T.S. Eliot isn’t for everyone. His poetry is notoriously difficult to read – dense, packed, allusive, and elusive. I wrote my master’s thesis on his later-in-life series of poems, Four Quartets, and at the time, I reveled in the density, the opaqueness of his poetry. I can remember reading – sweating over, agonizing over – The Waste Land the first time I encountered it in graduate school. What to make of this puzzling – but absolutely central and defining – poem of the modernist movement?
But there’s something more accessible about “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – and maybe part of its accessibility is that there’s a hint of a story in this lyric – or at least there’s a character.
Once you’ve read “Prufrock” and certainly once you’ve studied it, you find that it is eminently quotable. I can recite numerous lines from “Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I,” “in the room, the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo,” “there will be time,” “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” and most compelling to me, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” You probably have your own favorite line.
And at this time of year, I can’t help but think of Eliot’s wonderful description of an October night, which appears near the poem’s opening:
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.
“Prufrock” is often held up as a prime example of modernist alienation, and many people equate modernism with the pain and loss of World War I and its aftermath. (See Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time for stunning examples of post-World War I modernist literature.)
But Eliot actually began writing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1910, and it was published in 1915, just a year after the war began. Even in the early 1910s, cultural observers like T.S. Eliot were sensing the despair, the sense of meaninglessness in twentieth-century Western civilization that would ultimately erupt in the Great War. Prufrock notices the “lonely men in shirt-sleeves” and says “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
One of the real treats for literary nerds like me is to hear Eliot read his own poetry, and nowhere is he better than in reading “Prufrock.” When you listen to him read (as you can in the multimedia box below), you can be forgiven for thinking he is a Brit, to the manner born. But despite that affected accent, he actually hailed from St. Louis, Missouri, my hometown. I can assure you that no one in St. Louis has ever spoken like T.S. Eliot, not even his famous grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, the founding minister of First Unitarian Church of St. Louis and the founder of Washington University.
So where did Eliot acquire this accent? After some university study in Europe, he moved to London in 1914 at age 25 and became a British citizen at age 39 in 1927, when he also renounced his American citizenship. Later in life, as seen most notably in Four Quartets, he made a kind of tentative peace with America and with his forebears, but he always saw himself as British. In fact, Eliot is considered by many (like me) to be an American writer but by many others (including Eliot himself) as a British writer.
After working as a banker at Lloyd’s of London, Eliot eventually took a position as an editor at Faber and Faber, where he published the likes of W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Ted Hughes. Now Faber and Faber hosts an extensive interactive website on T.S. Eliot, including a beautifully annotated version of “Prufrock.” (Click through to each new screen, and then click the little circles to the left of the lines of the poem to see commentary.)
For an ingenious take on J. Alfred Prufrock as the prototype of the modern hipster, visit the Atlantic Monthly. Poet Donald Hall interviewed Eliot in 1959: the results are definitely worth your time. And you won’t want to miss Julian Peters’s treatment of the poem as a series of comics!
Eliot was recognized for his huge contribution to modern literature when he won the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1965 in London and is buried in Westminster Abbey.