Tuesday, 5 May 2015


The following is an excerpt from Andy Nowicki's new book Notes Before Death: Three Essays , now available on Amazon.
Hear Andy read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the poem discussed in this excerpt.

"I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
I do not think that they will sing to me."

Today, viewed from the perspective of a middle-aged English teacher, whose hair, like Prufrock's, is growing thin, I still find myself most captivated by Eliot's earliest work. As for "The Four Quartets," written later in Eliot's life and long after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, they leave me cold. There is something about them that is too airy-fairy, too abstract. "The Waste Land," Eliot's most celebrated poem, has its moments of power, but I can't make head of tail out of much of it, and really, couldn't he have cut back on the abstruse literary allusions just a touch? (Those who call Eliot a pedant are no doubt mostly prejudiced against him for his political and social views, but honestly, the guy could lay on the references and footnotes a bit thick at times.)

The buttoned-up banker as poet: T.S. Eliot
In fact, while most things in my life have changed drastically since I first opened that book of T.S. Eliot's poetry as a 15-year old kid, one thing hasn't changed at all. My favorite Eliot poems are still the early ones, specifically the ones that comprise Prufrock and Other Observations. Today, most of Eliot's fans are those who share, or are at least in substantial sympathy with, his beliefs, which were officially enumerated in 1927: "an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics." Eliot's enemies tend to dislike him for the same reason his fans tend to like him: they think he is too conservative and too religious. As a teenager and a young adult, however, I was an ardent leftist; it always distressed me a little that I couldn't reconcile my opinions with those of my favorite poet. Yet Eliot spoke to me in ways that no revolutionary-minded, left-leaning poet ever had. It would have been easier for me if I could have said that Shelly or Byron or Walt Whitman or Alan Ginsburg was my muse, but such was not the case; it wasn't the innumerable wild-eyed, crazy-living, bearded bohemian bards who caught my fancy, but rather the buttoned-up, respectable, sober-eyed, middle-class banker Eliot whose literary style I wanted to emulate.

It was a bit uncomfortable that I was an ostensible left-winger who loved the work of an ultra-conservative writer, yet at the same time it never occurred to me to "ditch" Eliot; instead, I endured the cognitive dissonance that comes from holding two irreconcilable positions at once. Of course, something had to give eventually, and what "gave" (after several years of gamely enduring cognitive dissonance) was my leftism and my agnosticism. Through the influence of Eliot (and, I believe, God), I came to see the value of orthodoxy and tradition; I soon followed his path to Anglo-Catholicism, before going one step further and dropping the "Anglo" prefix entirely.

It's often been intimated to me that, now that I'm a good believer in sacramental Christianity (though now of the "Roman" rather than the "Anglo" stripe), I ought to gravitate towards Eliot's later work, written when he was a good (Anglo) Catholic. Yet for some reason, it's Eliot's early work that still holds the most appeal. This is particularly true with Prufrock and Other Observations, a collection of poems in which the speakers grope desperately for a sense of transcendence, for a connection with the divine in the midst of a world that they feel to be utterly drained of spiritual vitality. But why should this appeal to me more than the more "settled" and calm quality of Eliot's later works, like "Ash Wednesday" or "Little Gidding"? Perhaps because I'm still a moody teenager at heart, still restless in some ways, still searching.


Prufrock and Other Observations contains what could be called four "major" poems: the famous "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and the lesser-known "Portrait of a Lady," "Preludes," and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." Shorter poems are interspersed between these larger ones, including the wry "Cousin Nancy," about a sophisticated woman who "smoked and danced all the modern dances," and whose aunts "weren't sure what to think of it," as well as the satirical "Boston Evening Transcript," whose readers are said to "sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn." Here, I wish to consider mainly the four longer poems of the collection, and their collective meaning and effect.

It's quite fascinating that a man in his early twenties would feel compelled to write "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." It is, after all, about the travails of a middle-aged man, one who fears that life has passed him by and dreads the approach of old age and death ("I grow old... I grow old... I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker/ And in short, I was afraid.") It is, of course, always inadvisable to try to read a writer's work autobiographically, but I've always wondered to what extent Eliot could identify with Prufrock, even though by all accounts he wrote the poem as a newly-minted college graduate. (A few years later, the still young Eliot would follow with "Gerontion," about a decrepit old man reflecting upon the emptiness of his soon-to-end life.)

Prufrock's dramatic monologue sets the tone for the entire collection; as with every other major poem in PAOO, it is told from a first person point of view; as with the other poems, the speaker often lapses into curious, impressionistic, and rather gloomy descriptions of urban scenes-- here, we have the extended description of "yellow fog," which one suspects to be pollution; the fog is compared to a cat, and is said to "rub its back upon the window panes," "lick its tongue into the corners of the evening," and "curl about the house." We also hear that the speaker "has seen the smoke that rises from the pipes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows." These descriptions help to reinforce a context of the speaker's feeling of anonymity in the midst of a harsh, smoggy, and unforgiving city filled with isolated, lonely men (who mirror Prufrock's own sense of isolation) and unobtainable, high-class women who "come and go, talking of Michaelangelo." The speaker is hesitant to approach these latter, much as he desires company, for fear that they will turn him down cold.

Prufrock fantasizes about fearlessly expressing himself in a very forthright manner, showing himself to be a powerful man, living an extraordinary life, but he isn't sure it's worth the risk, so he refrains:
Would it have been worthwhile, 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 setting a pillow and throwing back a shawl, and turning toward the window should say,
'That is not what I meant at all
That is not it, at all."
What Prufrock fears is the awful feeling of putting oneself on the line, making oneself vulnerable, only to have one's interlocutor reject what he has expressed as irrelevant or tiresome. Yet Prufrock's angst transcends the problem of being shy around the opposite sex. Ultimately, what he wants is a sense of connection, not merely on a romantic level, but in a more profound sense. "Prufrock" is not an explicitly religious poem, but its speaker clearly suffers from spiritual thirst – he wants more than can be provided by the dry, sterile desert of a modern world he inhabits, where faith seems to have altogether evaporated. It is not by chance that Prufrock invokes figures like John the Baptist and Lazarus, comparing himself unfavorably to these great men who played such an important role in the origins of the Christian faith. Prufrock feels that he has suffered just as they have, but his suffering seems meaningless, because it hasn't been redeemed by the ability to believe in a transcendent realm, in a God who, in the words of the author of Revelation, "wipes every tear from our eyes." Prufrock has "wept and fasted, wept and prayed," and has even, like John the Baptist, "seen (his) head.... brought in upon a platter," but Prufrock, unlike the Baptist, cannot take the real step into martyrdom and faith, so he remains insignificant: "I am no Prophet," he mourns, "and here's no great matter."

Near the end of the poem, Prufrock walks along a beach and looks out to the eternally rolling waves of the ocean; this provokes a vision of a rather sensual spiritual realm, inhabited by "sea girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown," who "ride seaward on the waves, combing the white hair of the waves blown back." The mermaids sing to one another, he observes, before adding poignantly, "I do not think that they will sing to me."

In the last three lines, the first person "I" becomes the collective "we," signifying that Prufrock is not meant to be viewed as an isolated case, but rather as a microcosm of the universal state of modern man. Like Prufrock, we all "have lingered in the chambers of the sea," in a state of ecstasy (rendered in suggestively erotic terms through the imagery of the beautiful mermaids) that is, however, only a fantasy state; in reality, we have no faith, so we can only drown when we wake, and after dying, we cannot be raised, as Lazarus was, from the dead.

In the hyperallusive "Waste Land," a common motif is the depiction of impotence, joyless sexuality or lack of fertility as representative of spiritual emptiness. In "Prufrock," this same theme is rendered in reverse: the speaker's dreams and fantasies involve romantic and sexual success, but these dreams are in fact representative of Prufrock's unfulfilled spiritual urge for a connection to the divine. In both cases, Eliot uses sexuality as a metaphor for spirituality; Prufrock as well as the debauched characters in "The Waste Land" yearn for a meaningful union with God, but cannot access the faith that came more easily to their pre-modern forbearers, so they cannot succeed even at having a fulfilling physical union with their fellow human beings.

Andy Nowicki, assistant editor of Alternative Right, is the author of eight books, including Under the Nihil, The Columbine Pilgrim, Considering Suicide, and Beauty and the Least. He occasionally updates his blog when the spirit moves him to do so. Visit his Soundcloud page.

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