Sunday, March 07, 2010

On "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Re-reading "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot for a class I'm teaching, I suddenly realized that every analysis I have read of this poem is completely wrong. Most analyses read the poem as Prufrock being uncertain of himself. Others have seen it as Prufrock preparing for a wedding. Neither of these are true. J. Alfred Prufrock is busy trying to seduce a woman of high society, trying to get her to have sex with him. This makes sense if we understand the poem mostly as a series of responses to the woman in question, whose responses are absent in the poem. In a few locations, we have some action, and in others, Prufrock's thoughts. If we add the seduced woman's responses, we can see that Prufrock is in fact a rather clever man, sure of himself and his ability to seduce this woman.

The poem begins with a quote from Dante's Inferno:

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti

These lines are from a sufferer in Hell, who is saying to the narrator of the Inferno, "If I thought I was talking to someone who might return to earth, this flame would cease; but if what I have heard is true, no one does return; therefore, I can speak to you without fear of infamy."

In the context of the poem, we can imagine Prufrock quoting this to the woman he is trying to seduce. If so, he is telling the woman that because he is talking to her his flame won't cease -- the flame of lust, in this case. Further, he is telling her that he feels like he can tell her what he is going to tell her -- that he wants to have sex with her -- without fear of her telling anyone. This becomes clear over the course of the poem. More, this establishes that Prufrock is an educated man, seeing that he can quote Dante from memory to the woman. More, it shows that she is an educated, high society woman, because she can understand it in Italian. This establishes what is then necessary for a proper seduction to occur. One must be indirect:

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Here Prufrock (in)directly proposes what he has in mind. Of course, he says it in such a way that it is suggested rather than stated outright. What are you going to do at a "one-night cheap hotel" that would cause your night to be restless? Already, we have a response from her after the ". . ." Here he has been interrupted by her. His repsonse tells us what she asked, which is, "What is it?" He calls her out on her coyness and then is more direct: "Let us go and make our visit."

The couplet that follows is action that interrupts their conversation:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

This shows that they are in a house where some sort of social function is going on. He stops speaking as the women come into the room and leave. The conversation is about Michelangelo, suggesting their education and being members of high society. We then get a description of what it is like outside. This is, after all, turn of the 20th century London, an industrial town. Outside is yellow smog. Soot falls from the sky:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

It is the kind of environment a society woman might object to going out into, perhaps using the excuse that "but will we have enough time to get there and back?":

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Thus does Prufrock answer her objection. Before either can go on, they are interrupted once again:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

He then continues on with his argument against their not having enough time:

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”—
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Here he has moved on to argue that if they spend too much time on the question, she will begin to wonder if she dare do this thing. But Prufrock argues that he's getting too old to waste time (thus, the thinning hair and thinning body). It is here where it is believed that Prufrock is wondering if HE should dare disturb the universe. But look at the structure of the sentence. He is telling her that waiting will make it so that there will be time for her to question, "Do I dare?" He interrupts this thought with the description of him getting old, then returns to finish the question he is afraid she will ask "Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" But of course, by pointing this out, he is pointing out the absurdity of the question "Do I dare?" He expands "Do I dare go have sex with Mr. Prufrock?" to "Do I dare disturb the universe?" to convince her that such an action as having sex will do nothing of the sort. He ends by pointing out that any decision she makes she may want to revise and reverse in the next, so she may as well stick to a decision that she will likely change her mind about later anyway. He then goes on to argue that he knows all about being cautious and changing one's mind:

For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And where has being cautious gotten him? He leaves that as a rhetorical question. Then he asks himself (we know there is a change because of the indentation) how he should presume, which is defined here as "to act or proceed with unwarrantable or impertinent boldness." The fact that the word "presume" is used certainly undermines those interpretations that see Prufrock as indecisive. Rather, he sees himself as proceeding at this point with "impertinent boldness." So how shall he presume? Well, first he argues that she shouldn't be concerned about potential gossip, because he has experience gossip before:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

He argues that gossip shouldn't prevent him -- and, by extension, her -- from doing what they want to do. He goes further, answering her apparent concern at her inexperience by pointing out that he is quite experienced, has felt the embrace of other women:

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

And he is back again, asking how he should presume, and now, how he should truly begin the seduction. And so, he begins:

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…

Here he further argues his experience at this, suggesting that he can make it a success. He then interrupts himself with a self-congratulating thought:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Here he compares himself to a crab. Crabs walk sideways, of course. He is not taking a direct approach, but approaching things from the side, like a crab. After congratulating himself on his approach, he continues his arugment to her. He first argues that she will feel incredibly relaxed afterwards, but then it seems obvious that he has seen fear on her face or that she has expressed fear about going through with this:

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
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;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

He tries to comfort her by pointing out that he, too, has been afraid. But he returns to the issue of time passing and being wasted. He has even seen death, and was afraid. Of course, compared to death, what fear can you have of allowing yourself to be seduced? Here she seems to bring up the issue of others gossiping about them, and he answers:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
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 toward 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.”

He argues here that if people gossip, just smile at them, ignore it. Or, if they continue, brag about it: "I am Lazarus," and "I shall tell you all." The result, he argues, is that those who had been gossiping will in fact be jealous, that they will lie down at night and complain about the fact that they had not had her experience. He then goes on to argue that she most definitely won't regret her decision of going to bed with him:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
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.”

He here in fact argues that it would be worth it to have the affair just to make those gossiping women jealous. She next apparently argues that he is a too-important person for her to get involved with, so he responds that he is anything but:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

As she continues to resist, he brings up his age again, and the loss of time:

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

He is portraying himself as a fool again, as a middle-classed man dressing like the young people. Is the woman he is addressing closer to his age, and would thus be horrified at the thought of this gentleman dressing like a youth to try to seduce the young?

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

Again, references to youth and risk. He is asking her not to make him take risks at his age. This is a continuation of the seduction. Does she want to put him in the position of looking like a fool, trying to seduce younger women? He tries to evoke sympathy:

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Indeed, he is aware of the young ladies, with their seductive voices. He has seen them, too:

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

But then, alas! it is too late:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

They spent too much time talking, too much time talking about things like the sea and mermaids. Now human voices -- the women speaking of Michaelangelo? -- have interrupted them permanently. They are drowned by those voices, as are their plans. They will no longer be able to sneak off together. It is too late.

This makes the poem very much in the tradition of Donne's The Flea and Marvell's To His Coy Mistress. Once we recognize that there is an absent voice, we see that this is a poem of seduction, well within the tradition of poems of seduction. A more ambiguous poem, needless to say, than the other two -- precisely because of the absent answers of the missing mistress -- but a poem of seduction by a man who is very confident of himself. And it is this latter insight that overturns most interpretations of the poem.
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