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T.S. Eliot wrote a great many poems. I suspect he had an encyclopedic brain, since his references are all over the place, and in many languages. Heck, he wrote half of the score for Cats, although he never knew it. Just grab a copy of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and you will see what I mean.

Still, one of my all-time favorite poems (and not just by Eliot), is The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I love it for its song and lyricism. I love it for its wit, evident even in the midst of some depressive stanzas. And I loved learning that the person to whom Mr. Prufrock is speaking is himself, reflected in the mirror as he gets ready to go to the party and declare his sentiments, then talks himself out of it. So much for your carpe diems, so much for seizing the day, or the night, or even the moment. It is so much easier to do nothing, after all, and yet in this poem, it is hard to listen to Prufrock's agony over what people will think of his appearance, and we realize that he is missing his chance to declare his feelings, and perhaps find real love, because he cannot bring himself to put himself out there, in case he meets with rejection.

And in the end, the pity one feels for Prufrock is tempered by disdain for his decision not to act. Because it becomes clear that when we don't act, it's not just inertia (an object at rest remaining at rest). Because we are not objects, we are subjects -- we act (or choose not to). And so, for today, I will not measure out my day with a coffee spoon. I will not roll my trousers. I will go out into the day, and greet it. And I will hope it greets me back.

And so, behind the cut is the full text of the poem.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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 fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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 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?

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!]
Is it 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?

. . . . .

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? . . .

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

. . . . .

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.

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."

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."

. . . . .

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.

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.

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.

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( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 8th, 2006 12:52 pm (UTC)
Dare to eat a peach, my friend. Dare to eat. A peach.
Sep. 8th, 2006 12:56 pm (UTC)
Yes. I would. If I'd gone shopping.

But. Should I part my hair behind? (In my mind, he's contemplating a comb-over, and a comb-over fools no one. But I have a full head of hair, and could therefore theoretically part my hair behind, if I knew what that would mean in real-life terms.)
Sep. 8th, 2006 01:43 pm (UTC)
A comb-over??? LOL!!!!!
Sep. 8th, 2006 07:21 pm (UTC)
What else could poor Prufrock mean, talking about "parting his hair behind"? Particularly after all those references to his growing baldness.
Sep. 8th, 2006 03:46 pm (UTC)
This was really interesting. I enjoyed your analysis. My father, a college professor, taught American Literature for years and I know he "taught" Prufrock in his classes on a regular basis but I never actually read it(nor did I get to sit in on his lively lectures). Thanks posting something so thought provoking.

Sep. 8th, 2006 07:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting, Linda. There are bits of the poem that really resonate with me. In particular "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled", and "the room where women come and go, talking of Michelangelo", and the description of the acrid air in the streets that he expects to find on his way to the party. *Happy sigh* Such great imagery, and such a great topic for a poem. Goes to show, doesn't it, that men are just as vain as women, and also as uncertain when it comes to romance?
Sep. 9th, 2006 01:19 am (UTC)
OMG this is one of my all time favorite poems!!! I got busted for reading it for an oral interp class in highschool. (Liz, consider your teenaged audience, says my teacher, though he certainly approved!)
But I thought, well,I'm a teen, and I can relate. That whole self doubt thing-- very adolescent. And I guess if you never got out of the starting gate, you could find yourself a Prufrock later in life!
Sep. 9th, 2006 02:35 am (UTC)
Yeah -- when I was a senior in high school, we read the Hollow Men ("We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men. . . . This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.") And yes, I remember those lines from senior year in high school, although I had a tough time with the imagery at the time.

But I did Prufrock as a sophomore in college (I think) and have adored it every since. Did you see the reference to the Crash Test Dummies song that talks about the poem?
Sep. 9th, 2006 04:04 pm (UTC)
I memorized a great deal of this poem while in high school and it still sticks with me. Every time I need to make a decision or feel sure or when I eat a peach, lines pop into my head.

It's a great poem. Thanks for the post.
Sep. 9th, 2006 04:57 pm (UTC)
What? You dare to eat a peach?

I'm glad to hear so many folks like this one as much as I do.
Sep. 11th, 2006 03:23 am (UTC)
It is also another iteration of the theme of "The Hollow Men" which you mentioned: the impotence of modern humankind in the face of a superficial, technological and sometimes soulless modern society. Prufrock's own fears about his literal impotence when he questions, "will I have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" reinforces this so nicely. Even when striving for meaning, personal fulfillment and spiritual transcendence it sometimes all comes back to sex for some reason, doesn't it? My question about this poem has to do with the Michelangelo reference X2. Is Eliot suggesting that art and the artist are only able to represent this despair? Or is art able to bridge those gaps between people, giving them that transcendent experience and that connection with others? As an optimist, I preach the latter, no matter what that affected faux-Englishman Eliot would say. Keep eating the peaches!

Sep. 11th, 2006 12:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Prufrock
Man, give someone a Master's Degree and watch them roll!

Another possible interpretation of the Michelangelo refrain is that the women spend their time talking about esoteric (my preferred spin) or even superficial topics, rather than focusing on the realities of emotion and the extant social condition, and/or that the women are pretentious. This is not nearly as upbeat a take on it as yours, yet it's the one I usually give it.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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