Saturday, March 15, 2008

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

Prufrock has troubled (and delighted) readers since its publication in 1915. At once, a beginning and a high point of modernist poetry, the poem has puzzled readers in its interpretative difficulty, evading narrative, history, and metaphor.
The poem is a stream of consciousness, verse-libre monologue, in its allusions situating itself in a tradition that goes back through Browning, Marvel and Milton, all the way back to Shakespearean and Chaucerian soliloquies.

The couplet in the poem that works as a key, unlocking the reading of the poem, is this:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws/scuttling across the floors of silent seas. This is perfect metonymy: the claws standing in for, and creating in the mind of the reader, the whole crab (or other sea creature). This couplet enacts in microcosm the method of the whole poem.
The poem works as an extended exercise in metonymy, in which the whole (Prufrock’s life and consciousness) is carefully built up piece by piece. There is no narrative, there is no metaphor: Prufrock does not mean anything in that sense. In the whole poem of 131 lines (not counting the epigraph), there are only three similes: the patient etherised upon a table (at once highlighting and demolishing Edwardian notions of appropriate poetic simile); streets like a tedious argument; and the magic lantern, all images of modernity (and medicine), which are embedded, perhaps uneasily, among the old world, high European tone. Apart from these three, metaphor and simile, the stock weaponry in the poetic armoury, are absent. This is perhaps the most significant way in which Eliot signals his departure from the Georgians, and announces a modernist presence in English verse.

Although the poem appears to ramble aimlessly, it is in fact highly structured.
After the two opening stanzas, we have two stanzas which begin, And indeed there will be time… the two introductory stanzas and the two time stanzas are knitted together by the couplet: In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo. Then follow three stanzas describing, with a rather world-weary air (which seems to be assumed and quite hollow) Prufrock’s experiences with women, focusing again on the metonymic eyes and arms. These three stanzas all have the refrain: And/So how should I presume? The so and and variation is a common device in the poem (and in Eliot generally): subtle aural variations on a theme, syntactical echoes: To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

Then in the centre of the poem, is the key to its reading: the stanza about Prufrock’s rambles through the streets and the couplet about the claws. (In this central section, originally there was a 38 line section entitled Prufrock’s Pervigilium, in which Prufrock describes his insomnia in nightmare terms, incorporating images and devices from surrealism and nightmare. However, this section was excised by Eliot.)
Then follows two stanzas of highly repetitious material: would it have been worth it after all? in which key words and phrases echo each other, often inverted or with subtle variations. The poem finally dissolves into fragments describing Prufrock’s fear of ageing and images of the sea, perhaps the only real metaphor in the poem: chthonic chaos from which all things originated and into which we all return.

The poem is full of mnemonic devices borrowed from Homer: repetitions, inversions: That is not what I meant at all./ That is not it, at all. followed in the next stanza by That is not it at all,/That is not what I meant, at all, and palindromes or mirror structures: at times indeed almost ridiculous/Almost at times the Fool.

What does the poem tell us then about Prufrock? The metonymy delineates two fields of knowledge: things Prufrock tells us about himself, either wittingly or unwittingly; and things we can infer about him from reading between the lines.

What does Prufrock tell us about himself?

He doesn’t use his first name.
He is self-consciously balding.
He is aware of encroaching old age.
He dresses carefully and formally, and is acutely aware of the social meanings invested in costume.
He is rather repressed.
He is aware of how others might see him, and this perhaps prevents him from more spontaneity.
He is well educated, and his mind is littered with the detritus of his reading; Marvell, Hesiod, Dante, Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Donne; this literary flotsam, in the words of Susan Sonntag, expands his consciousness, mediating his feelings about the world, informing the rhythm and pace of his syntax and choice of vocabulary.
He is slightly obsessive, and cannot ‘let things go’, especially words.
He has a metaphysical turn of mind, not just in his reading, but also in his speculations.
He has a sweet tooth.
He knows that he is terribly indecisive.
He is modest to the extent of timidity, avoiding the limelight, an umbratile creature.
He is highly sensitive to the impression he makes on others, and often fears that he cuts a ridiculous figure, especially with the servants. Nonetheless, he has a highly developed sense of amour propre.
He is capable of a sudden flare of deep, internal, hidden, bitter sarcasm, ostensibly directed at how others fit him into their stereotypes, but really more directed at how he so easily falls into them.
He has not had much success with women, perhaps because of his timidity.
He is haunted by a specific incident of miscommunication with a woman.
He is a man who feels more at home among the appurtenances of the drawing room.
He lives, most likely alone, in a big city.
He is a flaneur.
He has an ‘imaginary friend.’

What can we infer about Prufrock?

He is composing a poem, trying out possible lines with subtle variations to test their effect: the yellow fog that rubs its back. upon the window panes, the yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle upon the window panes.
He is on his way to a brothel, but his natural timidity may perhaps prevent him from entering it, as it has prevented him from entering it before, even at the last moment: time to turn back and descend the stair…
His sexuality is rather Victorian; he is excited by the banal parts of the body: arms, hair, perfume.
His sexual experience appears to be largely limited to prostitutes, some of whom he picks up on streets and takes to the poorer areas of town, treating them to dinner in sawdust restaurants and taking them to one night cheap hotels, others he meets in high class brothels, where the women are educated and talk entertainingly about culture. in the room... However, he is highly evasive about this.
He likes cats, and (tritely?) sees nature in terms of animals.
True love and companionship, especially with a woman, has largely avoided him: I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, I do not think that they will sing to me.

He perhaps aspires to be a Des Essientes, a Von Aschenbach or a Proust, but his one Americanism, a slip of the tongue, gives the game away, that he is really a Henry James, or a Henry Adams, or indeed, a T.S. Eliot.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. It has helped me very much, especially since I have to study this poem for a test.

Shakespeare fan said...

By far the best interpretation of this excellent poem that I have ever seen. He is a man who wants sex but cannot form genuine relationships. Instead he satisfies himself with prostitutes - but the unanswered "question" is whether or not he will have to pay a spiritual price for his indulgences.