Monday, 2 January 2017

T.S. Eliot – Deconstructing The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Echo and Narcissus
Painting by Nicholas Poussin
Public Domain

Appreciating the many of layers of this long poem can be confusing.
In his book, T.S. Eliot: the Poems, Martin Scofield says that “Prufrock”, "... as well as being a mask for the poet, is an "observation." Eliot's use of masks allows him to diversify freely in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock so that, on the surface, the poem is a combination of fragmented social observations of his failed attempted relationships with women. Even Prufrock's name is ironic and is deliberately provocative. "Pru" stands for "prudish" while "frock" is a female garment, so that the name sounds a little like the old British insult for a hopeless man: "a big girl's blouse."
On a deeper level, the poem is a "theatre of consciousness... Prufrock's interior monologue." It is this which makes its fragmentary arrangements logical and the irregular rhyming scheme appropriate. Contrasts and unexpected changes of style/voice feature in the poem. the confidential style of the opening stanza, "Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out..." juxtaposes with, "Like a patient etherized upon a table." The language provides shock value, but is evocative. The simile is less confusing when considering Eliot's view of the evening as the still, unconscious time, when noise and bustle of the working day is over.
Ambiguity and the Double-Self
Authors of critical studies offer various interpretations of the identity of the initial "we" and the subsequent "you and me" in the poem. As a poetic device, it is clear the first line deliberately draws the reader in. Martin Scofield suggests: "One's first sense is that it is the person, presumably a woman, to whom Prufrock is addressing his love song." Scofield encounters problems with the more ambiguous "you and me." He says, "Prufrock is addressing himself in his song, addressing a kind of alter ego." He likens Prufrock's "self-love and self-absorption" to "The Death of Saint Narcissus."
Robert Southam, quoting Eliot, says. "I am prepared to assert that the "you" in "The Love Song" is merely some friend or companion... and that it has no emotional content whatsoever," although later, Eliot contradicts himself by asserting he is "...employing the notion of the split personality." Southam's conclusion is that Eliot had borrowed from Bergson's "Time and Free Will" which develops the idea of the double self, "one aspect being the everyday self... the other a deeper self."
The questions posed and the defences dredged up from Prufrock's anxious, appeasing self are in the common language of dialogue. They seem to need, yet seem not to expect, an answer. The paradox arises because, throughout the poem, Prufrock portrays himself as victim, out of his depth in society. His unease is expressed in lines such as: "... prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet." He has succumbed to his destiny, although a part of him continues to cling to hope.
Verb-Driven Emotion
Eliot uses metaphors which are melodramatic, yet at the same time distressing. "And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin / When I am pinned and wriggling on a wall." Much of the emotion in Prufrock's predicament is expressed in the use of verbs: sprawling, pinned, wriggling. Ultimately, Prufrock is a man bereft of power, unable to believe in himself as he is, nor to change into his perception of what others, in his view, might expect.
Eliot uses dramatic irony. "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Again, the self-derision is intensified in "scuttling," a verb used to describe the low, crawling progeny of the earth, to which Prufrock, half-humorously, compares himself.
In the poem, women appear only as disembodied eyes and arms, for example: "Arms that lie along a table, or wrap around a shawl," Although erotic, this emphasises the absence of an individual whole woman, revealing Prufrock's inadequate, fragmented personality. The repetition intensifies the tiredness of a defeated Prufrock, driven to continue behaviour patterns that, since they are all he has ever known, represent his only means of communcation with the external world.
Time is a recurring feature. Southam says that Eliot is: "...echoing the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes iii, 1-7: "To everything there is a season." Also, he refers to the process of death and rebirth: "There will be time to murder and create." He is frustrated with the chaotic, unstable elements of time: "For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."
This is a man for whom time is the enemy. It has made him old and undesirable. He reflects on his wasted youth: "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." When he says: "Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in on a platter," he identifies with John the Baptist.
Eliot, Hulme and the Inner Life
Southam quotes Hulme, a philosopher admired by Eliot. Hulme describes the inner life: "...compared to a continual rolling up... for our past follows us, it swells... consciousness means memory." Eliot takes on this concept, asking, "And would it have been worth it, after all," and five lines later, "To have squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question." Scofield comments: "The mind of Prufrock is unable to cohere into a single train of thought, unable to squeeze "the universe into a ball..." Prufrock admits this failing. "Is it a perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress."
The most musical lines in the poem, with their stunning assonance, appear towards the end. "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown." The final line is a paradox. "Till human voices wake us and we drown." This is a tantalisingly ambiguous ending to the poem. Scofield says, "... the "reality" of the waking state may be less vital and real than that of the dream." Mermaids, traditionally, lured heroes from their tasks. If Scofield's suggestion is correct and that this allusion is intended by Eliot as central to the poem's meaning - then Scofield's assertion that: "... it is upon the rack of the eternal feminine that he is broken," applies equally well to the line.
It is a fitting conclusion when considering the theme of the poem. Certainly, from Prufrock's, or Eliot's viewpoint, it absolves him, finally, from personal responsibility for his fragmented condition.
Note: Although American by birth, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) became a British citizen at 39 years old.
The Waste Land and Other Poems, T.S. Eliot, Faber & Faber, 1940 (reset 1972.)
T.S. Eliot: The Poems, Martin Scofield, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot, B.C. Southam, Faber & Faber, 1968.

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