The Rear-View Mirror: T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

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,
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.”

The thing I loved most about teaching literature was teaching poetry. When I was a teenager, I could take poetry or leave it, but the first literature course I took at Uni was an introduction to reading poetry. At school we’d not really learnt much in the way of approaching literature; we’d been given a bagful of terms – metre, rhyme scheme, that sort of thing – but nothing that would actually help us understand what a poem was doing, how it worked. It’s only in that proseminar back when I was less than half my current age that I began to understand that poetry had rules (even if those rules could be broken), that it could be examined systematically – and that, done well, this did not lessen its potency at all. On the contrary, learning to analyse poetry is what made me love poems – and teaching poetry was even better.

Not all kinds of poetry, and not all poems, obviously. I remember my favourite teaching poems: Ted Hughes’ miniature epic “To Paint a Water Lily”, Robert Browning’s pitch-black depiction of toxic masculinity, “My Last Duchess” – and, perhaps most of all, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. It probably helped that my first entry to Eliot was the original cast album of Cats that my parents had and that I’d listen to as a kid: I always thought of Eliot as that guy who’d written those funny poems about cats using all these silly made-up words, not the daunting monolith of Modernist poetry whose texts were so dense with references, they came with their own lengthy annotations.

“Prufrock” may not appear to be a great poem to teach to students freshly arrived at Uni. Its central character is old before his time, he is fussy and fearful, a procrastinator who shies away not just from action but from even considering the possibility of action: “And indeed there will be time/To wonder, ‘Do I dare? and, ‘Do I dare?'”. Prufrock is a man who has chosen smallness – “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” – while life, passion, art, all of these happen elsewhere. His thoughts keep returning to women, to their voices and perfumes and clothes, but it is barely possible to imagine Prufrock talking to them, let alone doing anything else: even in his imagination, he is afraid of these women and the slightest of rejections.

At the same time, Prufrock is a man with a rich, often beautiful inner voice, and he is keenly aware of his own silliness. He sees himself not as a tragic hero, a “Prince Hamlet”, but more of an “attendant lord, one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two…/At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-/Almost, at times, the Fool”, though Eliot, through Prufrock, immediately undercuts the Shakespearean allusion with musings that are at once ironic and self-pitying, before they segue into startlingly lyrical imagery:

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.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Prufrock is finally a tragic figure, no less so for his fearfulness, his self-chosen smallness. His tragedy is not that of a Shakespearean hero, it is that of a small man so hyper-aware of his own failings that he is locked inside himself, incapable of changing – yet his ‘love song’ shows the richness of Prufrock’s inner life, his imagination and, indeed, poetry. He begins to imagine greatness for himself – “Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” – but he is paralysed by his fear, of failure and, finally, death:

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.

Prufrock is a precursor of characters such as James Thurber’s Walter Mitty and Brazil‘s Sam Lowry. It is his imagination and his keen, sharp-eyed understanding of himself, that make the poem poignant. It is only in his imagination that Prufrock truly lives; it is the world outside his own head that kills him:

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.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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