Musings About "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

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.

The Epigraph

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.

william_blake_dantes_inferno_whirlwind_of_lovers

William Blake: "Dante's Inferno, Whirlwind of Lovers."

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.


The Poem

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:

and

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.


who is speaking?

This post is a continuation of a post I wrote at Read Write Poem about persona poems. Go see!

In many poems, the narrative voice is in the first person singular. I’ve heard writers complain about how they’re tired of writing about themselves, how they don’t want to be self-obsessed, and I’ve also heard readers complain about how so and so is forever writing about herself, is a narcissist with no sense of the world outside.

But are we always writing about ourselves when we use the pronoun I ? As noted in the Poet.org article entitled “Poetic Technique: Dramatic Monologue”, TS Eliot created characters in his poems who spoke about certain ideas and situations the poet wanted to investigate or draw out. In “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock,” no one would mistake the narrator of Prufrock as the poet himself. In this poem, Eliot is taking on the persona of the modern man, breathing life into him through the character of J. Alfred Prufrock.

When discussing or commenting on the work of others, it’s important to ask, “who is the narrator?” Just because the author is female doesn’t mean the narrator is. One of the privileges of being a poet or an artist or an actor is that we use our imaginations. We explore what it might be like to live under certain conditions. We might be able to find a historic character to investigate, someone who actually lived who exemplifies an idea or an image we want to understand. Or we invent.

And it might be wise to remember that even when we think we’re being honest with ourselves about writing the brutal truth, we still might be harboring certain illusions about ourselves that transfer onto the page. I’ve caught myself holding back when I write for any number of reasons What ends up in the poem is my invented self, the woman I want to be, but maybe not the person I am. We continuously create the persona we admire. Narcissism is a deep, shiny pool, and we all love to gaze into it.

How many of you have had readers confuse the narrator in the poem with you? Have you ever had someone assume you were writing about, say, your own failed marriage, when in fact you were merely exploring what could be, or what might have been?

What about personas in your poems? Have you breathed life into a literary figure from the past, a historic personage, or even a character you made up?

To read more about the idea of persona poems, please visit my column at read write poem, “get the lead out, it’s noting really.”