A Mad Man’s Love Song

imageTS Eliot presents us with a masterpiece, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Prufrock presents us with his indulgent despair. ‘Prufrock’ is profoundly morbid – an aging bourgeois fatalist having an existential crisis. He is alienated and withdrawn from the tedious society of bourgeois rooms where “the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo,” he is overcome by fear because of them, drawn to them and bored with them at once.

Prufrock gives nothing away to make him a like able person but what I like most about him is the gothic attention he gives to detail: “when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherised upon a table;” what is a particular delight is the cat-like nature Prufrock describes of the fog’s autumn movements: ‘rubs it’s back, licked it’s tongue, lingered, slipped by, curled once, fell asleep.’ If this is a love song it sounds like a funeral dirge – there’s not much hope in it, but it’s crushingly beautiful. I can’t speak to the historical context of the poem, but I’ll bet when it came out it was quite sensational, just on the virtue that it stirs the well of uncomfortable human emotions inside a person, and because of its dreary pessism and slights on society-itself.

Prufrock’s evaluations of himself are dominated by self-doubt, he is racked by paralyzingly indecision. He asks of himself the ultimate question, “do I dare disturb the universe?” and searches through the verses for some answer or meaning to the possibility of suicide. But it is a question he doesn’t feel worthy of, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;” then casts himself in the role of a cunning, meticulous, political foolish steward: a description more akin to the plotting ‘fishmonger’ Polonius.

“at times, indeed, almost ridiculous – almost, at times, the Fool.”

Speaking of fishmongers, Prufrock wants to crawl back into the ocean! “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas” says he. This image combined with his final lines where he talks of mermaids and “sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown…” reveals Prufrock’s ocean-themed romantic tendency toward fatalism; these are his comforting fantasies, these haunting dreams of depth and death. His closing line “…till human voices wake us, and we drown” exposes the extent of his social fears: they are a waking nightmare, they are a closer experience to drowning than even his darkest deep-sea fantasies. Furthermore, to pair the images of waking and dying within one line of movement, has an operatic effect, a brilliant one-two-curtain combo.

Did you listen to Eliot narrate his poem? That voice is… not the tone I imagined… it sounds like he was a little giddy from hitting the sauce. Ha! As I’ve learned, some words are just heavier on paper. How now? On an Eliot-related note I want to share some of Eliot’s words about inspiration from his lecture collection “The Use of Poetry”

That there is an analogy between mystical experience and some of the ways in which poetry is written I do not deny… To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away…. [producing an efflux of poetry].” Ref: Full Quote

One response

  1. I just wanted to let you know that I have bookmarked this post and shared it with other lit students and faculty who teach Eliot.

    You have an eye for design and a way with words.

    In appreciation,


    10/25/2013 at 08:43

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