Friday, April 03, 2015
There Will Be Time at 100 Years: T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by Michael T. Steffen
T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by Michael T. Steffen
The tuning of the ear for poetry changes so much in the course of 100 years from poet to poet individually as well as for a collective readership. Indeed, within only a few years of first publishing
The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock in the June 1915 issue of Poetry magazine, T. S. Eliot was on the verge of processing the crux of his secular experience, upon the threshold of writing The Waste Land and joining a more rarified coterie of appreciation—becoming seriously challenging for readers. He was making moral terminology blare, scrivening names for their tonal rather than referential significations, forging nature and objects into symbol, codified, as in this passage from “Gerontion”:
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;
By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles…
It is still important to know there was little innocence creeping toward World War II. Yet for readers of poetry who want lines they can fathom and appreciate, the passage from Prufrock beginning with “The yellow fog that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes” will light up curiosity and recognition in most attentive readers being enchanted to the vision of a feline anima in the quiet gliding movements of wisps of fog:
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.
It is a durable passage, so long as there are cats that behave in the character of cats and fog in the world for readers to have something to make the lines and its images relevant, and brilliant in the metaphor of their superposition.
Inspired by the title of Kipling’s “The Love Song of Har Dyal,” Eliot called his poem a love song. It proves a very peculiar love song at that, I thought upon first discovering Prufrock, at 21 going on 67.
At that still mostly world-protected age, the sour ingredients of life recorded in the poem had not been experienced very much. I hadn’t had that close of an encounter with “a patient etherised upon a table,” “half deserted streets,” “yellow fog” or “yellow smoke.” I hadn’t come to the intellectual exasperation and rage to out-Herod Ecclesiastes with “time to murder and create”—(the expression of a generation’s bitterness with the institutional politics making decisions for the trench warfare killings in France).
I was just then only becoming aware of the “bald spot in the middle of my hair.” I had a slight, maybe somewhat nervous laugh for Prufrock’s loneliness, the narrow streets he walked, his caution at eating a peach and delicacy to call it a peach.
With that peach, and other images in his early poetry, was Eliot irresponsibly making risky suggestions to his innocent reader? Or have art and literature been permitted more license in their depictions of the serpent whispering to Eve in the garden? Is truth to outweigh grace? Going back at least to Chaucer, one of the distinctions of poets writing in English has been their failure to idealize or chastise their subjects too much. In his essay on Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy, Eliot cautioned us against mistaking identities between Hamlet the sympathetic character and Hamlet the play of his world of intrigues and miscarried acts, let alone mistaking the character for the dramatist. Prufrock descends via Browning in
a tradition of dramatic poetry whose readers should understand the distance between character and author, between mirror and gavel.
My early reading, as it is said of our hearing sometimes, was selective, according to my young optimism for a good and pleasurable world. In spite of the decadence and anxiety that imbue Prufrock, the poem evokes a sort of euphoria in its imagery, in a music of formal rhythms and resonant rimes. Holding onto the good, letting the bad sift through, or downplaying it (even Prufrock’s weariness with his pleasures and comforts), the poem, reading it over, kept swaying me with its “evening spread out against the sky,” “our visit,” “the women come and go” and “Michelangelo,” his “collar mounting firmly to the chin,” his “necktie rich and modest,” and, promising sensuality, “arms that are braceleted and white and bare” and again “Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.” I hadn’t come to historical criticism yet, to think that Eliot wrote these lines during the “war to end all wars,” when the word “arms” connoted with undertones of dissonance. (Nor would this be the first time I’d encounter the association between Venus and Mars.)
I was lulled by how “the afternoon, the evening sleeps so peacefully!”—not understanding that exclamation mark, that the reason Prufrock found himself walking those argumentative streets through the night till dawn was because he’d been napping earlier in the day. Yet I went on relishing in the “tea and cakes and ices,” “the cups, the marmalade, the tea … novels … teacups,” the “sprinkled streets,” the “skirts that trail along the floor,” and “mermaids singing…riding seaward on the waves, Combing the white hair of the waves blown back…”
While Prufrock was amusing and genuine in his intellectual dilemma, Eliot who channeled the genius
of the poem’s language, suggesting a considerable literary culture, impressed me. I was getting how much a poet could mean to his culture and what authority that gave him. You’d have to be afraid of her before you could get cheeky enough to ask, Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf ?—with help from the popular song for the Disney cartoon. The great writers and intellectuals of that age were awarded a dignity, even with a little disdain, that is difficult by our standards to comprehend. History with the European wars had heroes and authority in the making. My parents’ generation was shaken by the Civil Rights movement, which for the West challenged and softened, in some cases altogether blurred or erased, relationships of authority, not only between white and black and men and women, but also between parents and children, teachers and students, guides and hikers, writers and readers.
No more than seven hundred years ago Dante wrote the lines recording a conversation which took place in the other world—imagined, spiritual, instructive, motivational—between himself and the spirit of Guido da Montefeltro. Guido, Wikipedia tells us,
was condemned to the eighth circle of Hell for providing counsel to Pope Boniface VIII,
who wished to use Guido’s advice for a nefarious undertaking. This encounter follows
Dante’s meeting with Ulysses, who himself is also condemned to the circle of the Fraudulent.
Just six hundred years later, six lines from Dante spoken by Guido (da Montefeltro) appeared as the epigraph of Prufrock, with its authority lending Eliot’s new poem consideration, even respect. The passage may have also suggested an awareness by Eliot of the moral risks involved in writing drama and fiction.
In time Prufrock would gain a wider popularity than The Waste Land—a more mature, more meaningful poem. Just because it’s popular, doesn’t make a poem great. Because of my exposure to it, and because it was very catchy, the jingle from an ad run for Libby’s canned fruit will be somewhere on my mind probably for the rest of my life: When it says Libby’s Libby’s Libby’s on the label label label, you will like it like it like it on your table table table… Repetition and pleasure find homes in our inner-ear, making their way to residency in memory. Music alone, with no immediate semantic definition, is, many say, the most sublime of the arts.
Rime and meter ideally help make poems memorable. There are other mnemonic devices, such as the alphabet, our primary encounter with consciously signified language. Many poets have used the A B C motif to organize poems. Robert Pinsky wrote what was to become also a quite popular poem titled “ABC” of twenty-six words, each beginning with a letter of the alphabet and worked in sequence:
Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,
Libby’s labels and tables is not bad in the way of prosody for poetry, playing to our love for liquid consonance and rime, entertaining tongue and ear. The jingle’s triadic repetitions also help drum it
into our minds. I’ll skip the critique of advertising and its aim on our impulses, and just point out that the epigraph from Dante and Eliot’s text voicing the inner thoughts of his fictional persona are, though much more complex, similarly sonorous and pleasurable:
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza più scosse.
Ma perciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
The sibilants in the quote from Dante imitate Guido’s whisper, as he is preparing to confide a guarded, innermost secret, that of the ruin of his converted life and salvation. Eliot’s lines comically skim a like topic. And a like topic inspires the widely remembered lines of another immensely popular poem from
the 20th century, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl :
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking foran angry fix…
Read in proximity to the lines from Dante and the couplet by Eliot, the lines by Ginsberg are shockingly direct. Part of the impact of the poetry of Ginsberg’s time is that they write “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…looking for an angry fix,” whereas the sensibilities for poetry in Eliot’s time would have him write about “tea and cakes and ices.” Then again, where the données of Yeats’s social climate would have him speak of a rose dying on a cross, Eliot would be so bold in the third line of Prufrock to mention “a patient etherised upon a table,” shocking in itself for the time.
Back to the epigraph for Prufrock. It is noteworthy that, by his choice of those six lines from the Dante passage, Eliot’s interest is less in the events of Guido’s undoing than in his prefatory deliberations about relating the story. If what Guido has heard is true, that what is said in Hell stays in Hell, the story can never return to the living. Guido hasn’t thought about this enough to realize that part of being in Hell
is that there is no such reliable authority as truth (il vero) in that region of torments and, therefore, he should doubt what he has heard. It makes a case for the parenthetical placement of his statement—s’i’odo il vero, if what I’ve heard is true—in the line by Dante. It is syntactically spotlighted, noticeable.
Most often, that a story has no chance of being considered is a cause for people, direly for poets, to give up on taking the pains to make an expression at all. These silences build up in a collective reservoir, ever being replenished, of what we call the ineffable, the things that are there but that we can’t say, are under some enchantment from saying. Finding out how to skim from that reservoir and awake the reader can serve as a good inspiration for poets when their joys and pains, loves and losses go silent for a day or so.
Guido, however, a gossip, liar and an instigator, would rather that the story of his betrayal not mean anything, stay secure in the promise of Hell’s silence, the condition which especially allows him to confide in Dante. A polar opposite to the poet and his ambition for the renown of his lines (So long as men can breathe or eyes can see), or at least for contemporary appreciation, Guido’s bitter relish in telling his story is that his words will not live. One keen pleasure for countless readers of the passage over the last seven centuries lies in the irony that, in spite of Guido’s certainty that his story will not get around to spread his infamy, the account in fact has wound up before all of our eyes to read again, memorably expressed in one of the most widely read and carefully considered literary works ever produced!
Closely paralleling its epigraph, again and again the Prufrock text protests at the obstacles, impossibility, even futility, of significant expression:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’…
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?...
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?...
(It seemed important to Ginsberg to witness “the best minds of my generation…dragging themselves through the…streets at dawn,” a very different portrait of bachelor loneliness than that given by Eliot.)
Would it have been worth while…
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards 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’…
It is impossible to say just what I mean!...
Add to these the famous student composition lines,
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse…
and Prufrock’s pathetic (truly with pathos) doubt about the destiny of the inspiration he has happened to be audience to,
I have heard the mermaids singing each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me…
That’s a good deal, 22 of the poem’s 131 lines, just less than a fifth, given to or echoing the theme announced by the epigraph from Dante, justifying Eliot’s use of it as a rather direct thematic reference. This becomes especially clear in contrast to the more tangential, generally allusive bearing of the lines from Virgil’s Aeneid, with the boys questioning the Sybil in her cage at Cumae, used to introduce
The Waste Land.
It is clearer in this light that Eliot’s techniques are somewhat obvious (for Eliot) in his early masterpiece. Prufrock is by no means a simple poem. Ezra Pound was astonished, by the evidence of its lines, at how Eliot had been able to “train and modernize himself” apparently on his own.
For a popular poem it is somewhat long, running just over Poe’s definition of 100 lines for an ideal read of one sitting. Yet because of its complexity, the irony destabilizing or blurring Prufrock’s genuine frustration and despair with thoughtful responses, cultural reference and wit (“the works and days of hands That lift and drop a question on your plate”), Prufrock sustains the reader’s attention with surprise and variety, avoiding lapses into tedious effort.
The sonority of the rimes, “cheap hotels” and “oyster-shells,” “window panes” and “stand in drains,” “sudden leap” and “fell asleep,” etc., are nearly Seuss-like in their playfulness and aptly serve, I think,
to ballast the poem’s topical sarcasm with a subtle encouraging music. Baudelaire had fascinated the French half a century earlier with his use of masterly waltzing Alexandrines in regular riming patterns to depict the cacophonous characters and attitudes of the streets in Paris. That incongruity between form and content made the poems from Les Fleurs du mal bizarre and intriguing.
In his critical essay on Dante, Eliot famously stated that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. His appreciation of Laforgue, Baudelaire and the French symbolist movement led him to compose poetry for effects of music, erasing or confusing as much of the plain semantic register as possible. The very contrast of the “poetic” second line and the troubling third line with its medical term creates an effect of mood otherwise inexpressible:
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table…
Similarly there are leaps and shifts of mood and tone between the sensible, educated, often ironic Prufrock persona who evokes Michelangelo, Hamlet, John the Baptist, and the self-deprecating comedian that mentions the thinning of his hair and arms and legs, and yet again the more solemn, sensitive Prufrock that sees the cat in the yellow fog and despairs at the eternal Footman who snickers at him and prompts him to confide,
And in short, I was afraid.
Few, if any of today’s poets, write with as much tonal complexity, playfulness, doubt and delicacy as Eliot did in this very early poem. Perhaps some of the persona’s anxieties about adequate speech derive from the prominent and ample music of the poem’s language itself, its suspensions, its arpeggios of mood and wit. To an extent, this admits to and somehow wants to excuse the poem’s luxuriousness.
The statements of frustration about not knowing just what he means, as it were, awake the reader from the enchantment of the music. The poem’s concluding lines make a reprise of this turn of linguistic mood:
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.
In light of the indulgent social and volatile political climates at the time Prufrock was being written,
in the poem’s anticipation of what lay ahead for his readers in England and America, this was not an inconsiderable trope, mesmerizing and awaking the reader, for Eliot to have devised and made sense of, with his habit of showing rather than telling.
On the occasion of celebrating the 100th anniversary of a poem, with its epigraph from Dante reaching back another 600 years +, we come by a very tangible, localized means, the poem, to the consideration of a more elusive end, that of perpetuity, of another hundred years, and another hundred, for the poems being published newly today to be celebrated for their ability to relate the lasting things, ideas, attitudes and feelings of their language and cultural moment.