In 1952, sailing to Korea, a U.S. Navy librarian for Landing Ship Tank 914, I read T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Ill- educated, a product of Chicago’s public school system, I was nineteen years old and, awakened by Whitman, Eliot and Williams, had just begun writing poetry. I was also reading all the books I could get my hands on.
Eliot had won the Nobel Prize in 1948 and, curious, I was trying to make sense of poems like Prufrock and The Waste Land.
“What do you know about T.S. Eliot?” I asked a young officer who’d been to college and studied English Literature. I knew from earlier conversations that we shared an interest in what he called “modern poetry.” A Yeoman Third Class, two weeks at sea and bored, I longed for someone to talk to.
“T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but he lives now in England and is studying to become an Englishman,” the officer said, tapping tobacco into his pipe. “The ‘T.S.’ stands for ‘tough shit.’ You read Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, what one English Prof. called ‘the first poem of the modern movement,’ and if you don’t understand it, ‘tough shit.’ All I can say is that’s some love song.”
An anthology of poetry open before us, we were sitting in the ship’s all- metal, 8-foot by 8-foot library eating baloney sandwiches and drinking coffee. Fortunately, the Captain kept out of sight and life on the slow-moving (8-10 knots) flat-bottomed amphibious ship was unhurried and anything but formal.
“Then why does Eliot bother calling it a love song?” I asked, as the ship rolled and the coffee sloshed onto a steel table. The tight metal room smelled like a cross between a diesel engine and a New York deli.
“Eliot’s being ironic, sailor. Prufrock is the love song of a sexually repressed and horny man who has no one but himself to sing to.” Drawing on his pipe, the officer scratched his head.
“Like you and I, Mr. Prufrock is a lonely man on his way to a war zone. We’re sailing to Korea and we know the truth, don’t we? We may never make it back. Prufrock marches like a brave soldier to a British drawing room that, he tells us, may be the death of him. He’s a mock heroic figure who sings of mermaids and peaches and drowning.
Pointing to lines 129-130, the officer read aloud:
“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wakes us and we drown.”
“Prufrock is also singing because he’s a poet. Prufrock is T.S. Eliot and, the truth is, Eliot is so much like Prufrock that he has to distance himself from his creation. That’s why he gives the man that pompous name. Did you know ‘Tough Shit,’ as a young man, sometimes signed himself ‘T. Stearns Eliot?’ You have to see the humor – the irony – in Prufrock to understand the poem.”
“I read it, I hear it in my head, but I still don’t get it,” I confessed. What is Prufrock about?”
“‘Birth, death and copulation, that’s all there is.’ That’s what Eliot himself says. Of course the poem also touches on aging, social status, and fashion.”
“Aging and fashion?” I asked. The officer threw back his head and recited:
“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.”
He paused, then went on:
“I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
“At the time the poem was written it was fashionable for young men to roll their trousers. In lines 120-121, Thomas Stearns Prufrock is laughing at himself for being middle-aged and vain.
“Anyway, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is an interior monologue,” said the officer, finishing his balogna sandwich and washing it down with dark rum. Wiping mustard from his mouth, he continued. “The whole thing takes place in J. Alfred Prufrock’s head. That’s clear, isn’t it?”
I had read Browning’s My Last Duchess and understood about interior monologues.
“Listen, sailor: Prufrock thinks about drawing rooms, but he never actually sets foot in one. Am I right?”
“Yeah,” I said after re-reading the first ten lines. “I think so.”
“The poem is about what goes through Prufrock’s mind on his way to some upper-class drawing room. It’s a foggy evening in October, and what Mr. Prufrock really needs is a drink. He’s a tightass Victorian, a lonely teetotalling intellectual. Anyone else would forget the toast and marmalade and step into a pub and ask for a pint of beer.”
Setting down his pipe, the naval officer opened the flask and re-filled our coffee mugs.
“Every time I think I know what Prufrock means it turns out to mean something else,” I said. “Eliot uses too many symbols. Why doesn’t he just say what he means?”
“The city – ‘the lonely men in shirt sleeves’ and the ‘one-night cheap hotels’ – are masculine,” said the officer. “That’s what cities are like, aren’t they: ugly and oppressive. What’s symbolic – or should I say what’s obscure – about that?”
“Nothing,” I said. “That’s the easy part – Prufrock walking along like that.”
“Okay,” said the officer. “And in contrast to city streets, you’ve got the oppressive drawing room which, in Prufrock’s mind, is feminine – ‘arms that are braceleted and white and bare’ and ‘the marmalade, the tea,/Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me…?'” Using a pencil, the officer underlined those images in the paperback anthology.
“You ever been to a tea party, Sward?”
“No, sir, I haven’t. Not like Prufrock’s.”
“Well,” said the officer, “I have and I have a theory about that ‘overwhelming question’ Prufrock wants to ask in line 10 – and again in line 93. Twice in the poem we hear about an ‘overwhelming question.’ What do you think he’s getting at with that ‘overwhelming question,’ sailor?”
“Prufrock wants to ask the women what they’re doing with their lives, but he’s afraid they’ll laugh at him,” I said.
“Guess again, Sward,” he said leaning back in his chair, stretching his arms.
“What’s your theory, sir?”
“Sex,” said the officer. “On the one hand, it’s true, he wants to fit in and play the game because, after all, he’s privileged. He belongs in the drawing room with the clever Englishwomen. At the same time he fantasizes. If he could, I think he’d like to shock them. Prufrock longs to put down his dainty porcelain teacup and shout, ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all…'”
“Why doesn’t he do it?” I asked.
“Because Prufrock is convinced no matter what he says he won’t reach them. He feels the English gentlewomen he’s dealing with are unreachable. He believes his situation is as hopeless as theirs. He’s dead and they’re dead too. That’s why the poem begins with an image of sickness, ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ and ends with people drowning. Prufrock is tough shit, man.”
“You said you think there’s a connection between Eliot the poet and J. Alfred Prufrock,” I said.
“Of course there’s a connection. Tommy Eliot from St. Louis, Missouri,” said the officer. “Try as he will, he doesn’t fit in. His English friends call him ‘The American’ and laugh. Tom Eliot the outsider with his rolled umbrella. T.S. Eliot is a self-conscious, make-believe Englishman and you have to understand that to understand Prufrock.
“The poem is dark and funny at the same time. It’s filled with humor and Prufrock is capable of laughing at himself. Just read those lines, ‘Is it perfume from a dress/that makes me so digress?’
“You were talking about Prufrock being sexually attracted to the women. How could that be if he is, as you say, ‘dead.'” I asked.
“By ‘dead’ I mean desolate – inwardly barren – godforsaken. Inwardly, spiritually, Prufrock is a desolate creature. He’s a moral man, he’s a civilized man, but he’s also hollow. But there’s hope for him. In spite of himself, Prufrock is drawn to women.
“Look at line 65. He’s attracted and repelled. Prufrock attends these teas, notices the women’s’ arms ‘downed with light brown hair!’ and it scares the hell out of him because what he longs to do is to get them onto a drawing room floor or a beach somewhere and bury his face in that same wonderfully tantalizing ‘light brown hair’. What do you think of that, sailor?”
“I think you’re right, sir.”
“Then tell me this, Mr. Sward: Why doesn’t he ask the overwhelming question? Hell, man, maybe it’s not sexual. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe what he wants to do is to ask some question like – like what you yourself suggested: ‘What’s the point in going on living when, in some sense, we’re all already dead?'”
“I think he doesn’t ask the question because he’s so repressed, sir. He longs for physical contact, like you say, but he also wants another kind of intimacy, and he’s afraid to ask for it and it’s making him crazy.”
“That’s right, sailor. He’s afraid. Eliot wrote the poem in 1911 when women were beginning to break free.”
“Break free of what?” I asked.
“Of the prim and proper Victorian ideal. Suffragettes, feminists they called themselves. At the time Eliot wrote Prufrock, women in England and America were catching on to the fact that they were disfranchised and had begun fighting for the right to vote – among other things – and for liberation, equality with men.
“Of course Prufrock is more prim and proper than the bored, over- civilized women in the poem. And it’s ironic, isn’t it, that he doesn’t understand that the women are one step ahead of him. What you have in Prufrock is a man who tries to reconcile the image of real women with ‘light brown hair’ on their arms with some ideal, women who are a cross between the goddess Juno and a sweet Victorian maiden.”
“Prufrock seems to know pretty well what he’s feeling,” I said. “He’s not a liar and he’s not a coward. To be honest, sir, I identify with Prufrock. He may try on one mask or another, but he ends up removing the mask and exposing himself…”
“Now, about interior monologues: To understand Prufrock you have to understand that most poems have one or more speakers and an audience – implied or otherwise. Let’s go back to line 1. Who is this “you and I” Eliot writes about?”
“Prufrock is talking to both his inner self and the reader,” I said.
“How do you interpret the first ten lines?” the officer asked, pointing with his pencil.
“‘Let us go then, you and I,'” he’s saying, let us stroll, somnolent and numb as a sedated patient, through these seedy “half-deserted streets,/The muttering retreats/Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels…'”
“That’s it, sailor. And while one might argue that Prufrock ‘wakes’ at the end of the poem, he is for the most part a ghostly inhabitant of a world that is, for him, a sort of hell. He is like the speaker in the Italian epigraph, from Dante’s Inferno, who says, essentially, ‘Like you, reader, I’m in purgatory and there is no way out. Nobody ever escapes from this pit and, for that reason, I can speak the truth without fear of ill fame.’
“Despairing and sick of heart, Prufrock is a prisoner. Trapped in himself and trapped in society, he attends another and another in an endless series of effete, decorous teas. “In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.”
“Do you get it now? Do you see what I mean when I say ‘tough shit,'” said the officer.
“Yeah, I’m beginning to,” I said.
“T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock has become so much a part of the English language that people who have never read the poem are familiar with phrases like “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” and “I grow old… I grow old…/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and “Do I dare to eat a peach?” and “In the room the women come and go…”
“Do you get it now? Eliot’s irregularly rhymed, 131-line interior monologue has become part of the monologue all of us carry on in our heads. We are all of us, whether we know it or not, love-hungry, sex-crazed soldiers and sailors, brave, bored and lonely. At some level in our hearts, we are all J. Alfred Prufrock, every one of us, and we are all sailing into a war zone from which, as the last line of the poem implies, we will never return.”
*Originally published in Touchstones, American Poets on a Favorite Poem, ed. by Robert Pack and Jay Parini, University Press of New England, 1996. Copyright (C) 1996-97 by Robert Sward. All rights reserved.
Reprinted: Bedford Books’ Introduction to Literature, 5th edition, 1997-98.
Reprinted: Bedford Books’ Introduction to Poetry, 2nd edition, 1997-98.