Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

 "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", is not a love song, or even a song, by a man with a name that could not possibly be confused with the name of the poet. It seems to be an account  a visit to a tea-party or salon where upper-class women like to talk about the arts in general and Michelangelo in particular.  It is a visit which may or may not take place, and consists of a meditation on that subject which may or may not come to a conclusion.

We stumble over uncertainties before we even get to the poem and Prufrock's invitation, "Let us go then, you and I . . ." A quotation in Italian, unidentified—it turns out it's from the 27th canto of Dante's Inferno—blocks our way. Here it is in English:

"If I thought that my response [to Dante's question about who he is and why he is in hell] would be addressed to one who might go back alive, this flame would shake no more [i.e. he'd say no more]; but since no one ever goes back alive out of these deeps (if what I hear be true), without fear of infamy I answer you."

His name, as we may learn (elsewhere), is Guido da Montifeltro, and he is—or was—actually proud of the skills that made him famous, and landed him in this place:

"The machinations and the covert ways
I knew them all, and practised so their craft,
That to the ends of the earth the sound went forth."

Why is he in hell? On a technicality: he had repented of his Machiavellian machinations but had been lured out of retirement by a Pope who needed his help and told him that, as it was in a good cause, he'd be forgiven. Which was a lie.

So, right away, we're likely to be confused before we even begin to read—depending on how assiduously we follow up the little 'hint' that Eliot has offered us. Prufrock may be in a sort of social and emotional hell, not because of anything he has done but because of what he is: a more intelligent and cultured individual than any of the people who are likely, as he fears, to put him down—and because he doesn't have any other place to go, no one else to talk to. The fatuity of the talky-talk that he knows he'll have to listen to is perfectly caught by the lines (which will be repeated a couple dozen lines later):

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And what of the men? Surely there must be some. But it's the women who do all the talking.

"Let us go then, you and I," he says (emphasis mine), as if there were something about this invitation that might naturally follow from those lines from Dante. So, of course, we read on and quickly find ourselves in a bizarre cityscape: an evening spread out across the sky like a patient on an operating table being prepared for surgery (which may be how Prufrock sees himself) and a maze of sleazy streets in a lower-class part of town which seem to be part of a conspiracy:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question.

Anticipating our natural desire to know what he is talking about, he brushes us off:

Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

It is soon clear—it may be the only clarity—that Prufrock has something important that he has been wanting to say: "an overwhelming question" of his own that he is in no hurry to ask. "And indeed there will be time" he says—twice—as he tries to get up his nerve. "Do I dare to disturb the universe?" Here he is being ironic: the only universe he has ever known is the universe taken for granted by his social set, which he knows so well that he can predict with meticulous accuracy how it will respond to anything that disturbs its routine or forces it to confront disagreeable facts.

For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee-spoons . . . .
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
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?

Whatever the question agitating this man, it has nothing to do with love; this is a man who is dying of boredom; and while he wants more than anything to make a different life for himself, he has no idea how  to go about it.

Suppose he were to talk about a moment of insight into the ordinary lives of ordinary people:

Should I say that I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
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.

Obviously, it's going to take more than that to shake up these people; and he is afraid. Suppose, he thinks, I were to ask them a really overwhelming question. Suppose I were
To say:

 "I am Lazarus, come from the dead, 
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all—

The trouble with that gambit is two-fold: he doesn’t know what Lazarus might actually say and he  hasn't even begun to about what comes next: so what? And even if he knew how that question ought to be handled, it wouldn't make any difference; he knows exactly how anything he might want to say would be received:

That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant at all.

For all his feelings of inadequacy, however, Prufrock really does have something to say and he finally says it, beautifully and forcefully, with stunning conviction, in the last six lines of the poem—but not to those arty society women who would have laughed in his face. (It’s not just anyone who gets to see memaids riding the waves and “singing each to each.” He is pretty sure they would not sing to him but so what? They wouldn’t sing to those silly women either).

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 brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Prufrock, to his credit, is such a human voice, trying to figure out how—however ineffectually—to wake up a complacent society before it's too late and it dies in the airless, life-less chambers it has constructed for itself—so remote from the real human world they might as well be at the bottom of the sea. It should have been clear, even in 1910, which was when Eliot began writing this poem, that a genteel, privileged society that knows nothing of life on the other side of the tracks, in the mean streets,

The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells

could not long survive in the violent new world that was evidently about to be born.

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