'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock': fragmentation, interruption and fog
Modernism in the arts was less a moment than a movement – a movement away from modes of expression that had come to seem worn out as much as a movement towards something specifically new. It is easier to see this in retrospect than it was at the time. The great artists of the modernist movement almost never produced its canonical masterpieces on a first attempt. Instead, they were preceded by something that was almost new, almost fresh, yet still felt for the most part as if were part of late romanticism, Impressionism or Art Nouveau. Of course there are precise moments – the moment in Schoenberg's Second String Quartet when the music abandons tonality altogether and a soprano sings of 'the air of other planets'; or Picasso's Demoiselle's D'Avignon where the prettiness of the acrobats and lovers of his blue and pink periods is abandoned for something at once harsh, archaic and foreign. And of course, there is Eliot's The Waste Land...
The Waste Land by T S Eliot, Hogarth Press edition
Front cover from the Hogarth Press edition of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, 1923. The poem was first published in America in 1922.View images from this item (2)
Prufrock, and other observations by T S Eliot
Front cover to T S Eliot’s Prufrock, and other observations published by The Egoist in 1917.View images from this item (4)
Looking forwards and backwards
Before The Waste Land, however, there was ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, a poem which looks forwards and backwards – backwards all the way to Dante, whom Eliot quotes extensively in the epigraph, and to the poetry of Mallarmé and Robert Browning – both of whom are best remembered for this kind of character-revealing monologue. It also looks backwards to then comparatively recent prose fiction, to the novellas of Henry James and HG Wells, and forwards to Eliot's future career and to what he feared becoming if he were not a poet. Eliot's parents hoped that he would return to the USA, perhaps to a respectable career as a university teacher; they were not at all keen on the idea of his becoming a poet and threatened to limit his access to family money.
Eliot's mother was a poet, writing deeply banal religious poetry – but this was a supplement to her life as wife and parent, not a career. Her poems were celebrations of strictness and mission, featuring saints, martyrs and preachers. Charlotte Eliot would have read Eliot’s early poems, and would have found 'Prufrock' vaguely insulting to the aesthetic pretensions of her class (‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’). Further, at around the same time that 'Prufrock' was published in the journal Poetry, he entered into his doomed marriage with Vivienne, a woman of whom his parents disapproved even before meeting her.
'"Prufrock and other Observations": A Criticism' by May Sinclair, from the Little Review
In her review of Prufrock and other Observations May Sinclair addresses how T S Eliot’s poetry challenged conventional public taste.View images from this item (8)
A fragmentary cityscape
Technically, ‘Prufrock’ is a free-flowing rhapsodic poem whose metre varies but whose essential pulse is iambic pentameters. It is a dramatic monologue – a poem in the form of a narrative by an imagined person, in which the speaker inadvertently reveals aspects of their character while describing a particular situation. It is as ironic and subtextual as Browning poems like ‘My Last Duchess’, in that Prufrock reveals to his hearer perhaps rather more even than his confession. It also resembles the poetry of Mallarmé, particularly ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’, in its dreaminess and its inability to stay entirely on the point from moment to moment, establishing its overall portrayal by intense fragments – it is not just an Impressionist poem, but a pointillist one, like Seurat in painting or the preludes of Debussy in music. Like Mallarmé’s half-awake faun, Prufrock inhabits a fractured cityscape that reflects not only his own lack of certainty and purpose, but by extension that of the entire modern world. It is not only he that seems half-asleep – none of the people he observes seem fully conscious.
Its opening lines and image – 'Let us go then you and I, / When the evening lies stretched out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table;' – indicate with clear deliberation that from now on poetics will not necessarily be restricted to the beautiful. Interestingly, a much later attempt to create a new language – William Gibson's manifesto/novel for cyberpunk, Neuromancer – imitates Eliot in this: 'The sky above the port was the color of television tuned, to a dead channel'.
Rhyme and interruption
Eliot uses intermittent rhymes, sometimes couplets, sometimes strings of three rhyming lines. These sometimes hold a section of the poem in an expressive sweep that will then be broken by a strong statement, sometimes for a deliberate bathos that undercuts any sense of Prufrock as a tragic figure: 'I grow old...I grow old... / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.' Yet some of the most memorable lines – deliberate interruptions of the flow of Prufrock's thought – are completely outside the main flow of rhyme, while having internal rhymes of their own: 'I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.'
Time and ageing
‘Prufrock’ is a poem about time and ageing: 'Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons. / I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.' Prufrock is worried that the women he pursues at bourgeois parties will notice that he is losing his hair or speculate on his health. from an early stage in his life Eliot talked of himself as old – later on, in his 40s, he thought of himself as ‘an aged eagle’ and as the old man Gerontion, but even here, in his 27th year, he is worrying that life will pass him by if he does not act. If, as I maintain, Prufrock is a speculative portrait of whom he might be if he takes the wrong path, then this was only the first time that he would speculate on a personal alternate timeline. Later, in Four Quartets he was to write:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
The great cloud beast of the poem (the fog, the smoke and the afternoons of boredom are described as if some vast lazy predator) perhaps derives from, and is certainly cognate with, Henry James's novella of 1903, 'The Beast in the Jungle', the protagonist of which avoids commitment to a good woman and engagement with life because of a sense of lurking catastrophe, only to find that the catastrophe he sensed was precisely his boredom and his sense of utter futility. Eliot feared just such a fate – and in 'Prufrock' he depicts it, a man wandering from social engagement to social engagement, never quite prepared to talk of his spiritual death or to risk sexual rejection by women who might say: 'That is not it at all / That is not what I meant, at all.'
This fear produces a diffidence, a coyness in Prufrock: 'squeezed the universe into a ball' is an echo of Marvell's love poem To His Coy Mistress: 'Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball.' Eliot was of course a great admirer of the poetry of the 17th century, and the comparison of the gauche, cowardly Prufrock to a gallant like Andrew Marvell is entirely to the modern figure's disadvantage.
A damned soul
As so often in his later poems, Eliot starts with an epigraph, here an extended quotation from Dante's Inferno in which Guido de Montefeltro, damned both for treachery and failed repentance, confesses all to Dante, thinking him already dead and in Hell. Prufrock, we may take it, is a damned soul too, talking as if to someone who shares his damnation, the damnation of a bourgeois boredom that can only be escaped by some radical act of truth-telling: '“I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”' Or perhaps by risking the embarrassments of the sexual life, either being rejected by women of his own class or knowing the naked white arms of sex workers, and then being dragged back to respectability and its consequences.
Guido is a great sinner, Prufrock a petty one, who frequents low streets as a voyeur perhaps, or as a purchaser of sexual services. Prufrock is aware of his own unimportance – 'I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be' – and fears that he is the Fool. Perhaps he would be better off not even being human – 'a pair of ragged claws'; Wells's time traveller sees some such beast at the end of time, abandoning the land on a dying earth – again possibly not a conscious reference, but certainly an expression of the same mood. Much later – in Four Quartets – Eliot was to come back to the question of the path not taken, the choice of how to live one's life. Here he looks at the comfortable bourgeois life of his parents, with its conventional culture ('In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo') and its secret sins and double standards, and mocks and rejects it.
Eliot was taking risks with his life. He did not have the arrogance to think of himself as the major poet we now know him to be, and the hostility of his parents meant he had to find a way of making a living, and his relationship with Vivienne was to prove disastrous for both.
But better to take risks than to be Prufrock.
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