Monday, September 12, 2011

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

T.S. Eliot's first important poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, appeared in Poetry in 1915. He first drafted the poem in 1909 while a student at Harvard, and at the time he signed it T. Stearns Eliot. Paralysis, the incapacity to act, has been the Achilles heel of many famous literary characters, notably Hamlet. Eliot parodically updates Hamlet's paralysis to the modern world.

It is a song of a being divided between passion and timidity. The poem starts with action, an invitation to go, and moves to inaction. The poem is a monologue, spoken by "I" who is presumably Prufrock. He talks to a "you", who appears to be a companion, maybe a woman. The poem builds from strain to tension, to a relaxation of tension, to a cessation of all action. Prufrock does not dare to seek love for fear of disappointment. He is consciously unheroic, witness his own comparison of himself with Hamlet. The epigraph heightens Prufrock's frustration. It refers to the torture of Guido da Montefeltro in the eighth circle of Dante's Inferno. Prufrock lives in a world of fantasy and daydreaming. The epigraph reads: If I thought that my answer were to one who ever could return to the world; this flame should quake 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. The passage implies that the lovesong itself is not sung in the real world. It is an interior monologue. In the Inferno, the hero descends into the nine successive levels of Hell - suggesting the lowering of height and expectations. Prufrock sweeps reader on a downward ride - skyline to street life to down the stairs at a party and eventually the sea floor. Prufrock is descending into his own Hell, and he brings the reader with him for safety - just as Guido da Montefeltro tells Dante in his story in Hell only because he thinks Dante will never resurface and tell others about it.

The poem opens with a command to the self (you) to accompany the physical him (I) to a distant "room." The object of the journey is to declare his love to a lady. The opening image of the patient suggests Prufrock's view of himself as helpless - etherized. Here Eliot deploys the objective correlative (see my blog on Eliot's Hamlet). The objective correlative is the use of objects, symbols or descriptions in art by which certain emotions are invoked. Lines 2,3 evoke helplessness, entrapment and impotence. The "one-night cheap hotels" suggest fruitless unsatisfying sexual relations in the past. The "sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells" suggest cheap jerry-built (sawdust) places with shell ashtrays. Arriving at the "room," he finds the women discussing Michelangelo, a figure to who Prufrock cannot aspire. The fog "that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes" evokes feline movement - the "cat" goes down from the high windowpanes to the "pools that stand in drains,' lets soot from the chimneys fall on its back, then leaps from the terrace to the ground. The cat does not enter or penetrate the house. Prufrock's prude-in-a-frock effeminacy emerges through the cat.

The "works of days and hands" refers to Hesoid's "Works and Days." Distracting himself with the "fog" he persuades himself that he has timer to "prepare a face." His recurrent thought of the women leads him to speculate about their reaction to his physical self. He is aware of his baldness and thinness. He feels his first sense of doubt "do I dare disturb the universe?" The tedium and monotony of his life is clear. He has "measured out his life with coffee spoons." He rejects the eyes and recoils from the horror of being "pinned" down and dissected like a grasshopper. "Sprawling on a pin" refers to practice of pinning insect specimens for study. He rejects the arms, yet dwells on them in an erotic context. He reveals his insecurity again and again in the repeated "how should I presume." Prufrock has a disorder sense of time, witness "evenings, mornings, afternoons." A few lines later, Eliot uses the word "presume" in its latinate meaning - anticipate - rather than its vernacular usage - to undertake without clear justification. In the climactic passage, he mentions the only possibility for him, to descend the stairs and leave the room. Prufrock feels he should have been "a pair of ragged claws," an allusion to Hamlet, in which Hamlet mocks Polonius "for yourself, sir, should be as old as I am, if, like a crab, you could go backward" (2.2.205-206). The crab image of Prufrock adds to the cat and insect.

S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats5
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….10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,15
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,20
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;25
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;30
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.
In the room the women come and go35
Talking of Michelangelo.
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—40
(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 dare45
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,50
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?
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—55
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
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?60
And how should I presume?
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 dress65
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets70
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Prufrock, in his reverie, refers to the afternoon, quickly correcting himself to evening, as sleeping peacefully. His reverie reaches a climax as he refers himself to John the Baptist. A dancing girl, Salome, requested the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter from KIng Herod. Being beheaded may be a sign of being unmanned. He immediately denies the dignity of the comparison "I am no prophet." He considers himself the butt of a "footman," who symbolizes death. Prufrock has confessed his cowardice to himself. The poem moves towards the closing image of drowning. From this point, Prufrock speaks of what would have happened had it not been too late. The fear of being revealed causes him to rationalize his failure.

"Squeeze the universe into a ball" refers to Andrew Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress." In the poem, the speaker urges his lady to have sex with him while they are still young and alive - "Let us roll all our strength, and all / Our sweetness, up into one ball. / and tear our pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life," suggestive of phallic penetration of the hymen. Yet Prufrock deludes himself into thinking he has plenty of time left. Marvel's protagonist is in a hurry, Prufrock is not, so the reference oozes with irony.

. . . . . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!75
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?80
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,85
And in short, I was afraid.
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,90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have 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”—95
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,100
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?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:105
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.”

In this final section, the tone changes gain, there is no more overwhelming question. He cannot even compare himself with Hamlet (literature's other great indecisive man), but rather with Polonius, a sometime wise "Fool." The lack of "I" in front of "Am an attendant lord [Polonius]" bespeaks of Prufrock's lack of ego. Prufrock echoes Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" in "nor was meant to be."

He resolves to retreat to the beach, his white flannel trouser bottoms rolled up, pathetically approximating a bohemian style, an attempt to ward off death. He concerns himself with questions no more momentous than "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Parting his hair behind may hide the baldness. Eating a peach is as near the forbidden fruit as he dares to approach. The peach has long been a symbol for female genitalia. His anxiety about eating a peach has everything to do with his feelings of sexual inadequacy.

The mermaids who tempted Ulysses will not sing to him. His conception of them has been a delusion. He is recalled to reality by the voices in the drawing room, and he awakens from his reverie too late. Prufrick switches from his first-person singular narration to first-person plural in the last stanza - for his final plunge, he wants to make sure that we, his Dantesque listener, accompany him into his self-pitying Hell. The concluding two three-line stanzas act as a sestet (six lines). Petrarchian sonnets complement the opening octet with a sestet. This is Eliot's final mock-allusion to yet another Renaissance artist (after Dante and Michelangelo). Petrarch unrequitedly mooned after his love, Laura, but Prufrock does not even have an attainable ideal love.

. . . . . . . .
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,115
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …120
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.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.125
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 brown130
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

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