‘I grow old … I grow old’: ‘Prufrock’ at 100

One hundred years ago this month, Harriet Monroe sent T. S. Eliot a check for the handsome sum of eight guineas. The payment was for a poem of about 1000 words, which Monroe had published in the June 1915 issue of her Chicago-based magazine Poetry. Pressed upon her by her overseas editor, and fellow American, Ezra Pound – then busily inserting all ten of his fingers in such modernist pies as came his way – the poem was a stream-of-consciousness monologue, the confession (of sorts) of a man in middle age, romantically thwarted, existentially troubled, and obliged to suffer the slings and teacups of polite society in Edwardian London. Richly allusive, unpredictably rhymed, and with a forbidding square of fourteenth-century Italian wedged between its title and first line, it represented yet another nail in the coffin of Georgian poetry. It also made its author’s name.

We can only imagine what those early readers made of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. If the reviews of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) are anything to go by, the poem had roughly the same effect as the Marmite the English spread on their toast: it either made you drool or it made you gag. But the sense that something ‘big’ had happened in the world of poetry must have been unavoidable. Certainly Monroe and Eliot thought it had; a letter dated July 1916 finds the latter, still only 23, resisting the editor’s multiple requests to allow her to anthologise the poem. Eliot thought this would be a mistake: to include the poem in an anthology would rob the publication of Prufrock of some of its power to shock new readers. The title poem, he wrote, ‘is so much longer and confessedly so much better than anything else I have done, that I cannot afford (or so I think) to scatter my forces.’

My own reaction to first reading the poem was, I imagine, fairly typical. I was blown away. Not by the title, the genius of which didn’t strike me till later, and certainly not by the Italian (which is Dante’s, by the way), but by the lyrical and visual violence of the first lines:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table …

If what Eliot is saying is that the sky is red (presumably ‘a patient etherised upon a table’ is having some major work done) then this seems like a pretty outrageous way of saying it. Ditto if he is trying to establish ‘mood’. (‘For goodness’ sake,’ I can imagine some desiccated English literature lecturer saying, ‘can’t he start us off with a few gathering clouds?’) And then there is that opening couplet and the way its broad rhymes contrast with ‘table’ – so pedestrian in point of sound and referent. It was a shock, and it was supposed to be; the great project of modernism – to ‘make it new’: to register a radically changed reality, and to dramatise the struggle to do so in art by taking a scalpel to the art of the past – was all there in the poem’s first lines.

Not that it would have occurred to me to think of them in those terms – yet. What did occur to me were a number of questions. In particular, who was the ‘you’ in line 1? The poem was, by its own definition, a love song, so the most obvious answer was that the ‘you’ was a lover. But the reader is soon disabused of this possibility: Prufrock doesn’t have a lover; what he has is the desire to become a lover, or to make a particular woman his lover. Perhaps, then, the ‘you’ is a friend of the speaker. Or perhaps (a more sophisticated thought this) the ‘you and I’ of the poem’s first line are different aspects of the same (split) personality, a theory that would go some way to explaining the erratic character of the speaker’s thought processes and the fragmented nature of the poem as a whole. If I’d known how to read the Italian epigraph, it might have occurred to me that Eliot was casting Prufrock as an Edwardian Guido – the thirteenth-century lord of Urbino condemned to the eighth circle of hell for giving false counsel to Pope Boniface VIII – and that ‘you’ was his interlocutor, Dante. (The quotation finds Guido telling the poet that he is content to confess his sins to him only because he is sure that Dante will never be able to return to the world.) At any rate, it is unclear who ‘you’ is and where he or she is being asked to ‘go’.

As a great poem, then, but a confusing one, is how ‘Prufrock’ struck my teenage mind. Not only did it ask more questions than it answered, it wasn’t always clear what the questions meant. ‘So how should I presume?’ Presume what, exactly? ‘And how should I begin?’ Begin to do what? It took me a while to figure out that I wasn’t going to receive an answer to all of these questions – that the poem is not a puzzle to be solved, but a state of mind, a consciousness, to be shared; and that it is only when we set aside our hope of ever ‘understanding’ it that we can begin to get to grips with its real ‘meaning’.

The most striking thing about the poem is its juxtaposition of different registers and different sets of images. Prufrock is addressing us in mock-epic terms, constantly undercutting his own grand visions. The teacups and the idle drawing-room chatter – the trappings (or traps?) of polite society – sit uneasily with the allusions to Donne and Marvell, to Homer, Dante, the Bible and Shakespeare. Similarly, the cosmic imagery – ‘Do I dare / Disturb the universe?’ – is in vivid contrast to the trivial setting, with its morning coats and ‘modest’ neckties. Sometimes the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ come together in a single, almost ludicrous image – in the ‘eternal Footman’ who holds the speaker’s coat, or the line, ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ – or in a quasi-comic couplet: ‘Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?’ Such moments are the key to the poem, I think; it is precisely because these ‘visits’ are so piffling that the Big Questions are, so to speak, immanent to them:

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.

The fashionable milieu in which Prufrock moves fancies itself as civilised. But for Eliot and his fellow modernists, civilization was in the midst of a deep crisis – a crisis of faith, of morality, of order – of which such trivial bourgeois gatherings were a symptom. The couplet ‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’ strikes me as precisely what Christopher Ricks, in his brilliant book T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988), gamely argues it isn’t: a sneer at the bluestockings to whom high art is an entrée, not to beauty and truth, but to the right social ‘circles’. That civilization is falling apart is one of the great themes of modernism; and though Eliot was still some years away from his tripartite declaration of conservatism – he was, he wrote in 1929, a ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion’ – one can hear in ‘Prufrock’ a pre-echo of that mindset, and of the idea – so central to his great poem The Waste Land – that the world was going to hell in a handcart.

Ultimately, however, ‘Prufrock’ is a poem of personal, not civilizational, crisis – a love song spoken by a rather prissy individual, so buttoned-down that he cannot bear to vouchsafe his Christian name to the world, even in a poem about thwarted ardor, and even when not doing so makes his unattractive moniker more unattractive still. When the critic Denis Donoghue first read the poem he concluded that it was ‘about a man’s dread of being no good’ and that strikes me as a pretty decent summary. In particular, he dreads being no good at love, such that the ‘overwhelming question’ – whatever it is – remains unasked. ‘Would it have been worth while’, he asks,

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.’

No, it wouldn’t, is Prufrock’s conclusion – or so we can assume from the way in which, in the marvellous final section of the poem, he retreats into Jacobean pastiche. His fear of rejection is simply too powerful. And so he chooses inaction over romantic possibility, while denying to himself any suggestion that his decision, or lack of one, is of any consequence at all:

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.

Not Hamlet, but Polonius … Could there be a more damning self-portrait?
Prufrock, then, is not a tragic character, but rather a tragicomic one, and it is this that establishes Eliot’s poem as a recognisably modernist masterpiece. For in modernism the tragic and the comic come together in a special way. In place of the prince whose ‘tragic flaw’ steers him to an unhappy fate stands the nobody whose fate is to be utterly ordinary – who will never disturb the universe because the universe isn’t aware of his existence. You can read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot out of ‘Prufrock’ but you can also read Woody Allen and Ricky Gervais. Prufrock is the little guy, the guy you barely notice; he’s the guy without a date to the Christmas party, who is secretly in love with Amy from Accounts.

When Eliot began work on the poem in 1910 his title for it was ‘Prufrock among the Women’; and it is significant, I think, that by the final section ‘the women’ have disappeared completely. Or perhaps not completely, for the speaker’s thoughts have turned to their idealised surrogates. Not even the sea nymphs of Homer’s Odyssey, however, feel inclined to reach out to our ageing companion. These lines are some of the poem’s saddest:

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

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.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Poor old Prufrock. And lucky us that this siren of our disappointment should have felt called upon, just once, to break into song.