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Critical Essay by James Ledbetter
SOURCE: "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", in Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 41-5.
In the following essay, Ledbetter asserts that a more accurate interpretation of "Prufrock" may be garnered by rethinking the roles of Lazarus, John the Baptist, and Guido da Montefeltro.
The editors of anthologies containing T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" invariably footnote the reference to Lazarus as John 11:1-44; rarely is the reference footnoted as Luke 16:19-31. Also, the reference to John the Baptist is invariably footnoted as Matthew 14:3-11; never have I seen the reference footnoted as an allusion to Oscar Wilde's Salome. The sources that one cites can profoundly affect interpretations of the poem. I believe that a correct reading of Eliot's "Prufrock" requires that one cite Wilde, in addition to Matthew, and Luke, in addition to John, as the sources for the John the Baptist and Lazarus being referenced. Furthermore, the citation of these sources can help explain Eliot's allusion to Dante's Guido da Montefeltro.
By a correct reading of "Prufrock," I mean a reading consistent with the central theme of the poet's belief made mute because the poet lives in a culture of unbelief—that is, the "silence" of the poetic vision in modernity. Prufrock renounces his inherited, romantic role as "poet as prophet" and renounces poetry's role as a successor to religion. The future of poetry may have once been immense, but that future no longer exists for Prufrock, who is faced not only with the certainty of the rejection of his poetic vision but also with a situation in which there are no grounds for rhetoric: "That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all." Fear of rejection leads Prufrock to the ultimate silencing of the prophet and hero within himself, to being "a pair of ragged claws." He cannot share his poetic vision of life: to do so would threaten the very existence of that life. Paradoxically, not to share his light, his "words among mankind," threatens the loss of the wellsprings of his creative force.
Prufrock elaborates the extent of his renunciation of the romantic notion of "poet as prophet": Prufrock is no prophet—neither a John the Baptist, nor a Lazarus, nor is he even a hero.
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)
brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter …
The reference is not only to Matthew 14:3-11, but also to Oscar Wilde's Salome, the play upon which Richard Strauss based his opera Salome. In the biblical account, no motivation is ascribed to Salome for wanting John the Baptist killed. In the versions by Wilde and Strauss, however, Salome is passionately in love with the imprisoned John the Baptist, who, because he will not let the temptations of the flesh corrupt his pure love of God, rejects her advances. Wilde's Salome, determined that if she cannot have John no one will have John, asks Herod for the Baptist's head on a platter. John the Baptist spurned Salome's affections while he lived; now that he is dead, Salome lavishes her kisses upon the cold lips of the bloody corpse-head.
Prufrock, too, has had his moments of temptation: he has "known the arms already, known them all—/ Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)." And these very sources of temptation, these "arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl", eventually emasculate Prufrock by rejection: "Would it have been worth while / If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, / And turning toward the window, should say: / 'That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all'." Prufrock has seen his "head … brought in upon a platter." Like John the Baptist, Prufrock has fallen prey to the seduction of an impious age. But, unlike John, Prufrock declaims: "I am no prophet—and here's no great matter."
John the Baptist lived in an age of belief: he felt a privileged claim to transcendent knowledge that assured the victory, even in death, of his holy prophecy over the vicissitudes of worldly evil. Prufrock knows that he is subject to the same temptations of the flesh, knows that he ultimately will succumb to the same death at the hands of evil; but Prufrock, if he makes claim to privileged, poetic knowledge, feels no imperative to share that knowledge with a society rooted in unbelief. The martyrdom of prophecy is untenable in a modernity in which "God is dead."
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
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."
Prufrock's answer is a clear "No!" If he is not a prophet like John the Baptist, much less is he a Lazarusian savior.
In John 11: 1-44, Lazarus of Bethany is ill and dying, and Jesus promises Lazarus's sisters, Mary and Martha, that he will come and heal him. But Jesus tarries, and Lazarus dies. By the time Jesus and his disciples arrive, Lazarus has been dead four days. Martha laments that Jesus took so long, and Jesus replies, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." Martha misunderstands Jesus, thinking he is referring to the Judgment Day, and then Mary comes out and says, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." Jesus "… groaned in the spirit, and was troubled…. Jesus wept." Despite Martha's protestations that by now Lazarus must stink, Jesus orders the stone of the tomb rolled away and raises Lazarus from the dead. The chief priests of the Pharisees, hearing of the resurrection of Lazarus, resolve that "Jesus should die…."
This account of the resurrection of Lazarus is what Matthew Arnold, in Literature and Dogma and God and the Bible, calls aberglaube, or "after belief," superstitious accretions to the essentially ethical religious message of the historic Jesus: according to Jesus' own reaction, his weeping, the need to resurrect Lazarus to inculcate belief should have been redundant and is therefore pitiable. This account of Lazarus is irrelevant to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," except possibly as a foil to Luke's Lazarus; its very "aberglauberish" dramatics are antithetical to the central theme of a recalcitrant Prufrock. Furthermore, John's Lazarus never speaks, nor is he ever really expected to say anything. The account serves to demonstrate man's incorrigible obduracy to truth and to set up Jesus' Crucifixion and Resurrection as Christ, which would be irrelevant not only to the theme of "Prufrock" but, according to Arnold, irrelevant to the essentially moral message of Jesus as well.
The parable of Lazarus found in Luke, on the other hand, is relevant both to Jesus' moral teachings and to the theme of "Prufrock." In Luke 16:19-31, Lazarus is a beggar, "full of sores," who beseeches a rich man that he be allowed to eat "the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table." The rich man sends Lazarus away and sets his dogs on him. Lazarus dies and goes to the comfort of the bosom of Abraham; the rich man dies and is tormented in hell's flames. Seeing Lazarus in comfort, the rich man begs Abraham to allow Lazarus to bring him water, Abraham, however, reminds the rich man that in life he received "good things" and Lazarus received "evil things," and that it is fitting that Lazarus now be "comforted" and he, the rich man, "tormented." Seeing that there is no help for himself, the rich man entreats Abraham to send Lazarus back to life to warn his five brothers so that they will not end up in hell also.
- 29. Abraham saith unto him [the rich man], They have Moses and the prophets; let them [your brothers] hear them.
- 30. And he [the rich man] said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one [Lazarus] went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
- 31. And he [Abraham] said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
Prufrock knows that it would be futile to declaim, "'I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all'—." His audience—like the rich man's five brothers (and probably like the audience of Christ's parable)—would be deaf to the claims of any privileged knowledge of transcendent authority. Lazarus, had Abraham returned him from the dead, would have been wasting his breath—his exhalation and his spirit, and Prufrock feels that he, too, would be wasting his breath declaiming to a modern audience that which modernity not only will not accept but will not even allow a forum for refutation: "Neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
Prufrock's renunciation of any role as "poet as prophet," either martyred or resurrected, climaxes in a resounding "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…." Not only is Prufrock not a prophet sent to save the human race, he is not even a hero, destined to purge the state of its ills. Something may be rotten in the state of Denmark, but her redemption rests with someone other than Prufrock. With this renunciation comes the capitulation of that which is most dear to Prufrock: with his renunciation of prophecy and heroism, Prufrock fears the loss of his poetic vision.
Prufrock does affirm the source of his poetic inspirations: "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each." The mermaids are the source of access to privileged, transcendent belief—to transmogrifying belief. However, Prufrock continues, "I do not think that they will sing to me." The hermeneutic circle—from transcendent inspiration, to poet, to audience, back to worship of that divine source of inspiration—cannot be broken without devastating consequences. However, Prufrock believes that he has no audience, and the consequences of his alienation will ultimately be, he fears, poetic sterility—the loss of the very source of his creative life.
The loss of Prufrock's poetic inspiration might explain Eliot's cryptic epigraph. The epigraph is taken from Dante's Inferno where the false counselor Guido da Montefeltro, enveloped in hell's flame, explains to Dante that he will speak freely only because he has heard that no one ever escapes from hell: "If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement. But since none has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy." Guido has no fear of answering all of Dante's questions—of letting his flame shine forth. Prufrock, on the other hand, lives with his light entombed in the dark hell of his own fear of rejection: he cannot share his "love song." He says, in effect, A prophet is never honored in his own time; therefore, this prophet shall remain silent. He says, in effect, Lazarus wasn't sent back from the dead—because you already have your prophets. So what need have you of me? The labyrinth of his own "love song" is the hell that Prufrock is certain no one of us will escape. His silence is assured.
This section contains 1,935 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)