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Critical Essay by J. G. Keogh
SOURCE: "Mr. Prufrock's Big City Blues," in Antigonish Review, Nos. 66-67, Summer-Autumn, 1986, pp. 75-9.
In the essay below, Keogh compares Eliot's poem "Prufrock" with blues music.
Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying that the love-song of Eliot's "Prufrock" is a blues song, and he related it to the interface between urban and agrarian life in the American South. In "Mr. Eliot and the St. Louis Blues," McLuhan wrote
Further, the peculiar character of jazz derives from the South, perhaps because of the interplay between industrial and metropolitan life, on one hand, and agrarian life, on the other hand. People situated on the frontiers between metropolitan and agrarian culture are naturally inclined to interplay them. The sounds of the city can be poured through the spoken idiom in such areas.
I suppose the original nostalgia of the slave for his African homeland eventually mutated into the urban black's anguished longing for rural roots on the farm and the plantation. That same lonesome whistle blew, more wistfully, for the newly urbanized white at the turn of the century (when "Prufrock" was written, at Harvard), no longer down on the farm, whether native emigrant or foreign.
While visiting his birthplace in Missouri in the 1950s, Eliot referred to the yellow fog in "Prufrock" as being "a St. Louis fog, now abated by the timely St. Louis smoke ordinance." The region of southern Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis, is quite notorious for the polluting qualities of its soft, high sulphur coal. "The Love Song" begins with an invitation to the reader to visit an urban inferno whose streets are full of sliding yellow smoke, a forbidding region whose smoggy river mist has anesthetized even the evening sky. Invisible only to the eye, gas-lamps only "mutter" (just as electric carbide lamps "sputter" in a later poem), and place the reader in an enchanted and acoustic space.
Eliot's poem is prefixed with an earlier revelation from below, Dante's fraudulent Count Guido in the Inferno, a spectre speaking from within a shaking flame. Prufrock's equivalent seems to be the magic lantern in the medical theatre, with its anatomy chart of the nervous system flung out in patterns on the screen. Controversial, polygraph. But Prufrock's depths are watery, not fiery; and when, sprawling and wriggling, he finds himself in the poison bottle or in a bit of hot water, he retreats into his shell. He can think only of a pair of ragged claws, scuttling for safety across the sea-floor.
Discussing the significance which Baudelaire held for him in "What Dante Means to Me" (To Criticize the Critic) Eliot quotes Baudelaire's description of the swarming city,
Fourmillante Cité, cité pleine de rêves,
Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant
a city full of dreams, where ghosts in broad daylight clutch at the passer-by. Eliot's comment: "I knew what that meant, because I had lived it before I knew that I wanted to turn it into verse on my own account." And he continues,
From him, as from Laforgue, I learned that the sort of material that I had, the sort of experience that an adolescent had had, in an industrial city in America, could be the material for poetry; and that the source of new poetry might be found in what had been regarded hitherto as the impossible, the sterile, the intractably unpoetic.
Watched by lonely men in shirt-sleeves, this is the sort of experience which Prufrock has had too ("young man," Eliot called him) but like Count Guido he recounts it as discarnate spectre.
What Dante could turn to poetic account in the Inferno and Eliot in his "Love Song," the wailing horns of jazz and the blues did for urban America—a good half-century before the Beatles learned to do it for the industrial midlands of England. In view of McLuhan's insights into these and other matters, it is in no way surprising that the composer of "Mood Indigo," Duke Ellington, should have held him in such high regard.
In "The Music of Poetry" (On Poetry and Poets), one of the essays of Eliot from which McLuhan quoted frequently, there appears the following intriguing passage about blues and the nonsense verse of Edward Lear.
His non-sense is not vacuity of sense: it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense of it. The Jumbles is a poem of adventure, and of nostalgia for the romance of foreign voyage and exploration; the Yongy-Bongy Bo and The Dong with a Luminous Nose are poems of unrequited passion—'blues' in fact.
Eliot's "Prufrock" certainly reveals its affinity with the nonsense world of Carroll and Lear. Of equal interest is Eliot's statement in "From Poe to Valéry" (delivered in America) that the only poet in England or America whose style appears to have been formed by a study of Poe was—Edward Lear. He mentions this while discussing the exceptional feeling of Poe for "the incantatory element" in poetry. Eliot owned several of Lear's landscape paintings, but we can be sure that the incantatory rhythms and interior landscapes of Lear's poetry influenced him far more.
Incantation ("There will be time, there will be time") is noticeably present in "Prufrock," and is largely responsible for the aura of self-hypnosis which hovers about the poem. And of course the blues, with their traditional repetition in the first two lines of any stanza, are the archetype of incantation. The closest thing we have to a blues lyric in the poem can be found in the three elaborately wrought stanzas beginning, "For I have known them all ready, known them all." They are, like many blues songs, sung by Prufrock to himself. They even include a reference to the Elizabethan musical term "a dying fall," a melancholy harmonic progression found in love songs of the period (the 'blacks' as it were).
It does not seem to have been noticed that the verses in the scene at the end of "Prufrock" share a music-hall rhythm with Lewis Carroll.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
Momentarily jarred from the depths of his dreamy sea-cave, and debating whether to sport about on the sunlit strand, Prufrock with his rag-time question seems to echo Carroll's "Lobster Quadrille" ("Will you join the dance?") and the rhythm of
Will you walk a little faster?" said whiting to the snail,
There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail."
If Prufrock in his morning coat earlier in the poem, in his boiled shirt and tails, did not so much suggest the lobster (even to himself) we might even take him for Alice's white rabbit—no longer preoccupied with time and an approaching appointment, but lounging on the beach with a copy of the latest Playboy.
We have lingered. But Count Guido assures us from the epigraph that "none ever did return alive from this depth." No survivor, and certainly no social butterfly, Prufrock is unable to skim the social surface, and remains sunk in the social whirl. Unlike Strephon, Prufrock never saw his goddess go. His mermaids ride, while he walks. They sing, while he talks. Their world has ever gone on wheels. And so they sing to each other, but he does not expect them to sing to him.
Surrounded and confounded by the variety of life, Prufrock is locked into one mood, as in the blues, or according to Eliot as in any of the successful poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Eliot explains the success of Poe's magical verse and richness of melody in the same essay
It has the effect of an incantation which, because of its very crudity, stirs the feelings at a deep and almost primitive level.
This is the very technique employed by the creators of contemporary rock music, as they stir the global village, mixing memory and desire. Any too abrupt surfacing from such moody depths entails the risk of blood froth and of bends. As we emerge from the anesthetic the pain returns, along with more prosaic voices. A song lulled us to sleep, now human voices wake us. We are unable any longer to drown our sorrow in song, so now our sorrow drowns us. This is the music we must face once the ether has worn off, and the butterfly taken out of the chloroform bottle. After a night of singing the blues, the morning has come to consciousness. We are once again on display.
This section contains 1,400 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)