Monday, May 9, 2016

they knew that it was modern - J. Alfred Prufrock looks for a girlfriend

Howling Frog inspired me to revisit, after a couple of decades, T. S. Eliot’s first book, or pamphlet, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) – what an enticing cover – which in 31 pages contains “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and other good poems.

I find that the status of Eliot, however eroded now, mutes his humor, so what a good reminder how funny he can be, in his grim way.  Plus I made two “discoveries,” first that the poems make perfect sense – more sense – if they are assumed to be about and in the voice of a single character.  Prufrock, I’ll call him.

He is timid and anxious; he imagines proposing to a woman but does nothing but dither; he is constantly in the society of Boston women of an intellectual type – lots of afternoon concerts – many of whom are his cousins and aunts; he exists in a state of perpetual sexual frustration.  The horsey cousin, Nancy, is especially exciting and unattainable.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
but they knew that it was modern.  (34)

Prufrock is going abroad soon (see “Portrait of a Lady” – “’You hardly know when you are coming back, / You will find so much to learn’” – also see Eliot’s biography) and by the end of the sequence takes, or possibly imagines, his farewell to Boston and one or more real or imaginary woman (“La Figlia che Piange”).

Prufrock is commonly taken as middle-aged, but my second “discovery” was that the poems seem more comprehensible and funnier if Prufrock is young, if he is somewhere around Eliot’s age, twenty-five, maybe.  Just as an example, his anxiety about his bald spot is funnier if the balding barely exists.  His related anxiety about his sexual potency is more pathetic, and the poem (“Rhapsody on a Windy Night”) where he spends the night wandering the streets, resisting the temptation to engage a prostitute, more frightening.  His strong senses of disgust and inadequacy help him in that case.  Poor guy is a mess.

Eliot omits a lot of narrative information from any given poem, so what I am doing is filling in the gaps in one poem with scraps of the other poems.  If I pull out a poem by itself, I get a different interpretation, sure.

Marina Tsvetayeva called newspaper readers faceless skeletons.  Eliot says

The readers of the Boston Evening TranscriptSway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
When evening quickens faintly in the street,

Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the end of the street,
And I say, “Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript.” (32)

First,  the joke, of the “there are two kinds of people” variety, and what kind is the poor speaker?  Second, if I take this to be Prufrock then he has come over from Cambridge to attend one of his aunt’s “evenings” where the women talk of Michelangelo or “hear the latest Pole / Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and fingertips” (17-18).  Actually, that is specified to be an afternoon concert in “Portrait of a Lady,” the one poem where the narrator is directly identified as young, unless you want the person addressing him to be older, in which case the passage is ironic in a different way.

‘You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.’
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.  (19)

The famous fog-as-cat passage of “Prufrock” is the best thing in the book.  The fogs coils its way into several other poems.  Maybe I should have just written about that.

“Squalid,” Howling Frog calls these poems.  I say they’re the all time great poetic sequence about a guy who needs a girlfriend.


  1. Eliot certainly is not squalid - an interesting reading of his book here!


  2. Prufrock has its squalid side, "Rhapsody on a Winter Night" most prominently, where the upright, uptight narrator wishes he were more squalid, envying the cat that "devours a morsel of rancid butter." In general, the poems set in Eliot's - I mean Prufrock's - Cambridge lodgings have some squalidity, in contrast to the elegance of the homes of Prufrock's cousins across the river in Boston.

    The winter evening settles down
    With smell of steaks in passageways.
    Six o'clock.
    The burnt-out ends of smoky days. ("Prelude," I)

  3. Hmmmm. I seem to remember it as an "old man" poem, so I will have to take another look with an eye to reading it as a "young man" poem. I'm also nowadays especially interested in Christian writers, and I seem to recall that TSE went through a conversion (or was it a rejection?), so I will be rereading the "old/young man" poem wit an eye to signs of religious impulses. Hmmmm.

  4. Each poem in the Prufrock collection has enough gaps that readers have a lot of room to imagine different characters in the role. "Young Prufrock" is really a creation of the book, not the poem.

    The common interpretation takes Prufrock as middle-aged, whatever that might mean. He imagines that he is an old man.

  5. I read about him publishing it at 25, and so found it quite easy to imagine him as a young man worried about getting old alone. It's pretty easy to FEEL old at 24. He really does need a girlfriend.

    I dunno, I felt that a lot of the description and imagery was squalid. But then, I'm not much good at this literary interpretation stuff, and am perfectly willing to listen to yours. :)

  6. Once I caught the idea, it began to seem strange to me how easily readers assume Prufrock is not young. The autobiographical elements are pretty blatant.

    I thought "squalid" was a useful description! That's why I plucked it out of your post:

    One thinks of all the hands
    That are raising dingy shades
    In a thousand furnished rooms.

  7. I like this idea. "Prufrock" baffled me a lot when I read it last fall. But all the old man stuff is in the future, yes? "I will..." or "when I..." He will have a bald spot; he doesn't yet.

    Maybe he's a young man trapped at a dinner and wishing he could skive off and slum it in a more exciting part of town? I don't know any of the other poems in the edition you read. My copy puts "Prufrock" with "The Waste Land" and some of Eliot's later religious work.

  8. Exactly, self-pitying Prufrock imagines himself old, alone, and unlovable. There is a line of interpretation in which Prufrock does not even leave his room. The women are all imaginary or elsewhere. Maybe the fog is real, visible from his room. For me this destroys the poem, and makes no sense pushed against the rest of the book.

    Lots of things fall into place int he context of the chapbook. Oh, this is Boston. Oh, some of these women are his cousins and aunts. Etc.

  9. Maybe most read Profrock in college around age 20, then we don't read it again for 30 years or so. So upon our seconding reading the feelings of youth return.

  10. Older readers want him younger, younger want him older. Maybe! But really, read the chapbook, not just the poem - the shift will seem obvious.

  11. It's a long time since I read Prufrock but rereading it now I felt that there was much that Morrissey might steal in it and I was thinking a lot of Hamlet before Hamlet arrived. (Perhaps this was my memory but I don't think so. The poem is filled with a young man's prevarications and romantic notions ..)

  12. Morissey - ha ha ha - funny but a good comparison. Maybe some readers have never known 20 year-olds who act like they are 50 years older.