheless like to argue that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a poem closely linked to Eliot's work on Bradley. It is a poem that influences Eliot's understanding of Bradley, and it is also a poem that Eliot comes to see in a Bradleyan light. In fact, the poem offers a reading of the dissertation and the dissertation a reading of the poem.

That “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was on Eliot's mind in 1915 and 1916, as he was completing his dissertation, seems certain. He sent the finished dissertation to Harvard in January or February of 1916. In January of 1915, in a letter to Harriet Monroe attempting to persuade her to publish “Prufrock,” Ezra Pound explained that Eliot would not agree to the deletion of the “Hamlet” verse paragraph.8 Pound had been campaigning, and would continue to campaign for the next six months, to have Harriet Monroe publish the poem (which she did in June of 1915). As the letter of January 1915 suggests, Pound probably kept Eliot informed of his progress with Monroe while the campaign was under way. In August, Pound sent Monroe another batch of Eliot's poems. Finally, in June of 1916, Eliot himself wrote to Monroe, explaining that he thought “Prufrock” better than his other poems written between 1909 and 1911.9 By this point, furthermore, it would seem that Eliot was suffering from a period of poetic sterility so severe that he felt he might never again produce anything as good as “Prufrock.” He wrote to his brother in September of 1916, in fact, to say that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” might prove to be his “swansong.”10

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.(11)

Critics have made these opening lines to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the cornerstone of their readings of the poem. The central preoccupation has been with the notorious distinction between “you and I.” According to George Williamson, the reference of the pronoun “you” is not at all clear: “The ‘I’ is the speaker, but who is the ‘you’ addressed? The title would suggest a lady, but the epigraph suggests a scene out of the world, on a submerged level.” Grover Smith, however, explains the reference of the pronoun “you” and suggests that the distinction between “you and I” is the framework for the Prufrockian dialectic: “By a distinction between ‘I’ and ‘you’ [Prufrock] differentiates between his thinking, sensitive character and his outward self. … He is addressing, as if looking into a mirror, his whole public personality. His motive seems to be to repudiate the inert self, which cannot act, and to assert his will.” In her Jungian interpretation of the poem, Joyce Meeks Jones reaches a similar conclusion: Prufrock, she argues, is an extrovert “who is unable to resolve the conflict between the demands of his own individuality, and those of his persona, or social mask. In consequence, he struggles helplessly in an eternal hell of self-estrangement and moral indecision.” Carol T. Christ finds that Prufrock's “fictions insulate and preserve him in a solipsistic dream world, a chamber of the sea.” “Prufrock,” she writes, “begins with a definite address and invitation … but … so deliberately avoids defining its events and audience that we question whether the poem records any interchange with a world external to the speaker's consciousness.” Hugh Kenner looks to the epigraph for a clue as to the function of “you and I”; he sees in the poem a liaison between Dante's journey through hell, led by Virgil, and Prufrock's journey through the city streets led by “you”—“a liaison between [Prufrock's] situation and Dante's which is all the smoother for the reflective, lingering rhythm of the opening phrase.” Joseph Chiari develops a similar line: “you and I” are part of” an internal monologue which is not meant to be heard,” just as Guido de Montefeltro's words are not to be taken back to the land of the living. “Obviously it is not only the evening which is etherized upon a table but also the speaker, who is in a kind of inferno-like situation.”12

For F. O. Matthiessen, however, the question is academic. That is, the first three lines of “Prufrock” are too academic; they are “too studied.” The conceits in the lines in question have the look of “coming into existence not because the poet's mind has actually felt keenly an unexpected similarity between unlikes but as though he too consciously set out to shock the reader.” The problem for Matthiessen lies not so much in the distinction between “you and I” as in the comparison between the evening spread out against the sky and the patient etherized upon a table: “Even though the reader can perceive wherein the comparison holds, he may still have the sensation that it is too intellectually manipulated, not sufficiently felt.”13

I would agree with Matthiessen that the opening metaphors are to some extent “intellectually manipulated.” I would perhaps disagree with his charge that they are “not sufficiently felt.” As Eliot himself pointed out in his dissertation, “There is no greater mistake than to think that feeling and thought are exclusive—that those beings which think most and best are not also those capable of the most feeling” (18). I would obviously agree with all of these scholars and critics that the “you and I,” the “evening spread out against the sky,” and the “patient etherised upon a table” are essential elements in any interpretation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” But what concerns me here are the implications of the distinction between “you and I” for the poem and the dissertation as readings of each other.

That Eliot actually recalled the first three lines of the poem in the very act of writing the dissertation is suggested by his use of the image that begins “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—the image of a patient spread out upon a table. The physician-patient metaphor, in which the subject or observer is the physician and the object or thing observed the patient, is one of Eliot's favorites. The Prufrockian patient appears in the dissertation:

Our only way of showing that we are attending to an object is to show that it and ourself are independent entities, and to do this we must have names. So that the point at which behaviour changes into mental life is essentially indefinite; it is a question of interpretation whether … expression which is repeated at the approach of the same object … is behaviour or language. In either case, I insist, it is continuous with the object; in the first case because we have no object (except from the point of view of the observer, which must not be confused with that of the patient under examination), and in the second case because it is language that gives us objects rather than mere ‘passions’.

(133)

The relation between subject as physician or “observer” and object as patient is central to understanding both the dissertation and the poem. In this passage, Eliot argues that subject and object are continuous except from the point of view of an observer (another subject that is a truly subjective self) who is able to regard the original subject as an object (an objective self)—in other words, as a “patient under examination.” The consciousness that is the speaking voice in “Prufrock” is apparently just such an observer, articulating the discontinuity between “you and I.” In the dissertation's terms, the Prufrockian observer is not the self as object or patient (the “I” observed), but the truly subjective self that is able to distinguish between object and objective self (that is, between “you and I”). That which is “spread out” and “etherised upon a table,” in short, is not just the evening, but also the self as object. Prufrock, as object, is the patient. And yet it is his absolutely subjective self that is the observer or physician. Just as there is no patient without physician, so in the poem there is no “you” without “I,” and so in the dissertation there is no language or object without observer. The metaphysical and epistemological implications of the Prufrockian metaphor, it seems, unfold in the dissertation.

Eliot develops the same medical metaphor in his early essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923): “Comparison and analysis need only the cadavers on the table,” he writes, “but interpretation is always producing parts of the body from its pockets, and fixing them in place.”14 Eliot's concern here is the same as that expressed in the epistemological context of his dissertation: he finds that interpretation introduces an epistemologically necessary second point of view, but he also finds that such a point of view inevitably produces only a relative truth—a truth relative to the point of view introduced, the point of view of the critic or reader. By the terms of Eliot's metaphor, then, the critic or reader is inevitably a coroner (dealing with dead fact or dead language, not with life or language as lived and living), but the critic or reader as interpreter is worse, for he or she is a dishonest coroner who supplies the body of fact or the body of the text with its missing parts from the pockets of his or her interpretation. As elaborated in 1923, therefore, the medical metaphor is still part of the original quest in “Prufrock” and the dissertation to discover an objective point of view on the relation between the self and its objects—its objects being determined, according to the dissertation, by language. In the poem, the dissertation, and the essay, the body on the table is a linguistic object. The poet (Prufrock), the philosopher (Eliot), and the critic (Anonymous) are all physicians, and in each case the fate of the patient is in doubt. In 1923, then, Prufrock's overwhelming question remains unanswered: “What is the nature of the relation between subject and object?”

The same medical metaphor appears in Four Quartets:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

(181)

In the Christian context of Eliot's writing in the 1940s, of course, the physician has become Christ. For Eliot at this time, poetry, philosophy, and criticism (or the act of reading in general) begin and end in a Christian point of view. But the patient remains the individual human self, the self as objectified in language (whether the language of Four Quartets or the language of the Christian liturgy). And just as in “Prufrock,” the dissertation, and “The Function of Criticism,” so in Four Quartets the relation between physician and patient is all important. Upon it—that is, upon the relation between self and other selves, subject and object, language and observer (or poem and reader)—depends the very nature of reality. As always, furthermore, the Eliotic inquiry into the nature of this relation produces not answers, but questions: questions about the nature of the relation between distempered part and wounded surgeon, between cadaver and coroner, between patient and physician, between language and observer—in short, questions about the relationship between “you and I.” I would suggest, then, that the metaphor in “Prufrock” that introduces this fundamental metaphorical, metaphysical, and epistemological relation gathers much of its subsequent significance from the implications for the relation between subject and object suggested in Eliot's dissertation on Bradley.

The Prufrockian echo of the word “patient” in Knowledge and Experience is admittedly not very loud, but the echo of the Prufrockian words “spread out” and “table” is: “We can never … wholly explain the practical world from a theoretical point of view,” Eliot suggests, “because this world is what it is by reason of the practical point of view and the world which we try to explain is a world spread out upon a table—simply there!” (136). Similarly, in his conclusion, he reminds his reader that “Theoretically, that which we know is merely spread out before us for pure contemplation, and the subject, the I, or the self, is no more consciously present than is the inter-cellular action” (154).

What were the first three lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” bringing back to mind? I suggest that by recalling them in 1915 Eliot was reevaluating the philosophy embodied in the poem. In these lines, that is, we find the philosophical attitude to the relationship between “you and I” that Eliot held in 1910 and 1911, an attitude that seems to have been informed by Bergsonism. Over thirty years after writing the poem, Eliot told an inquirer that he was a Bergsonian when he composed “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”15 Piers Gray, exploring the Bergsonian dimensions of the poem, notes that in the opening lines “the world, at least in so far as the evening may be synecdochic of it, is in a state of deep unconsciousness.”16 In the Bergsonian universe, he points out, such a state holds the greatest potential for real life, for it is not bound by the practical, goal-oriented consciousness. According to Bergson, consciousness restricts its use of memory to those memories which bear on the present goal: “that a recollection should reappear in consciousness, it is necessary that it should descend from the heights of pure memory down to the precise point where action is taking place.” “It is from the present,” Bergson continues, “that comes the appeal to which memory responds, and it is from the sensori-motor elements of present action that a memory borrows the warmth which gives it life.”17 Only in an unconscious state, then, can pure memory—in which resides the total of one's past—reappear. “To be etherized,” Gray therefore concludes, “is to be potentially open to the totality of one's past life.”18 The first three lines of the poem, therefore, suggest the etherized abdication of goal-oriented consciousness, an abdication that allows the uncontrolled descent from “pure memory” of the particular memories and images that haunt Prufrock throughout the poem and thwart action at every turn. As J. S. Brooker observes, “Prufrock, not the evening, is etherized upon a table. Like everything else in the poem, the tired, sleepy evening is an aspect of Prufrock's mind.”19

But the first three lines of the poem are even more closely related to Eliot's study of Bergson than this brief analysis of certain Bergsonian concepts might suggest. One finds the metaphor of the world “spread out” in space in Time and Free Will, Bergson's first book and the book Eliot quoted most frequently when writing on Bergson. “Our conception of number,” Bergson complains, “ends in spreading out in space everything which can be directly counted.” The problem with western philosophy, he suggests, is that we have imported the quantifiable aspects of that which is external and material into our notions of what is properly unquantifiable, that which is internal and immaterial: the unextended is thought of as though it were extended; in other words, it is spread out in space. In the end, the externality of material objects, he explains, “spreads into the depths of consciousness.” Consciousness, according to Bergson, is not a multiplicity of states, but a pure, undifferentiated duration; in fact, a plurality of conscious states is not observable, he argues, unless consciousness is “spread out” in space.20

Eliot picked up the same metaphor when as a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard he wrote about Bergson: “Berkeleyan space, I believe, as adapted by Bergson becomes, on the one hand, extension; and Bergson's space is the Berkeleyan pure space; for Berkeley non-existent; for Bergson the homogeneous medium spread out by our understanding as a substratum for extrinsic relations.” The image is as pervasive in Eliot's understanding of Bergson as it is in Bergson's writing: “The ‘travail utilaire’ of the ‘esprit,’” Eliot writes, “consists in a kind of refraction of pure duration across space.”21 There can be no doubt, then, that the opening lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” establish a Bergsonian context for the relation between “you and I,” sky and evening, patient and physician, and object and subject. And of course the relation is false, the distinction artificial. In Bergson's world, reality is a timeless, distinctionless, pure duration. The falseness of Prufrock's world, therefore, stems in part from the falseness of the categorical distinctions (between “you and I”) by which his consciousness proceeds.

What, then, did Eliot see in “Prufrock” four or five years after completing it? How did he himself read the opening lines of the poem in 1915 and 1916? What light does the dissertation throw upon Eliot's later interpretation of the distinction between “you and I”? In short, what was Bradley's influence upon Eliot's reading of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”?

In noting in his dissertation that the epistemologist's world is “a world spread out upon a table—simply there,” Eliot distinguishes between the epistemologically theoretical and practical points of view. Reality, he suggests, is “an approximate construction, a construction essentially practical in its nature” (136). In other words, reality is a function of preconscious self-interest. The attempt to step beyond this point of view, that is, the attempt at objectivity, merely results in confusion, for one must then comprehend the internal from the point of view of the external. In the end, “We forget that what has grown up from a purely practical attitude cannot be explained by a purely theoretical [attitude]” (136). In short, “this world is what it is by reason of the practical point of view,” whereas the world one tries to explain by epistemological theory is placed before the mind as “a world spread out upon a table—simply there” (136). The epistemologist, in other words, is inevitably a dishonest coroner, producing parts of the body from his or her pockets and fixing them in place to suit his or her culturally and historically relative interpretation.

In rereading “Prufrock” during the writing of his dissertation, therefore, Eliot discovered that Prufrock's dilemma is the epistemologist's dilemma: how does one reconcile practice and theory, action and contemplation? On the one hand, Prufrock responds, or wishes to respond, to the exhortation to action (“Let us go then”), while, on the other, he contemplates—contemplates himself, that is, as though he were spread out upon an examination table. The disjunction is between the world as it exists according to Prufrock's practical point of view and the world as it exists beyond his immediate, practical interest—the world of theory, “spread out upon a table—simply there.” The disjunction, in other words, is between the practical point of view interested in women “Talking of Michelangelo” (13) and “Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)” (15), and the theoretical or absolute point of view of “Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all” (16)—presumably to tell of the absolute beyond the practical world.

Eliot also seems to have noted, while writing his dissertation, that the desire to contemplate the world spread out upon a table produces in both Bradley's and Prufrock's worlds a distinction between “you and I.” In theory, Eliot notes (using the Prufrockian metaphor), “that which we know is merely spread out before us for pure contemplation, and the subject, the I, or the self, is no more consciously present than is the inter-cellular action” (154). In practice, however, this preoccupation with a theoretical world spread out upon a table requires a relation between the world, as object, and the self, as object—“a relation which is theoretical and not merely actual, in the sense that the self as a term capable of relation with other terms is a construction” (155). That is, the self that does not immediately live or feel its experience is an object; the self as object (the “patient under examination”) is related to experience as object within the whole that is the self as subject. But “this self which is objectified and related is continuous and felt to be continuous with the self which is subject and not an element in that which is known” (155).

Two selves, therefore, are necessary to any attempt to know the world that is simply there, spread out upon a table. And yet one must know more than one's objective and subjective selves before one can determine the nature of that world; one must also know other selves. On the one hand, granted, the self “seems to depend upon a world which in turn depends upon it” (146). This is the substance of the quotation from Bradley's Appearance and Reality that Eliot includes in the infamous notes to The Waste Land: “My external sensations are no less private to my self than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it. … In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.”22 On the other hand, however, Eliot affirms that “the self depends as well upon other selves; it is not given as a direct experience, but is an interpretation of experience by interaction with other selves” (146). We thus “come to interpret our own experience as the attention to a world of objects, as we feel obscurely an identity between the experiences of other centres [or selves] and our own” (143). It is this felt identity, Eliot suggests, “which gradually shapes itself into the external world” (143).

It is presumably the defective relation of selves in “Prufrock,” the defective relation between “you and I,” that brought the poem to mind as Eliot wrote his dissertation. Prufrock's first distinction, between “you and I,” is necessary and inevitable, according to both Bradley and Eliot. Ultimately, however, Prufrock's self, both “you and I,” must interact with other selves—this is the “overwhelming question”—in order to begin to forge the identity of experience that will “gradually shape itself into the external world.” In adapting the Prufrockian metaphor to the Bradleyan context of his dissertation, Eliot seems to realize that both the Prufrockian and Bradleyan universes depend upon the relation of selves within them. Ironically, then, Prufrock's “overwhelming question” is just as important as he thinks it is. The nature of the universe actually does depend on whether or not he disturbs it.

In The Matrix of Modernism, Sanford Schwartz suggests a similar approach to the poem. He finds that the self-conscious personae of Eliot's early poems “constantly agonize over their encounters with other persons.” He explains the significance of the personae's confrontations with others in terms derived from Eliot's dissertation: “They are suspended between their external apprehension of others, whom they know directly through observable behaviour alone, and their internal apprehension of others as active centers of consciousness. These personae also experience a subject/object split within themselves. They are at once detached observers and conventional agents, spectators of their own participation in the social world.” “Prufrock,” Schwartz suggests, follows this pattern very closely. He warns, however, that “We should avoid the misconception that Eliot first formulated the ‘half-object’ [the Prufrockian object observed from both an internal and an external point of view] and then dramatized it in his poetry.” “Long before he wrote his dissertation,” Schwartz notes, “Eliot had composed ‘Prufrock,’ ‘Portrait of a Lady,’ and several other poems that exhibit the [dissertation's] internal-external point of view of the half-object.”23

But as Schwartz himself implies, that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” preceded Knowledge and Experience does not mean that there is no connection between the poem and the dissertation. In fact Eliot's recourse in his dissertation to certain Prufrockian metaphors suggests that he himself was aware of the connection. If in the usual chronology of cause and effect it would seem that Bradley did not influence the composition of “Prufrock,” the poem certainly influenced Eliot's articulation of his philosophical point of view in Knowledge and Experience. The Prufrockian metaphors repeated in the dissertation signal not just a coincidence of phrasing but also a coincidence of thought and feeling. The Bergsonian exploration in 1910 and 1911 of the way the subject distinguishes itself from the object (and so creates reality) by means of contaminated categories of time and space is taken up again in 1915 and 1916 in order to sort out the overwhelming question once more, this time from a Bradleyan point of view. Eliot began “Prufrock” from the Bergsonian presupposition that the relationship between sky and evening, object and subject, and “you and I” is false if that which is nonspatial is defined in terms of that which is spatial. The conclusion Eliot reached was that the Prufrockian self was indeed a false self, a self estranged from itself by its displacement in a fractured social space. When he came to Bradley several years later, Eliot recognized a point of view compatible with that in “Prufrock,” for Bradley's philosophic exploration of the relation between self and other selves articulated dialectically what Prufrock had articulated dramatically—that is, that self depends upon other selves, subject upon object, and “I” upon “you.” According to Bradley, “man is a social being; he is real only because he is social, and can realize himself only because it is as social that he realizes himself. The mere individual is a delusion of theory; and the attempt to realize it in practice is the starvation and mutilation of human nature, with total sterility or the production of monstrosities.”24 Prufrock, Eliot discovered in 1915 and 1916, is a monster accounted for by Bradley.

In the end, then, Eliot provides by means of his dissertation on Bradley a thoroughly modern map for reading “Prufrock.” The resurrection of the Prufrockian metaphor of a patient spread out upon a table points the way to the passages in Knowledge and Experience most directly relevant to this reading. After five years, a poem born presumably of an almost inarticulable experience of self-estrangement became for Eliot an allegory of the epistemological dependence of reality upon a construction of self and selves—an allegory, that is, of the conclusions he was reaching in his dissertation. Insofar, then, as Eliot's work on Bradley in his dissertation seems to have prompted him to reread or reinterpret the poem from a Bradleyan point of view, Bradley does indeed seem to have influenced “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In effect, Eliot has taken his own advice and reinterpreted the lived experience he captured in “Prufrock” in the way he suggested, in his dissertation, that all such necessarily “partial and fragmentary truths” should be reinterpreted: “the finest fact after all can give us only interpretation [of lived truths], and every interpretation, along perhaps with some utterly contradictory interpretation, has to be taken up and reinterpreted by every thinking mind and by every civilization” (164). Knowledge and Experience, I suggest, is in part a reinterpretation or rereading of “Prufrock.” In the course of time, Eliot has “become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning—or without forgetting, merely changing.”25 At the same time, “Prufrock” suggests a reading for the dissertation; indeed, it writes part of the dissertation insofar as its metaphors surface at important moments in the epistemological inquiry. If we attend carefully to the reinterpretation of the “world spread out upon a table” in Eliot's dissertation, in other words, we will perhaps find Eliot's final draft of the poem. At the very least, we will find that there is something of Knowledge and Experience in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Notes

  1. Kristian Smidt, Poetry and Belief in the Work of T. S. Eliot (Norway, 1949; reprint, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961); Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot (New York: McDowell, Oblensky, 1959). For a bibliography of books and articles up to 1971, see Anne C. Bolgan, appendix 2, in What the Thunder Really Said (Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1973), 169-84.

  2. T. S. Eliot, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley (London: Faber and Faber, 1964); citations are given parenthetically.

  3. John Casey, “The Comprehensive Ideal,” review of T. S. Eliot's Intellectual and Poetic Development 1909-1922, by Piers Gray, Times Literary Supplement, September 10, 1982, 975.

  4. T. S. Eliot, “A Commentary,” The Criterion 3 (1924-25): 2.

  5. Kenner (note 1), 45.

  6. Kenner, 55.

  7. In an early essay on Bergson, Eliot refers to Bradley with some familiarity (“A Paper on Bergson,” Eliot Collection, The Houghton Library, Harvard University). The essay is undated; the catalogue entry of the Houghton Library suggests that it may have been written in 1910 or 1911. It is very unlikely, however, that Eliot wrote the essay until after his return from France in the summer of 1911—some months, that is, after the completion of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The essay in question may suggest that Eliot was reading Bradley before 1913, but it does not prove that he was reading him before or during the composition of “Prufrock.”

  8. Ezra Pound to Harriet Monroe, January 31, 1915, cited in Caroline Behr, T. S. Eliot: A Chronology of his Life and Works (London: Macmillan Reference Books, 1983), 9.

  9. T. S. Eliot to Harriet Monroe, June 7, 1916, Eliot Collection, The Houghton Library, Harvard University, cited in Grover Smith, T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meanings (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1956), 15.

  10. T. S. Eliot to Henry Ware Eliot, September 6, 1916, cited in The Waste Land: A Facsimile & Transcript, ed. Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), xi.

  11. T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 13. All references to Eliot's poems are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text by page number.

    James E. Miller, Jr., suggests that the “you” in the poem may be Jean Verdenal, Eliot's friend from his Paris days of 1910 and 1911 (T. S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons [University Park and London: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1977], 52-53). If so, Verdenal's death in the Dardenelles in May of 1915 might be another reason Eliot was thinking about the poem at this time.

  12. George Williamson, A Reader's Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem-by-Poem Analysis, 2nd ed. (1953; reprint, New York: The Noonday Press, 1966), 59; Grover Smith (note 9), 16; Joyce Meeks Jones, Jungian Psychology in Literary Analysis: A Demonstration Using T. S. Eliot's Poetry (Washington, D.C.: Univ. Press of America, 1979), 10-11; Carol T. Christ, Victorian and Modern Poetics (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), 48; Kenner, 10; Joseph Chiari, T. S. Eliot: Poet and Dramatist (London: Vision Press, 1972), 37-38.

  13. F. O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry, 3rd ed., with a chapter on Eliot's later work by C. L. Barber (1935; reprint, New York and London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1958), 30.

  14. T. S. Eliot, “The Function of Criticism,” in Selected Essays, 3rd ed., revised and enlarged (1932; reprint, London: Faber and Faber, 1951), 33.

  15. T. S. Eliot to Eudo Mason, April 19, 1945, Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, cited in Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (1984; reprint, London: Abacus, 1985), 41.

  16. Piers Gray, T. S. Eliot's Intellectual and Poetic Development 1909-1922 (Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1982), 56.

  17. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1911), 197.

  18. Gray, 56.

  19. Jewel Spears Brooker, “Substitutes for Christianity in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot,” The Southern Review 21 (1985): 908.

  20. Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. by F. L. Pogson, 4th ed. (1889; reprint, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1921), 91, 126, 163.

  21. T. S. Eliot, “A Paper on Bergson,” 7, 17. “A Paper on Bergson” is copyrighted to Mrs. T. S. Eliot and cannot be reproduced or consulted without her permission. I quote from this manuscript by permission of Mrs. Eliot and by permission of the Houghton Library.

  22. Francis Herbert Bradley, Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay, 2nd ed., 9th impression corrected (1893; reprint, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1930), 306; cited in The Waste Land, 80. Hugh Kenner remarks that the passage is “a vivid paragraph from Bradley's Appearance and Reality that might have been composed by a disciplined Prufrock” (Kenner, 44).

  23. Sanford Schwartz, The Matrix of Modernism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985), 184, 187.

  24. Francis Herbert Bradley, Ethical Studies, 2nd ed. revised (1876; reprint, Glasgow: Oxford Univ. Press, 1927), 174.

  25. T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1933), 130.

Stanley Sultan (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Function of ‘Prufrock’ for Criticism,”