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.