I’ll be honest, I’m not much interested in literary theory. When I read a poem I look up words I don’t understand or references that I’ve never heard of, but in general I prefer to figure out the gist on my own. That’s what’s fun about reading, isn’t it?
I offer that statement as an apology for my musings about poems, because probably all of it has been said much better by someone else. So you could say I’m writing these musings for myself, or for some future reader who comes along, surfing the web the way some people still troll through microfiche.
I took a course on modern British poetry many years ago, and I’ve read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” several times over the decades, but I never bothered to look up the Italian epigraph until now, and I guess I should have, because it does inform the poem. Or it could be that I forgot the meaning after so many years.
The epigraph comes from a section of Dante’s Inferno, and is the speech of a man who apparently committed some heinous misdeeds, because he’s consigned to one of the lower circles of hell. Roughly, the stanza says the man would not tell the story of his sins if he thought the listener could return to the world to relate the man’s crimes, but since he has never heard of anyone escaping from the fiery pit, he will go ahead and spill the beans, or wag his flaming tongue. He has been so terrible that he has lost his human form, and has become only a tongue of fire.
When J. Alfred invites the reader to go on a walk with him through the city streets, he believes we are with him in hell, never to return. If he tells us what’s really on his mind, it’s because he thinks we’re stuck in this place with him.
Prufrock admits he has tried to create a persona to win favors from the world. He admits he’s getting old, and reveals his paltry efforts to conceal his aging. He shows us his hurt when a woman he has either seduced, or tried to seduce, tells him, “That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all.”
Yet he thinks he really does have something to say. He wants to come back from the dead like Lazarus to tell everyone about the “mermaids singing, each to each.” But he doubts himself. He doesn’t think he’s a prophet. He doubts the mermaids will sing to him.
But what he has to say is that at night we dream we are mermaids riding the waves out to sea, and it’s only when we wake up that we drown.
Prufrock is like the rest of us ridiculous humans, caught up in our gains and losses, always thinking we have time to make our “visions and revisions/Before the taking of toast and tea.”
Lately I’ve been reading about Buddhism and the need to follow the Dharma right now. We might die at any moment. It could be in an hour, when we drive to the market, or later on, while walking the dog. And so the need to die with a peaceful mind is of the greatest importance. Catholics might say something about needing to be in a state of grace during the moment of death.
Prufrock obsesses about our having time for all the things we haven’t done yet. But really there is no time left for that. He knows his time is up, yet he clings to the idea of himself: parting his hair down the back, rolling his pants legs up, walking the beach in white flannel, all the images of himself as a lady’s man or an urbane gentleman amid the sordid yellow smoke of the city.
The collection Prufrock (1917) is dedicated to Eliot’s friend Jean Verdenal who, according to the inscription, died at the age of 26 during WWI at Dardanelles. Maybe this character of Prufrock is a satire of Eliot himself and others. Through revealing the character’s weaknesses he exposes our frivolities and our vanities, which at our death amount to nothing.
My favorite lines from the poem are these:
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
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.
Those lines make me believe Prufrock might not be a bad sort at all. Because he has told us about the mermaids, after all. If he’s in hell, maybe he’ll have a chance to climb out of the pit.