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Let us go then...to the source!

It occurs to me that since I took my title from T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I should actually post an entry about the poem on my blog.

As a teenager, I fell under the spell of Eliot's language; the rhythm and cadence of his poems were the proverbial music to my ears. I find that his imagery and personification bring a scene intensely to life. I had the great fortune of studying a couple of Eliot's poems with a brilliant English professor who unlocked many secrets of his, often extremely obscure, allusions. (Thank you Professor Tetreault, of Dalhousie University!!!)

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a rather bleak poem for the most part, about a man who is, I think, afraid to live life with any hope or joy. Now I like to imagine how different Prufrock's answers to the questions would be if only he would let himself be open to possibility. Go, Alfred, GO!! Yes, you DO dare to disturb the universe!!

Eliot was under the influence of Dante Alighieri when writing this particular piece, having extensively read Dante's work in its original Italian form, and indeed prefaces the poem with a stanza from the Inferno.

According to wikipedia, one translation of those lines is:

"If I thought my answer were given
to anyone who would ever return to the world,
this flame would stand still without moving any further.
But since never from this abyss
has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true,
without fear of infamy I answer you."

–Spoken by Count Guido da Montefeltro, a Damned Soul in the Eighth Circle of Hell in Dante's Divine Comedy, the Inferno, Canto XXVII, Lines 61-66.

There is an online study guide here for anyone interested in learning more about this strange work.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
by T. S. Eliot, published 1915

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 etherized 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.

Comments (2)

I haven't read it since I studied it in high school, and it's interesting to read it again decades later. The language is so beautiful but it's so very sad. What impresses me is that it was written in 1915 and so it's almost 100 years old! Yet it seems so modern and really, it was kind of prophetic about the state of the entire 20th century in some ways, all the alienation and fear.

sandrac:

I haven't read this poem since university, Anne. I always found it so sad and depressing -- the line "Do I dare to eat a peach?" seemed so very pathetic, the middle-aged man concerned with such trivia and the outward appearance of things.

But that's a bit narrow-minded of me. The study guide is very interesting and I hadn't really thought much about the reference to Dante before now. I'm a huge fan of Dante and am impressed that Eliot had read him in the original Italian! Sadly, it seems the message of redemption at the end of the Divine Commedia didn't get through to Eliot....

Thought-provoking, thanks for posting this.

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