Remarks on T S Eliot's Prufrock
February 24, 2020
The title of the poem is worth some dwelling on, and comment. It is cast as being a lovesong: yet how far from a lovesong it is. Maybe there is satirical irony here; about the subject himself, Prufrock; but undoubtedly also about the format and content of the poem.
Even the name of the protagonist is at odds with love and lovesongs. J Alfred is a dull forename and somehow with that initial J prefacing the name something occluded. As if it were trying to make itself impressive but fails so badly so ridiculously that it is tragic rather than bathetic.
Prufrock is also a hint mocking. Pru, a shortening for the woman's name Prudence, and all that that word means in old fashioned, offended heads. And frock is of course another out of date word used by out of date people to mean what most people call a woman's dress.
How far these words were antiquated in 1917 when the poem first appeared I can't say – but I suspect they were gone out of fashionable circulation or even worse, heading that way rapidly. Today they are oddities prudence and frocks; but then perhaps they were embarrassing and therefore ridiculous?
The title of the poem then bodes a strange poem will follow it. About perhaps – I know I have hindsight – a man who is ineffectual and a bit 'weedy', and whose name precedes this reputation; and who is in a situation which a man like Don Juan or Byron himself would have made hay with.
I must admit I never read it since my twenties as being a poem having strongly sexual or romantic content; although I will say in favour of Craig Raine and his book that I can now see more presence perhaps of sexuality and of romantic liaisons than I could before.
Nonetheless I retain the belief that the poem is not about these themes, and that they are at best incidental, side issues to the main concerns it discusses and lays bare.
As a young man when I first read the poem I tended to identify with Prufrock very much – in his analyses of the social situation – in his deeply depressed sense of thwarted helplessness – in his lament in the closing lines – very much so.
As a counterbalance I remember on the other hand being moved equally deeply by the final two lines of Ash Wednesday and by their apposite rhyming and scanning. So very much I was unaware they were a prayer. Eliot's L'Allegro and Il Pensoroso
Now having come a great way in life's journey, I still retain a firm deep sympathy with Prufrock himself. I am less stressed and depressed than I was, by many degrees, yet Prufrock retains and remains for me the quintessential criticism of life as it is lived in our societies in The West; and we haven't come far at all in the hundred plus years since the poem's publication.
I still contend that in Prufrock's attitudes, responses and feelings Eliot captured what has become a defining malaise, ennui, sickness, of our way of life.
I'd like to take a small diversion here to lay out briefly the symptoms and the manifestations of the sickness of our societies to show what I am talking about and why Prufrock and his Lovesong are so relevant.
Craig Raine dwells on what he believes is a central unifying theme in Eliot's whole output; which is a theme of The Unlived Life. Eliot himself had written in his prose works that he believed very few people were 'awake', so there's some evidence that Eliot did dwell on this item which old fashioned people like me mean when we say of a person 'they don't know they're born'.
By the way – a diversion within a diversion – Craig Raine points out that Eliot's gift lay in part, perhaps small part, in his ability to revitalise old 'wise saws and instances' which had become dead metaphor type clichés in their effects on the mental equipment of many of us. As an example Raine gives a good exposition of how Eliot used four of the seven deadly sins in a poem, consecutively and in periphrasis, so that they become again as they were for Mediaeval congregations, items of stark warning and fear to their lay beholders.
Raine offers several other good candidate examples, proverbs and aphorisms, reworked and so revitalised by Eliot in his verse.
Yet I feel Eliot is too big a phenomenon, his meanings to diffuse and hard to exhaust, for him to 'fix in a formulated phrase'. I feel that certain of his poetry is enduring and that it will be relevant to humankind for maybe many centuries; and other of his poetry will be enduring because it will have explicated and laid open to future understandings the ways we people in this post-Enlightenment age approach and see life.
Prufrock is still relevant, as a poem and as a character because his exasperated situation remains the situation of – what shall I say – that class of people of discerning earnest – those who are aware but importantly they are also concerned, involved - and at odds with the weight and pressure of life, public and private, which in our times and societies aim to define a person's modes, means, and mores.
I truly felt that same “I am formulated, sprawling on a pin” and “I am pinned and wriggling on the wall” that Prufrock felt so anxiously and so distressedly – when I was young and looking for a way to break out and become, or at least feel, free. Now it doesn't bother me in the same deeply personal distressing way that it did; but I have sons and I see them struggling with the same problem. That dreadful problem for the quiet and undemonstrative of having to deal with heavy presumption in harness with assertive will.
The ironic thing about this presumption and assertive will is that most often the presumption and will is governed and conditioned in those whose aim is to oppress others by its use, by the givens of society; those undercurrents and aspirations, the Grecian gifts and the urges and directions offered as standard, by what the Soviets called the 'organs' of society.
For 'organs' read 'authorities' both official and unofficial, read social bandwagons, phobias, and pariahs, There remain in my nation a bundle of legitimate topics in need of airing, and an approach to them being worked out; and which are in fact near, if not taboo, to be opened up. This is because certain classes of person 'can do no wrong' and other classes of person 'can do nothing right', in the eyes – in so far as these eyes are used – of enough persons to make a hell to those who might idly have strayed into one of these verbotenland topics.
Hence we have a set of 'Aunt Sallies' up for a coconut to anyone who can score against one; and another set of 'untouchable immaculates' and woe betide anyone who flings mud that way. Despite all inconsistencies and all contradictories, all non sequiturs and all sheer bloodymindedness, as like all items of bad faith, these persons who defend or oppose on either side of these sets of shibboleths, stand devoted to the propositions that uphold the side they espouse - nonetheless, regardless and notwithstanding.
Prufrock is the person who would stand up and be counted as one against such closedowns of thought and action, had he the nerve to do so, had he any sense of hope that it might have made a difference to have done so.
Craig Raine has a method, is perhaps a little too methodical, in his procedure through the poems. He warns, using Eliot's own words, that antecedents of poems and circumstantial historical, literary, etc detail are informative but are not about the meaning of poems. Yet part of Raine's method is to allude to other poems and works of literature written by other famous writers, and so bring in nuggets and items which for all but his fellow literary academics are too much for one to be expected to have familiarity with.
The effect then on the innocent eye is for it to assume that here is an authority, since so much of this imported extraneous stuff is 'reek to me', who know little about such a great raft of printed matter. The effect on a less tender eye is for it to feel that so many allusions and parallels appear to be so speculative and tenuous and remote and arcane, that they are intrusive and distracting to the main trends of Raine's narrative.
Raine's method extends also to that Johnsonian concern about criticism of works of literature (and art?) wherein Samuel Johnson had supposed an analytic approach overdone is able to, as it were pull off the petals of a tulip in the process of seeing how beautifully it has been made. I don't particularly agree with the claim that close analysis has this destructive effect; that we feel we are left with a bare stalk and a litter of petals when a critic gets deep and close; but Raine's almost Janet and John line by line expositions of what this word means and what that phrase means is a kind of criticism by numbers.
Eliot himself wanted, says Raine correctly, his poems understood in a broader and more consolidated response from each of his readership. Eliot I think would have been happy to have known that a person had responded vaguely but appropriately – whatever that might be – to his Prufrock, poem and character, than for another person to have dissected them minutely and then missed the bigger picture and the main points of their existence.
And indeed with Eliot there is always a large, enormous, amount of 'atmosphere'; a profound sense of us being in the poem and carried along with its situations, feelings, developments and personnel. This 'atmosphere' is perhaps the main achievement of Eliot in terms of sheer poetic evocation. Eliot bringing us to life by his bringing to life situations we may be familiar with but tend to have thought them dead and dulled; or else had been shoved by us in a back cupboard of the mind as being things we consider hopeless to think on too much. And so in order to understand Eliot to any extent, to that extent one needs one's own sympathetic experience with the subject matters of the poems.
Isn't Eliot a poet who has articulated so much of what so many of that aware and concerned class of persons has been half aware of, like a lingering ache in the limbs, an ache which one being too preoccupied elsewhere, did not note particularly and so one had heretofore just lived with it?
Does one not get from reading Eliot's poems the assurance that here is a person with whom we can throw in our lot; and just as he gives us so much, we respond likewise with a large amount of ourselves being disposed into and involved with the progress of the reading of the poems?
And surely these are the kinds of things which are important about Eliot's poems. The broad brush, the sweeping landscape, the vast scope and enormous effusion of evocation.
Ezra Pound, who was close to Eliot found Prufrock to be a satire; the character and the poem; and Craig Raine sees humour in the poem. Anything humorous in it is acerbic and to a point of distress. Feelingly one cannot but lament for and with Prufrock the man, a sorry person though he might be. His self awareness is too incisive of us and accurate for us to consider him a butt of humour alone.
He has a lot to say and a lot of what he says and points out about the salons, about salon society, and himself is so trenchant and noteworthy that we cannot cast him aside as if a nobody. To laugh at Prufrock with health gusto betrays an amount of callous insensitivity. We can smile, even wryly, at his sad observations, his truly pathetic expressions, not just because of their sharp crystal truthfulness, but because he is his own most cutting critic, as if even that he is blaming himself for his failure to 'fit in' and be able to just 'accept' the dreadful dreary ball and chain ennui of the style of life expected of him.
As if he were in Hotel California Prufrock can check out but he can never leave. This dreadful way of life is the definitive way of life; and as such it remainders him on the peripheries; where he can object and protest there, but being marginalised he can never make an impression on that mainstream social milieu. Hence the very moving lines where he likens himself adversely to John Baptist and to Hamlet, and thereafter more soberly, sadly, resignedly, to 'an attendant Lord to swell as scene or two'.
This is a bitter mocking of oneself, admitting one's own ineffectual shortcomings in bathetic hurtful allusions of high intellectual power; this bathos is overwhelmed by the sense of tragedy it generates. Prufrock is trapped in his own thoughts and world and cannot join because he will not join the dance. If he were to make himself do so he would be discovered as a rebel and a revolutionary, and so in would be called that 'Eternal footman' snickering and holding out his coat to him. Ostracism. Yet he is there with the people he struggles with and against; and so we can presume that on his own stated terms he would like to have joined in?
And further Prufrock has a vision, like that of the street in Preludes ('a vision of the street the street can barely understand”); he is a distressed idealist. Are not these lines from Prufrock I am about to cite to you a set of bipolar wrenches moving from idyll of dream, into a dark wretchedness, and going back and forth like the waves the lines invoke:
“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
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.
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.”
The beauty here of the poetry acts like Milton said of Shakespeare’s – 'our fancy of itself bereaving'. There is great pain in this beauty. Not least because of the juxtaposition of the falling cadence of monosyllables of 'I do not think that they will sing to me' – so sorry, because said so resignedly, inwardly, with almost no self-pity or self-dramatisation. Bald fact.
The final line also brings us hard up, after such a saturating overflow of lyrical liberating wonderful descriptions of the sea and its fabulous mermaids, this final line closes the poem almost harshly. No contempt – only shocking infill sorrow. A bucket of cold water on a drunkard's comforting dreams.
It's harsh because the awakening spoken of is to death (drowning) so that this life, this society, these salons, and their women, are death to be among, and to be forced to be part of, even peripherally, and by being alive, at this time and place,.
Of course Prufrock the man wants what we'd call today 'inclusion' – it's part of human nature to want to be accepted; but he has terms and standards, although perhaps not courage, excepting to stick by them; but not to publish them loudly and openly, come what come may. And this is the cleft stick of his tragedy. As Old Man River is sung and says; “I'm tired of living and scared of dying'. The emotional paradox is analogous.
So, there is sexuality involved in the poem Prufrock; but this too is subservient to the poem's examination of the conflicted mind of the character Prufrock. Sexuality is a source of conflict for the character; as perhaps it is for people in general of even the least Puritan affinity. It seems to me irrelevant that, like Craig Raine, we should make much for their own sakes of the innuendoes upon sexual low-living in the lines where Prufrock confesses, again inwardly and to himself;
“ 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? ...
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. “
At their place in the poem these lines do psychologically fit, since they occur upon an occasion of present sensual arousal
“ Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?”
And they quite possibly, even probably are, memories of less salubrious occasions and places in Prufrock's sexual endeavours, brought to mind in Prufrock by the kind of perverse self-condemnatory streak that sometimes throws them up and chastises the self, upon occasion of a hope and yearning for a purer a sexual relationship. Paul Simon:
“Asking only workman's wages I went looking for a job
But I got no offers
Just a come-on from the whores on seventh avenue
I do declare there were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there”
The person of principle in the character Prufrock is likely to have castigated the person of sexual desire in him by bringing to mind his misadventures “at dusk in narrow streets” at this present occasion when in the salon the sensuality of a feminine arm downed with hair has aroused him.
But all this is not important in itself for determining the meaning poem – perhaps it is the common experience of many men (and women?) - what is important is the conflicted state that Prufrock's compromised sexual adventures cause in him – and again the restrictive terms and conditions of salon society in which at that moment he is present is the catalyst in him which evokes the conflict. The question being for Prufrock – What would they think of me if they only knew...?
But it is also a reproof arising out of himself upon himself. Part of that “ human voices wake us, and we drown”
The distance and difference between what is and what ought to be, between what he is and what he ought to be forces the 'overwhelming question' but also forbids him asking it. Hence the fabulousness of the unattainable mermaids' singing.
Craig Raine appears hesitant when he begins discussing religion, and religion and Eliot. He makes much of the polarisation between ascetic religious observance and sensual delight in the empirical world. This sensual delight Raine rather conventionally ascribes apparently exclusively to secular living.
Considering that Raine is close to being contemptuous of people who can only use clichés, and whose abstract thoughts are platitudinously obvious along set channels, the assumption by him of this polarity between the sensual world 'out there' and the 'inner' world of pure and ascetic observance is a little odd. But Raine's approach to discussing religion, and to discussing religion concerning Eliot. is altogether odd.
Much of Raine's approach is at arms-length and strictly non-committal, no whisper of his own convictions about religion, though he is opinionated enough about many other topics. He stands out as 'sitting on the fence' in regard to religion, but not as an agnostic, rather as keeping his distance. Is it prudence or fear or merely he doesn't know how to handle it?
Certainly Raine becomes extraordinarily conventional about religion and about how Eliot became and lived as a believing Christian. There seems to be an aim by Raine not to offend or to turn away Christian readers of his book, but yet not to let go of any 'collateral' which having been conceded would cause his non-religious readers to walk away.
This is not satisfactory. The discussion of religion, and of Eliot and religion, thus becomes wooden and a sense of awkwardness pervades it. What is and what ought to be – their stark contrast is lost sight of – I would hazard that Craig Raine has very little inside knowledge of what being a Christian is like.
That asceticism is a small venture within Christianity; that God's Creation is a thing of joy and celebration is not acknowledged. The cogent argument that Christians should love (and respect) as gifts from God the food and the comforts the blessings of the flesh that He provides to us, doesn't seem to make a showing in Raine's book. From what I know of Eliot as a man he does not seem to have been particularly concerned about sackcloth and ashes in his day-to-day life.
The germs of Eliot's Christianity can be seen in the poem Prufrock; especially in those lines ending the poem and which I quoted above. The natural trajectory for the vision of mermaids singing each to each – when the wind blows the water white and black seems to me to be The Church.
The sensual beauty of these lines, and their being a sub or proto-religious expression of Prufrock's/Eliot's perceived depth of need, denies any sense of asceticism absolutely
Prufrock's musings on Lazarus and John Baptist reveal Eliot as having been closely familiar with the Gospels; and more importantly, that he had deliberated considerably on the meaning of those characters and on the events they are associated with there.
The issue for Eliot was not so much, as Raine says, the impossibility of belief, in terms of the Zeitgeist of his times, as the perennial ubiquitous unregenerate human resistance to belief all of us begin with and have to deal with. That foundational stumbling block the builders rejected.
Further Raine makes reference several times to what in my opinion is a cheap Freudian and mistaken cliché which fixes religious belief sprawling on a pin as being a psychological sublimation – as Raine says - of the sexual urge. This n my opinion is almost a slur. Maybe not intended as such by Raine but hopelessly reductive and clumsy dot-to-dot drawing.
It is the character Kent who says of the surly supercilious and impertinent liveryman Oswald in King Lear “None of these rogues and cowards But Ajax is their fool.”
The parallel in regard to dismissiveness through use of reductive argument holds.
This putting forward of Christian asceticism vis a vis secular empirical sensuality in joy of the things in a secular world; its simple dualism allows Raine I believe to entirely misread much of Eliot's considerable achievement as a poem: Ash Wednesday.
Raine's escape route for him avoiding a charge of inconsistency of argument in his handling of Ash Wednesday, is for him to propose that Eliot's deliberate choice of renunciation and surrender of sensual and other joys of the world, is in legitimate contrast with Raine's claim that Eliot's central thesis uniting his work is The Unlived Life.
The Unlived Life which Raine proposes that Eliot is criticising adversely in his work, is a life not chosen by its possessors; but one which these persons have not chosen for themselves; in the same way, I am suggesting, as one tends not to know one is asleep. But, argues Raine, to have chosen an Unlived Life as being an ascetic is not the same; is not deleterious as being a species of Unlived Life.
Eliot, claims Raine, and he gives prominence to the claim, had said bluntly that there is a sense in which it is better for a person to have chosen to do evil than for a person to have not made a choice between doing good or doing evil.
I myself would suggest that Eliot saw The Unlived Life, as being a life not deliberated on and chosen by its liver, and as not so much reprehensible to its subject, but rather, as if the subject of such a life, and its observer, were being faced with a wall dividing the two of them. A wall hardly surmountable – in human terms – but perhaps one could say 'things impossible to man are possible to God”.
Much of this type of thought recedes back as far as Plato and his story of the people in the cave told at the close of his Republic?
Blame and contempt of people unknowingly living An Unlived Life, are out of the question then. Whereas Raine himself tends it seems to me to be a little scathing about such persons.
And besides, persons who might be identified under Eliot's consideration as living An Unlived Life are not too often found to be ascetic in their habits, whether via a deliberate renunciation or not. They appear to me to be of a different calibre to a person who renounces the sensuality of the world; the fact is that they are not aware there is a choice to be made between sensual joys and ascetic renunciations.
And so Raine's pains to exculpate Eliot from his own self; Raine claiming that Eliot had considered in Ash Wednesday a life of renunciation was to be striven for, and had failed – Raine claiming that this striving is for living a species of The Unlived Life – the whole thing does not hang together as a thesis. There is in fact no opposition able to be established in the argument. No apologies are needed.
Ash Wednesday is not a description of a sublimation renunciation of sensual (sexual?) way of life, so much as it is a declaration of a struggle towards winning through to a commitment to a religious faith. The opening lines are not a renunciation of hope; there is no suggestion that Eliot is disposing of hope deliberately. There is every suggestion that Eliot has found himself in a position wherein the hopes of the secular sensual world have failed him; he has gone beyond their range and remit and thus the hope they can offer has dissolved to nothing.
There are many images of futility in Ash Wednesday 'vans to beat the air/thoroughly small and dry'; but there are almost in the same breath great announcements of traces of winning through beyond the wilderness “I rejoice in having to construct something on which to rejoice”. This is real joy, joy elemental, and like Mary's part, not to be taken away from us. It is part of the fabric of human existence.
Hence the dismissing of 'The infirm glory of the positive hour” is not as Raine claims it is, any loss of happiness by or for Eliot, not at all,, it is another part of that having won through by Eliot to be able to see further that the glory here is illusory and fragile; it belongs to the temporal and the ephemeral, and is not part of that elemental fabric of life he has newly discovered, which is foundational, eternal, and beyond time and place.
Ash Wednesday is no failure as a poem, nor is it's author's intent in the writing of it a failure. It is remarkable. It is part of a continuum quite discernible in Eliot's verse which passes through to the profundities of contemplative thought given us by him in Four Quartets. A clear staging post along the way.
Eliot I think one can say inescapably was working out in his verse the dictum of Plato as it applied to himself; that: “The unexamined life is not worth living” and maybe also the Socratic dictum which accompanies Plato's that: “Philosophy is the study of how to die”. We should remember when we interpret this against Eliot's poems that Plato and Socrates did not have the light of Christ.
The powerful because monolithic inertia which Prufrock the character meets with in the social world of high society, and in the 'certain half-deserted streets” and “one-night cheap hotels'; that empathy he shows with the resigned hopelessness of the 'lonely men in shirt sleeves leaning out of windows' all of these things he cannot overcome their oppressions on his consciousness; he knows the question, but is not yet sufficiently convicted to ask it, and to ask its full import; this great and terrible inertia was the wall which life in the early years of the 20th century and still today prevails to make so many of us unaware of better things available.
Eliot's poetic journey took him in the course of years, and by means of God's Grace, through, or beyond, or over, or miraculously, like Enoch, translated to, the other side of that wall, where indeed the sounds of mermaids singing to Prufrock become a palpable (perpetual) possibility.