The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Critical Essay by J. Peter Dyson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
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Critical Essay by J. Peter Dyson

SOURCE: "Word Heard: Prufrock Asks His Question," in Yeats Eliot Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1978, pp. 33-5.

In the following essay, Dyson contradicts Robert M. Seiler's arguments, stating that Eliot does pose a question in "Prufrock."

An assumption seems to have grown up over the years that no precise meaning can be assigned to the "overwhelming question" in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." When Prufrock cries, "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" one is meant, apparently, to see the impossibility as referring, above all, to the formulation of the question. One can certainly agree with Balachandra Rajan, in his recent book, The Overwhelming Question, that "Prufrock" owes its effect as much to what is not in the poem as to what is, but Rajan's denial of the question's presence in the poem tends to diminish unnecessarily Eliot's accomplishment. Surely the "overwhelming question" is there in the poem, there in the way demanded by the methodology of the poem. One of the stranger aspects of the Prufrock "question" is the way in which critics, whether assuming the question to be present in the poem or not, have refrained from making clear what the question actually is and how it is present if, indeed, it is present.

It seems for a moment as if Robert M. Seiler, in his interesting article, "Prufrock and Hamlet," is about to elucidate the matter once and for all since he recognizes that the imaginative link between the two characters rests on their respective capacities to approach the great question. However, Seiler quickly allies himself with such predecessors as Elizabeth Drew, George Williamson, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, who posit Prufrock's inability to identify the question. "The fundamental difference between [Hamlet and Prufrock]," writes Seiler, "is a psychological one: Hamlet formulates his 'question' while Prufrock can only hint that he has one in the back of his mind."

The difficulty stems, apparently, from Prufrock's nebulous-ness of mind—that mind which wanders about and slithers through the digressions of the poem like the enigmatic fog-cat which is its metaphor. Prufrock's intelligence lacks the all-encompassing grip of Hamlet's, the argument goes; it cannot come to terms with the complexities of modern life in the way that Hamlet's was able to get the measure of the (lesser?) complexities of the Renaissance. It is precisely because he senses life to be so overwhelming that he finds it impossible to ask any relevant question—let alone expect an answer; Prufrock cannot, therefore, objectify or universalize his plight. The poem is reduced to a digressive exploration of an emotional state; the logical exploration of the "human condition" represented in Hamlet is not possible in the twentieth century. By accepting Seiler's premises, one is forced to accede to his conclusion that "Prufrock's inability to formulate any of Hamlet's questions or answers, according to T. S. Eliot, prevents him from being able to say, 'I suffer'."

Seiler seems to be about to grasp the central truth concerning Prufrock's relationship to his question when he writes, "In his 'To be or not to be' soliloquy (III, 1, 56-88), for example, Hamlet confronts the abyss with his typical rigorous self-analysis, and confesses his procrastination." But, in restricting the meaning of Hamlet to Hamlet, Seiler is led to restrict the meaning of "Prufrock" to Prufrock. To limit the vision of the poem to the vision of the protagonist is to miss the central poetic device of the poem and the climactic working-out of the Hamlet-Prufrock link. The reason Prufrock has no "To be or not to be" is simplicity itself; he has none because he uses Hamlet's.

To think of Prufrock as merely incapable of formulating the question is to expect Eliot to depart from the poetic presuppositions of the poem, which are that everything Prufrock aspires to appears in the poem as echo, including the "overwhelming question." One need only read the relevant line of "Prufrock" with the proper stress for the question to leap into focus. The line is, of course, the climactic line of the poem: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." If one stresses it, "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be," the meaning is, "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be [Prince Hamlet]." If, however, one uses the obvious alternative stress, the meaning of the line becomes simply, "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." The echo is immediate: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be or not to be, that is the question" [emphasis added].

Prufrock does, in effect, formulate his question, Hamlet's question—the question of the ages, Renaissance and twentieth-century—but he can do it only indirectly, by allusion. Characteristically, he poses it by answering it negatively and, by Eliot's brilliant manipulation of tenses, simultaneously in advance yet as part of the already vanished past. The questions within the poem modulate from the direct possibility of "Do I dare?" and "Shall I say?" through the dubious possibility of "How should I?" to the past impossibility of "Would it have been?" The allusive structure of the "Prufrock" climax means both that the reply to the question—"No?"—is given prior to the posing of the question and that the verb identifying Prufrock's reason for responding negatively—"am not meant"—assigns the initiative elsewhere. Hamlet's question, posing direct though opposite possibilities, is made, by Eliot's syntactical manipulation of the echo, to express the impotence of present impossibility. Prufrock's version of the Hamlet question then takes its place naturally in the sequence started by Prufrock's initial "do not ask 'What is it?'" as the technical and emotional climax of what Rajan has called "the outline of failure."

While it may be possible to argue about whether or nor Prufrock is conscious of the echo, it is not possible to wonder whether Eliot is. "Prufrock" remains a poem about the difficulties of realizing one's nebulous potentialities, but the framework retains a precision that serves to place Prufrock and his predicament not outside the formulations available to the English literary tradition, as critics such as Seiler would suggest, but emphatically within them.

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This section contains 1,027 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by J. Peter Dyson