“The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” says T S Eliot’s Prufrock.
He goes on to say that he sees the “Eternal Footman” holding his coat, snickering, suggesting that even the personified death figure would find Prufrock an amusing irrelevancy.
Later on, he admits that he is “no Prince Hamlet,” but merely “an attendant lord….Deferential, glad to be of use.”
What are we to make of Prufrock’s draw? Why do English teachers seem to love this poem? Why are we attracted to a guy whose life is without drama or vitality? A guy who seems to huddle next to the inconsequential; to revel in a world of what-might-have-beens; or to languish in a life that has never been completely or satisfactorily consummated.
Prufrock’s attraction, I believe, is the same attraction audiences have to “Hamlet,” a dour character wallowing in indecision, even a bit of a complainer. But he represents an emotional state of heightened self-absorption about the sad state of humanity always confronting the “pangs of despised love,” or the “proud man’s contumely,” among its other bleak obstacles. And audiences have nodded in agreement for centuries.
Prufrock’s self-absorption begins with a series of images suggesting tedium, lethargy, emptiness, ennui.
In that sense, Prufrock can seen be as a kind of allegory of modernity in a constant state of psychological fatigue, without moorings, bereft of purpose. Like the “yellow fog” that listlessly “rubs its back upon the window-panes.” Or like the blankness of an evening that looks more like “a patient etherized upon a table.” Or empty like the “half-deserted streets,” those same streets that “follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent.”
Throughout the poem, we are barraged with stark images of loneliness, isolation, old age, indecision, self-deprecation, or questions coming from desperation and fatigue. Questions that have no answers: “How shall I presume?” Or “Do I Dare disturb the universe?” Or, more desperately, “Would it have been worthwhile” to even ask “some overwhelming question.” In Prufrock’s state of mind, profundity becomes irrelevant, for his soul is on mute.
Prufrock is not so much a character as a sensibility. It is a sensibility, I believe, all of us have experienced. An emotional tag, if you will, that we probably don’t want to own up to because we don’t want to appear whining.
But Prufrock is in all of us. In those moments when we try to rate our own life’s meaning and purpose and find it wanting. Or when we reach a psychological moment of stasis when nothing works. When even any effort seems beyond our reach. When the world seems so much like a blank slate. Or when action becomes reduced to “why bother?”
This does not mean to say, like so many of us, Prufrock, doesn’t have some awareness that fulfillment exists either as possibility, or even in its failed form.
Prufrock is certainly cognizant of the other side of his own current implosion. If you were absorbed in Prufrock’s relentless self-pity, you might have missed what he is aware of, either in its absence or in its demise:
- Sensuality (“I have known the arms….”; the “skirts that trail along the floor;” the “perfume that makes” him “so digress”)
- Interiority, neurotically excessive, no doubt (the entire poem is a kind of running, painful self-assessment; as self-deprecating as the profile of himself may be, he’s still on the sidelines)
- Fantasy (the “mermaids” image exudes a strong sense of the exotic; the mermaids may not sing for him now, but they still exist as fantasy);
- Dark redemption (“…I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed….”).
- Serenity (“And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!”)
- Greatness in all its forms: literature (Prince Hamlet); religion (prophet); art (Michelangelo); insight (pushing the envelope to ask the “overwhelming question”)
There is no doubt that Prufrock, of course, is now at a time in his life when he is confronting his own mortality. The references to his old age, his baldness, and the Eternal Footman would all suggest that. And all the images of lethargy point to a man losing whatever energy he once had to live.
As Prufrock looks back on his life, the profile he creates of himself is tragic in its overwhelming sense of failure. If he has any redeeming traits, it may be that he remains a constant reminder of our own fears of death. And, if he makes us uncomfortable in his neurotic, self-pitying self-assessment, maybe……
Well, I’ll leave that up to you.