Wednesday, April 15, 2009

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

So yesterday, I posted Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress", in which I noted that the point of the poem was, well, "let's get it on." And in the "history of the poet" portion of the analysis, I noted that Marvell was a "poet's poet." In particular, he was a favorite of T.S. Eliot's, and that Eliot wrote an essay about Marvell, in which he specifically praised the structure of Marvell's "Coy Mistress", and, indeed, specific lines, including "Had we but world enough, and time" and "Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball". And those lines find an echo in one of my favorite of Eliot's poems, which I featured as recently as January of this year. But as a selection of my favorite poetry could not be complete without Eliot and, indeed, without this particular poem, here it is again, with bonus content in the discussion. Because, y'know, full-service blogger.

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

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 one of my dearest friends once said, 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, particularly these rooms full of women.

The poem specifically echoes some of the lines from Andrew Marvell's poem, "To His Coy Mistress". For instance, Eliot's use of "there will be time" is an echo of the opening of Marvell's poem: "Had we but world enough, and time". And these lines: "To have squeezed the universe into a ball/To roll it toward some overwhelming question," are an echo of Marvell's "Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball." Only Prufrock is not seizing his day, in the manner of Marvell's speaker, but is questioning whether it would have been worth venturing.

In addition to including a bit of homage to Marvell, this poem pays its due to another of Eliot's poetic "crushes" (if you will), the French poet Jules LaForgue. The repeated chorus in Prufrock ("In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo") is based on a line by LaForgue: "Dans la piece les femmes vont et viennent / En parlant des maîtres de Sienne."
("In the room the women come and go/Talking of the Siennese [painting] masters.") The poem refers as well to two separate Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night and Hamlet.

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."

Today I add that I will dare to eat a peach, and hope to disturb the universe, at least a little bit. And you?

Kiva - loans that change lives

No comments: