The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Critical Essay by Grover Smith

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
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Critical Essay by Grover Smith

SOURCE: "'Prufrock' as Key to Eliot's Poetry," in Approaches to Teaching Eliot's Poetry and Plays, The Modern Language Association of America, 1988, pp. 88-93.

In the following essay, Smith discusses how teaching students the underlying structure of "Prufrock" introduces them to the broader concepts of Eliot's later works.

A strategy to identify the essence of Eliot beyond, as well as within, a single poem needs the right poem. To make "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" this poem, whether one is proposing to teach Eliot comprehensively or selectively, offers several advantages. "Prufrock" is familiar and is outstanding in interest and attractiveness; it comes near the beginning of the canon; it links in theme and technique with various other poems by Eliot; and, most useful, it anticipates certain equally familiar critical principles (two especially) that he was to declare. Those principles, though they only took shape ten years further on, in his most active period of critical theory, apply to "Prufrock" and other poems of the 1909–11 period because it was in these, as a practical exercise, that he discovered their necessity. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) he set forth a kind of theory of mutual adaptation between the poet and the cultural past; in "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921) he pointed to certain distinguished cases of poetic excellence achieved through unity of thought and feeling. (These papers, reprinted in Eliot's Selected Essays, are extremely interesting to read and are of value to the teacher. The best introductory summary of Eliot's critical theories is still René Wellek's 1956 essay in the Sewanee Review.) Tradition in the poetry of Eliot represents the impact of the past on the thought-feeling unity of the achieved work of art—the old renewing itself in the fresh and original. The two principles thus combine into one. Each entails for critics a kind of pons asinorum; for tradition to Eliot meant adapting the past, not copying it, and the unity of thought and feeling meant a poetic formulation, not a discharge of personal philosophy and passion—though indeed these might be sources for poetic transformation. The principles work in "Prufrock" by giving technical significance to what happens there, and they can help a teacher open up the poem for students. They also provide standards and a vocabulary for treating "Prufrock" as a touchstone—not quite in Arnold's sense—for Eliot's subsequent development. With them, the teacher of "Prufrock" can introduce Eliot as poet and theorist together and prepare students for dealing with poems, similarly grounded, that lie ahead. And since in teaching Eliot one teaches tradition or nothing, in a more Arnoldian sense "Prufrock" may become a touchstone for the work of other poets, even for the genuineness of a poem.

The teaching of poetry calls for a certain restraint. Interpretation is next to falsification: therefore it has no value (unless sometimes comic value) for its own sake. Yet we must confess that we are all tainted with it. The only expiation is to devote ourselves as far as possible to letting the poem reveal its true nature as we read and teach it—its own point of view, not ours. Pedagogically one is probably unwise to begin with theory in teaching a poem, for theory demands from the student prior knowledge of the object. If one sets out by establishing that "Prufrock" is a monologue, or more privately a spoken reverie, and one gets the class to recognize through the grammar and syntax that the persona's "visit" on that foggy late afternoon takes place in time, not space, in his projective imagination, then the remaining essentials should prove easy to explore. Why Prufrock revolves in his mind, assisted by his memories, a program of action that should lead to an amorous declaration but cannot even commence can be answered only by reference to his character. Partly he gains definition through his rhetoric of vacillation and diffidence, which the members of the class who have read the poem aloud to themselves, at home, will know is confirmed by the ruefulness of his tone. An unhurried reading of selected strophes in class, however, may be used to question the proposition that he only suffers, that mere ennui and frustration are his only portion. Partly he emerges through a rhetorical effect quite other than rueful, namely, his invocation of a personal mythology of power, according to which he transitorily takes to himself, soon after the middle of the poem, exaggerative guises such as "ragged claws," a great saint's severed head "upon a platter," the mana of the resurrected Lazarus, and the grave perplexities of Hamlet, and at last locates himself in the chambers of "sea-girls." The ambivalence of these images of power—images that he both dodges and embraces, illustrates the transformations of thought and feeling, their interpenetration. One scenario for the teaching of "Prufrock" will therefore involve an analysis of the persona's rhetorical division into a comically pathetic self and a boastfully poetic one, two selves that coexist. And Eliot's 1921 theory of a fusion of thought and feeling can, perhaps uniquely, provide the right clue to what is going on. Theory enters the scene precisely on time, its presence required and its message respectfully attended.

As likely as not, that scenario will fail to work in the classroom because the rhetorical effect fails to be noted before some different question intervenes. Unless one is simply lecturing, a student may short-circuit the line of development by asking, for example, what the Italian poetry, the epigraph, at the beginning of "Prufrock" is for. This is a fair question and provides a useful topic, which will guide one to the character of the persona by a different way, but hardly through the unity of thought and feeling. Either the epigraph, from Dante's Inferno 27, or the references to John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet can prompt a general explanation of the role played in Eliot by tradition. More urgently, a student may pose a question, based on outside reading or a detective instinct, that challenges Eliot as unoriginal, plagiaristic, or inaccessibly highbrow. To concede the reasonableness of these charges is good tactics; one need only show afterward that, once laid open to inspection, tradition is as accessible as anything else and that the originality of Eliot's recourse to it, for source material or whatever, lies beyond cavil. Meanwhile, as most of our students have no familiarity with Dante, Shakespeare, or the Bible, access should benefit them. It can make no difference whether, at any early stage, one introduces the principle of the enduring tradition or that of the unity of thought and feeling; indeed one may need to discuss them together, as accident or opportunity may suggest. Some teachers may be uneasy with this amount of improvisation and may wish to control the sequence of topics more strictly. On occasion I might agree; but among possible experiments the least promising appears to be that of teaching the theoretical principles as a separate unit while actually teaching a poem. One says enough about them in naming, explaining, and applying them. In a course where they can compose a unit apart from the poetry, poetry by Eliot might be instanced to explain them.

With "Prufrock" I prefer any scenario that deals with the man's character first and leaves until later the consideration of style in relation to the past and to literary models or sources. The epigraph from Dante suggests itself as a source of Prufrock's character as well as of his situation. (In Eliot the sources always furnish some essential fiber of significance.) Most students will admit to some confusion over the "I-you" question: to whom really is Prufrock talking? One may cut the Gordian knot by replying that he is talking to himself; but his reasons are not altogether simple. They seem to be involved with the answer to another question: what is Prufrock representing himself as? It may be expedient in teaching to note, with the help of a translation, the possible parallel between Prufrock and Guido. In Inferno 27, Guido speaks the lines of the epigraph to the poet Dante, who has "dropped in" and who, in a kind of treachery, reports (in the very poem they occur in) the secrets that Guido says can never leak out, from those depths, to the world of the living. An indicated corollary of the Dantean parallel is that Prufrock's treacherous confidant ("you") is (as it were) the poet Eliot. Like Guido, moreover, Prufrock is hoist with his own petard: not knowing that he is a character in a poem, he blabs. It is Eliot, not he, who doubles Prufrock with Guido and who offers himself ("you") as a double of the Dante with whom Guido converses; but since Eliot does not play a further role in the monologue, Prufrock has only himself to talk to, "after all." My account—an interpretation, the reader is warned—postulates a joke in the manner of Laforgue, played on Prufrock by his author; Eliot would again double himself with Dante in The Waste Land and in "Little Gidding". Prufrock's ambivalent assimilation to Guido, Hamlet, and others specializes Eliot's practice, in poems at every period of the canon, of fabricating poetry by means of transformed source materials bearing traditional weight. The models for Prufrock's character besides Guido illustrate the composite impact of tradition. Since some of them, furthermore, also derive historically from Hamlet, they show multiple linkage at work in the composite. (On this chain effect or "genealogy" of sources, see Smith, The Waste Land.)

A main source for Prufrock was Henry James's story "Crapy Cornelia," which I have briefly discussed elsewhere (T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays; the parallel was pointed out to me, in conversation almost forty years ago, by my then-colleague Richard Earl Amacher). In the middle-class would-be suitor White-Mason of "Crapy Cornelia," Eliot found a character that he endowed with certain pretensions to cultivation or dignity, as merited by Strether in The Ambassadors and overreached by the dithering Marcher in "The Beast in the Jungle." Besides manifesting a Jamesian mold, Prufrock seems to regard himself in a Jamesian light. Unlike other sentimental bachelors, from Charles Lamb's to Ik Marvel's, he introspects to break his way out, not wholly unsuccessfully. For at least he achieves a rhetoric of mythic grandeur, though of absurd components. The "mythical method" greeted by Eliot in writing of Joyce a dozen years later was already invented in "Prufrock." The important issue for this method, and for all Eliot's manipulations of received material, of tradition, consists in the changes made in the specific sources. The teacher of "Prufrock" may wish to press this point. It becomes ever more cardinal in the teaching of the Sweeney poems, of "Gerontion," of The Waste Land, and later work of Eliot. Prufrock is the first of Eliot's complex synthetics, his psychological lineaments along with his milieu being derived variously; and he seems too, as brought out, to feel that he is an artificial person, made by his tailor. He talks furthermore as if playing the part of a Henry James character, such is his mode of self-description. If so, he has obviously become entrapped in the role, so much so that he displays hardly any claim to natural as opposed to literary existence. Prufrock's artificiality results from literary artificiality and can with difficulty be separated from it. His effort to escape his role by finding his opposite does not deliver him from his antiheroic condition. An early text of the poem bore the title "Prufrock among the Women," perhaps in allusion to the least glorious stratagem of Achilles. The rhetoric with which Prufrock rehabilitates his vitality carries the general implication of heroic failure, death rather than triumph. Another model for him was the Hamlet of Jules Laforgue's Moralités légendaires, a very different personage from Shakespeare's, an alter ego of Yorick the fool and the living counterpart therefore of Death. Laforgue's Hamlet, in defiance of a really tender conscience, parades himself as antihero, antilover, and antinomian of a type that believes "anything is permitted" and hails the Unconscious as his liberator from the categorical imperative; in despair he plunges into cruelty. His nihilism resembles that of the unregenerate Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, another prototype of the solitary rebel for Eliot. (See John C. Pope's essays on Prufrock and Raskolnikov in American Literature.) Prufrock draws his urbanity from James, his bitterness and irony from Laforgue, his intensity from Dostoevsky; but the mixture is both unequal and innovative. Like the concoctions of mock epic, it leaves its originals undiminished but not quite the same—enhanced ever so slightly by feedback. Such is the possible reverse effect of Eliot's principle of tradition. In teaching, one can accordingly make "Prufrock" a touchstone for theory.

The unity of thought and feeling as a characterizing device brings singleness out of doubleness without blurring either. Prufrock is what he thinks in the course of the poem, but very little of his thought appears except as objective imagery, flashes of feeling. Before writing "The Metaphysical Poets," which speaks of "a direct sensuous apprehension of thought" and "a re-creation [hyphen mine] of thought into feeling," Eliot had ventured to term it "impossible … to draw any line between thinking and feeling" ("Prose and Verse"). Of course the two faculties work together: the thought apprehended by feeling is not eliminated by it. That no line can be drawn between them, moreover, does not imply that they are the same. Their difference becomes glaring when they do not work together, when in poetry they fail to combine or there is too much of either of them. Because "Prufrock" is a persona poem, the known interaction occurs at Prufrock's point of view, between his thinking and his feeling, and not in the poet's sphere of being. And it occurs constantly, but not in a constant form; one needs to keep students alert to the subtleties of the shift into feeling as the thought is phrased with overtones of irony, indifference, distaste, or desperation. Thus in the lines about the women and Michelangelo, used first as a focus for the proposed departure and later as a definition of the limits imposed by an arrival, the thought is stretched into more than one shape of feeling, dependent on connotations of the confined, the superficial, the pompous, the transient, the magnificent, the incongruous, which diversely collide. That it is not merely a thought is the main point. Up to the "lonely men" and "ragged claws" passages, Prufrock keeps reiterating his superiority to circumstances and then producing an imagery of his humiliation; but in the latter part of the poem the boasts take fanciful forms with imagery and are followed by more matter-of-fact observations. It is as if his mind were gradually convulsed with spasms of suffering and then were intermittently rallied with a mythology of self-esteem, only to succumb each time to more rational despair. The thought and feeling interact both in the reflective and in the fanciful utterances but are always shifting in intensity.

It is more important to get students to hear "Prufrock" than it is to get them to "follow" it. The teacher who does not manage to convey those apposite rhymes, those lovely cadences into the presentation of it misses a fine pedagogic exercise. But I do not know how to systematize that undertaking except by reading the poem aloud. Alas—because the unity of thought and feeling inheres in the delivery of the lines. It is possible, once again, to illustrate Eliot's recycling of tradition by citing from "Prufrock" a couplet that renews the past by transforming it, the couplet

     Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
     [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]

The contrast of coldness and warmth, artificiality and animal intimacy, sums up so much of the thematic essence of "Prufrock" that nothing more is called for. Yet behind these lines lurks a world of more solemn implication. If one can hear in them the line they primarily echo from John Donne's poem "The Relique,"

     A bracelet of bright haire about the bone,

and remember the significance of this emblem of passion and devotion (found also in "The Funerall"), the concentration of feeling in the couplet undergoes a heightening almost, even, to a sensation of physical pain, as intense as Donne's grim consciousness of love triumphant over charnel mortality. I do not say that Mr. Prufrock can hear this echo—though why not?—for he creates it, varying "bracelet" and chiming "white and bare" with "bright haire" and then near rhyming "downed" with "bone" and finally repeating the near rhyme and definitely rhyming, himself, with "light brown hair." And what is more he borrows from "The Funerall," which has "That subtile wreath of haire, which crowns my arme," a rhyme to prove his near rhyme a true one and adopts the essential word "arms" that denotes the objects of his attention and absorption and frustration. Perhaps it was Mr. Eliot that did and felt all this. He would often in the future raise voices from the grave (as one's students are pleased to discover), though none more comically sad and musical than Prufrock's own. In them nevertheless something from Prufrock would be blended, having in some manner joined a tradition perpetually to be enriched by his thought and feeling.

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This section contains 2,875 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Grover Smith