“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”*

From the website of the British Library:

“T S Eliot wrote this *poem while he was in his early twenties: he later recalled beginning the poem while a student of philosophy at Harvard University in 1909–10, and he finished it while travelling for a year in Europe, in Munich and Paris. But you could not say that it was a young man’s poem exactly: later in life Eliot, when asked, said: ‘It was partly a dramatic creation of a man of about 40 I should say, and partly an expression of feeling of my own through this dim imaginary figure.’ The poem is extraordinarily original, but it does have some anticipations. Of all the poets of the Victorian period, Eliot later remarked, the only one ‘whom our contemporary can study with much profit is Browning’: that is Robert Browning (1812–1889), who was famous for writing poems as monologues in the voices of assumed personae. Eliot’s poem is not very much like a Browning poem, but it does grow from the example of his dramatic practice: it is through inventing a prematurely middle-aged persona, as he came to see it in retrospect at least, that Eliot found a way of articulating something about himself.

He once referred to that thing, in private, as a ‘complex’. Presumably with some degree of levity, given the nature of the authority upon which he was commenting, Eliot wrote ‘The Prufrock Complex’ next to these words from the report of a palm-reader: ‘when faced with a personal problem, any prolonged contemplation of probabilities merely produces hesitancy and indecision’. Prufrock is one of the great inventions of the modern literary imagination: he has become an archetype for the ‘complex’ of over-scrupulous timidity. He is a man paralysed by an overwhelming anxiety about the possibility of getting things wrong: his judgement has such nicety and fastidiousness that it never arrives at decision, let alone action. So there is, as it transpires, a certain irony in the manner in which the poem opens:

          Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table …

The language of the opening line is decisiveness itself, and involves a determination to get going, along with a firm address to another person; but the sense of purpose is quickly dissipated as the speaker becomes absorbed in a lyrical evocation of the light effects of dusk, which in turn then gets waylaid by the sheer oddity of the simile that seems to come, unsolicited, to his mind to describe them. The play between the belated romanticism of an evening ‘spread out against the sky’ and the incongruous modernity of ‘a patient etherised upon a table’ purposefully sets different sorts of world in juxtaposition: the poetical and the medical, the lyrical and the hospital; and this juxtapositional method will be the main way the poem gets to work. The title of the poem announces that method as it braces the romance of ‘The Love Song’ against the precise social formality of ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’. Eliot said later in life that he chose the name because it sounded ‘very very prosaic’, though it probably sounds more eccentric than prosaic to most readers, even a bit of a joke name; but Browning offered examples of characters with bizarre or even cartoonish names (Bishop Blougram, Mr Sludge, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau) who revealed within their poems a seriousness of predicament that we might not have expected to find. Eliot begins his poem with what is by any standards a linguistic misjudgement and might seem just a comic stroke – to include of all things a pronominal initial in the name, as one might on an official form, in the title of a love poem; but he then goes on in his portrait of indecisiveness to make the fallibilities of such uncertain judgement seem terrible as well as comical…”

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