T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
T. S. Eliot
Introduction: Where's Your Sense of Humor?
T. S. Eliot wrote a little volume titled Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which under the influence of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, became Cats, the longest running musical on Broadway.
How does one reconcile the lavish and hilarious persona responsible for the likes of old possum and the cats with the gloomy, spiritually dry personality of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land mentality?
Was T. S. Eliot schizophrenic? Or did the poet perceive a disturbing trend in the art he loved—a trend that threatened to denigrate the art beyond recognition?
Reading of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Prufrock Killed Poetry
According to Garrison Keillor, habitual moaner and groaner of the Mid-West, who seems to fancy that all poetry must always provide a barrel of laughs or ecstatic effusion, has scribbled down his laughable opinion about "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," claiming that the poem is
a small, dark mopefest of a poem in which old Pru worries about whether to eat a peach or roll up his trousers? This poem pretty much killed off the pleasure of poetry for millions of people who got dragged through it in high school. ("Choosing the Right Lunch Partners," February 20, 2007)
Keillor and all his cohort of high school ninnies who learned to hate poetry because of being "dragged through it" might benefit from revisiting the poem with better awareness: that the poem is highly ironic, even satiric, in its critique of the blemishes of modernism that was having demoralizing effects on the art of poetry.
The non-serious nature of the poem clearly rails against the angst-infused positions that were rendering poetry not only unintelligible but ultimately without literally value.
Who is J. Alfred Prufrock and what does he want?
Critics regularly note the ironic disjointedness in the title as a love song apparently sung by a man with a business-suit name, but they then descend into the maudlin angst of this poor pathetic creature.
Eliot was poking fun at such criticism and such stances even as he wrote the poem. The poem itself is a mishmash of form, consisting of 131 lines separated into free-verse paragraphs, yet it has rime throughout, delivered in uneven rhythmns.
The form itself makes fun of free-verse and phony erudition (the many allusions to classic works that seem so out of place) as it floats them down a stream-of-consciousness.
Opening Movement: "Like a patient etherised upon a table"
The first three lines set up the hilarious mood of the poem: "Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table." The first line sounds as if the speaker of the poem is inviting someone to go somewhere in the evening, perhaps a social gathering or just an outing with a lady friend; after all it's a love song.
But the reader is slammed in the face when the evening is described as patient on an operating table being prepared for surgery. The romance is dead by line three.
The speaker continues to mumble describing the evening quite negatively, mentioning "one night cheap hotels," disgusting restaurants, and "Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question."
But then he cuts off the thought, by telling his listener not to bother asking what the "overwhelming question" is, but instead says let's just get going "and make our visit." Now, it sounds as if the speaker and his companion are definitely going to a social gathering, maybe a dinner party.
The Italian Epigram: "S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse"
But the dinner party in never visited, because it becomes apparent that the speaker is probably just addressing himself, perhaps while looking at his face in a mirror. There is no companion, there is no evening engagement, just a musing voice that is making fun of all the modernist techniques the poet employs in the poem.
The epigram that opens the poem alerts the reader to "insidious intent" of the speaker in the poem. The following is an interpretive translation of the Italian epigram:
if I thought such nonsense would really be foisted on the world, I would not concoct it, but since those who delve into the avant-garde poetry world have nothing to take back, I have deigned to let it fly.
Modern Boredom: "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes"
The speaker describes the fog in the metaphorical likeness of a dog: it rubs its back and muzzle on the window-panes and it "Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening."
The speaker is concerned about social gatherings; he has often encountered them, and the lines "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" become a mantra.
And the line "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" which followed his claim to have known all those bored people in offices, lounges, and evening affairs demonstrates the speaker's awareness of his own boredom.
Floating Down the Stream: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws"
The speaker inserts telling images into his stream-of-consciousness descriptions of angst-filled scenes with outrageous images such as "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas," and "I grow old … I grow old … / shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."
And while these are famous lines often cited as showing the modern angst of Prufrock, they are quite humorous when one realizes that the speaker is making fun of the serious tone that critics will take regarding the style and highly allusive nature of the poem.
Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock has tricked many readers with his dry, spiritually destitute personality.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes