18 December 2012

I am no Prophet—and Here’s no Great Matter:

Analysis of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” [1915]

T. S. Eliot

 The irony of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is readily apparent, not only in the eponymous speaker‘s ridiculous name—meant to imply a sense of emasculated prudishness—but also that Prufrock’s “love song” is actually his internalized monologue about indecision and alienation. In it, he contemplates acting boldly and romantically pursuing a woman, only to relent and ask, “would it have been worth it?”

“Prufrock” is particularly ironic, in light of the speaker’s dense literary references. Eliot was keenly aware of literary history, and in the poem, he continually utilizes allusion to diminish Prufrock’s significance. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is one of Eliot’s best known works, and Prufrock is undoubtedly his best known character. Yet, juxtaposed with great heros like Odysseus and Hamlet, Prufrock is impotent and inconsequential. More precisely, Prufrock is an exemplary modern anti-hero.

        The poem begins with an epigraph, an excerpt from Dante’s “Inferno”, in which the condemned speaker, Guido da Montefeltro, trapped in a flame that speaks for him, confides to Dante, “If I thought that my answer were to a person who would ever return to the world [and tell others], this flame would move no more [in speech]; but...from this depth, no one ever returned alive...(XXVII, 61-66).” Like Guido, Prufrock is (ostensibly) damned, doomed to live inside his mind; he is too cowardly to speak, lest he be judged unfavorably. Eliot almost makes the connection explicit in lines 84-86, wherein Prufrock laments, “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.” Both Guido and Prufrock are hesitant to reveal themselves.  Whereas Guido is hesitant because he is ashamed of his sins, Prufrock, less significantly, is merely insecure.

As in the poem’s epigraph, Prufrock himself makes several references to Christian mythology, as in lines 94-95, when he hypothetically proclaims, “...I am Lazarus, come from the dead / Come back to tell you all...” Given the epigraph, the irony of such a thought is immediately apparent; as stated above, “from this one ever returned.”

It should be noted that there are two separate biblical figures known as Lazarus, and in many editions of “Prufrock”, including Western Wind (p. 456), the Lazarus in question that is cited is that of John 11:1-44, the man whom Jesus resurrects from the dead.  Eliot may be intentionally conflating the two figures, but he is undoubtedly referencing the Lazarus of  Luke 16:19–31, the pitiful beggar whom Dives, a condemned rich man, requests Abraham to resurrect so that he may tell his brothers of his fate.  Like Prufrock, the Lazarus of Luke, is not resurrected, and therefore does not tell at all.  Furthermore, though Prufrock is relatively affluent, the image of Lazarus characterizes him as a pathetic man.

Before comparing himself to Lazarus, Prufrock does so with St. John the Baptist. The prophet, John, famously anticipated the coming of Jesus and preached adherence to Old Testament law. He was imprisoned and later executed for expressing disapproval of King Herod’s divorce and subsequent incestuous remarriage. Upon his execution, John’s head was presented to Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome, which she had requested as a gift. Prufrock, alludes to St. John in lines 82-83: “Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter, / I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter.” Here, as he does throughout the poem, Eliot spares no opportunity to highlight the speaker’s physical inadequacies and his obsession thereof. Not only does Prufrock pale in comparison of courage with John, who is often depicted with long flowing hair, but he is also not as handsome, a trait which the speaker believes to be just as detrimental.

In the “St. John” lines and throughout the poem, Prufrock reveals himself to be rather misogynistic. He repeatedly refers to “the women”—never "a woman”—and offers very few specifics.  Indeed, his thoughts describe a pattern of victimization and belief in a conspiracy to emasculate him. To Prufrock, “the women” are sociopathic and would flippantly ask for his head on a platter.  And in the lines 56-59 he equates conversing with them to being the subject of vivisection:

“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[?]”

Despite the fact that he is ostensibly middle aged, Prufrock’s misogynistic attitudes are quite immature, and more in line with those of a young man inexperienced with women; they are borne of self-pity and frustration rather than supposed superiority. Presumably, Prufrock’s misogyny could be indicative of Eliot’s own uneasiness with women. According to Peter Ackroyd’s biography, T.S. Eliot: A life, Eliot was raised in a Unitarian household, and to believe that sex was “nastiness”. Ackroyd writes, “Even by late 1914, his twenty-sixth year, he was still referring to himself as a virgin. (p.45)”  Eliot began composing “Prufrock” in 1910, and while it is certainly not autobiographical, the poet’s inexperience is reflected in that of Prufrock.  Though casual misogyny was not necessarily seen as unheroic in Eliot’s time, the manner in which it manifests itself for Prufrock is indicative of his immaturity.

In line 111, Prufrock concedes that cannot play the part of the hero. “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” he states, echoing the the famous opening lines from Prince Hamlet’s soliloquy (Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act III, scene 1). Prufrock momentarily compares himself with the tragic hero who is also tormented by indecision. Like Prufrock and Guido, Hamlet addresses a silent listener (the audience) as he contemplates suicide:

“But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover'd country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

...And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,”

As quickly as the comparison to Hamlet is raised, it is dismissed. Prufrock is not a hero, and he sees himself to be more like Polonius, counsellor to King Claudius (112-120):

“[I] 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.”

Here, Prufrock demonstrates a level of self awareness in his description. For all his traits, he posses no virtue; he is an anti-hero.

Eliot presses the issue further near the closing lines of the poem (124-125): “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”...Odysseus: a great hero, successful in battle. Sirens want to eat him. They don’t want pruf. Pruf is an anti hero.  indecisive and cowardly, mediocre...effectivness of the poem?...criticism...