Friday, January 23, 2009

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Last week's Poetry Friday host, Karen Edmisten, posted the poem "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur, noting that she usually posts it about every four months. Today, I'm reposting one of my all-time favorite poems (I have many, so don't ask me to rank it), "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot.

I posted the poem once before, back in September of 2006, and I think it's worth posting again, particularly because it ties in with Praise Song for the Day from the inauguration the other day. How so, you ask? Well, on Wednesday evening, Elizabeth Alexander was a guest on The Colbert Report, and he quoted from Prufrock: "I hear the mermaids singing, each to each,/I do not think they will sing to me." You can check out the whole interview below, and, geek that I am, I transcribed the whole thing. Read the transcript, watch the interview, and read the analysis of the poem below.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
by T.S. Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

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

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

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

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

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;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

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?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, 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.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
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.

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 toward 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."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

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.

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.

*If I thought my answer were given
to anyone who would ever return to the world,
this flame would stand still without moving any further.
But since never from this abyss
has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true,
without fear of infamy I answer you.
from Inferno by Dante

Stephen Colbert interview with Elizabeth Alexander, Wednesday, January 21, 2009

SC: I have a general question about poetry. It's something that worries me. Poems aren't true, are they?

EA: Well. . .

SC: They're made up, right? Like, they're made up. 'Cause I recently read this thing called "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", which is about a guy in his mid-40s, like I am, and he's facing his mortality and he's got a sense that no matter what he's achieved in his life, he's never really gonna be great.

EA: Do you like that poem?

SC: That's not true, right? That's not true?

EA: It's not true in the sense that the newspaper is true, it's not true in the sense that journalism is . . .

SC: Well the newspaper is never true. Have you read the New York Times?

EA: Well, uh, meant to be true. It's not true in the sense of the strictly factual, but a poem should be in some way emotionally true, true to the language that it has, so that's why, for example, "J. Alfred Prufrock" might speak to you because there's something in the poem that resonates, that feels true to you, and that's how people connect with poems.

SC: He says that "I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, I do not think they sing to me". They're, are - They're still singing to me though, aren't they?

EA: (Laughs) They are, if you want them to be, but . . .

SC: Desperately.

EA: I know, I know, I know. But that's your experience with the poem, so the point is that phrase, that language, is . . . off enough, it is decentered enough from the way that you hear language every day that it makes you stop and think about what that could mean, so . . .

SC: Okay, let's talk about meaning for a second, let's talk about meaning for a second, okay? Okay. Metaphors, okay? What's the difference between a metaphor and a lie?

EA: Laughs

SC: Okay, because, you know, 'I AM THE SUN, YOU ARE THE MOON!' That's a lie, you're not the moon. I'm not the sun, okay? What's the difference between a metaphor and a lie?

EA: Well, that was both a metaphor and a lie. So, the two are not necessarily exclusive. A metaphor is a way of using language where you make a comparison to let people understand something as it relates to something else, and that's how we use the language to increase meaning.

SC: Well, why not just go, say, say what you mean, instead of dressing things up in all this flowery language like, you know, the great romantic poets, you know 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' Why not just say 'You are hot, let's do it'?

EA: Laughs

SC: 'Let's get it on! Okay? I got a mountain in my pants', and that is not a metaphor. That is not a lie!

EA: But that's a metaphor.

SC: No it's not. It's not, lady. It is not at all.

EA: (Laughs and fans herself)

SC: Now listen, listen. Let's go to your poem

EA: Line by line

SC: Beautiful, beautiful. But no 'explicate it line by line', no. The poem is "Praise Song for the Day". Let's talk about it. Is this a "praise song" for the day, or are we praising song for the day? Is praise there a command?

EA: No. It is a "praise song", which is a form of poetry, an ode if you will, that is often written in various West African countries, it's made its way here. It's a way of praising, not to say "gold star", "good job", but rather to name something that we take joy from, that we rejoice in, so that's what a praise song is. It's a form.

SC: And you called it "an occasional poem"

EA: Yes

SC: What is an occasional poem, is it a "sometimes" poem?

EA: An occasional poem is a poem written for an occasion. So obviously yesterday's occasion was the inaugural. It could be for a graduation, it could be for a wedding, any occasion.

SC: So its context is associated specifically to that event.
EA: Exactly.

SC: Like the lyrics to "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome"

EA: Well there you go.

SC: We don't need another hero. We don't need to know the way home. All we want is life beyond Thunderdome. It really only makes sense when you're at Thunderdome.

EA: And you see, that's a very good example of the occasional poem that actually doesn't resonate beyond the occasion. So if you look at those words, what you want to do is mark the occasion, but write words that will last afterwards, and be useful afterwards in some kind of way.

SC: Your poem was marked by, I would say, the commonality of experience that you were naming in it. Why not soaring rhetoric? Why not just light up the crowd with, you know, with one of your metaphor lies, like "Barack Obama is a blazing star of hope"? Why not that? Why not really, really gild him with these words?

EA: Well, I don't think he needs gilding, and I think that actually what's been so powerful about his campaign and now, hopefully, his presidency, is that even though he is the leader, it's about the people. It's about many people feeling invested in changing this country and looking to something better, and working for it. So, he said, "it's not about me, it's about us."

SC: If poetry is in some way about economy of language, could I suggest a poem that might have gotten to the heart of it a little quicker?

EA: (Nodding) Please, please do.

SC: Hickory dickory dock, we elected a guy named Barack. Think about it?

EA: I'm gonna think about it.

Explication and analysis here

The short-form explanation of this poem is that the speaker, Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock, who lives in a London of the early 20th century polluted with sulfurous smog, is getting dressed to go to a party, where he will see a lady to whom he would like to declare his love. He talks to his reflection as he gets ready to go, projecting what his evening will be like in the rooms where "women come and go,/talking of Michelangelo." And he worries. What if the woman turns him down, or, worse yet, mocks him? Rather than face the possibility of rejection, he opts not to venture out at all. He stays in his rooms, facing a future full of regret wondering whether he dares to eat a peach, growing old and rolling his trousers at the bottoms. Poor guy.

Prufrock misses his chance to declare his feelings, and perhaps find real love, because he cannot bring himself to put himself out there. As a good friend once pointed out, he's worried about both his emotional and perhaps also his literal impotence, as when he asks, "will I have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" He's a very careful man. You can tell this from the line, "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." A coffee spoon, for those of you who do not carefully pay attention to silverware, is significantly smaller than a teaspoon. He is a man who worries. What will people think of his appearance? The insect metaphor - that if he declares himself, he will be an insect, formulated (anesthetized) and pinned to the wall on display - is brilliant. How clinical, how horrible, to think of being a specimen pinned up for all to see and discuss.

The poem is beautifully unified by quite a lot of end rhyme. It doesn't follow any obvious, fixed pattern, yet it is there, and by being there, the poem feels much like music when read aloud. In the end, I find myself feeling sorry for Prufrock and his missed opportunities. As I said in 2006, "the pity one feels for Prufrock is tempered by disdain for his decision not to act. Because it becomes clear that when we don't act, it's not just inertia (an object at rest remaining at rest). Because we are not objects, we are subjects -- we act (or choose not to). And so, for today, I will not measure out my day with a coffee spoon. I will not roll my trousers. I will go out into the day, and greet it. And I will hope it greets me back."

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1 comment:

Suzanne said...

Fabulous post. I think I'll put it on my reading list for my students. Thanks.