You will not find me here adding to the analyses of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which range from prescient (Ezra Pound) to peculiar (any brief search of the internet will call up some of these) to insightful and intelligent (Helen Vendler comes to mind). But Prufrock is one of the earliest “serious” poems to which I was introduced, and it has stayed with me since. As Vendler wrote in her introduction to The Waste Land and Other Poems:
The more famous poems of T. S. Eliot have already left behind well-known memory tracks: their famous tag lines
April is the cruelest month (The Waste Land)
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled
(The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)
We are the hollow men
(The Hollow Men)
have come to stand for the whole of the poems in which they appear, and those poems—even to Eliot’s severest critics—simply remain unforgettable.
The lines Vendler quotes from Prufrock have certainly set down tracks in my memory. But what I love most are the questions Prufrock asks. Who among us has not held a peach (or its figurative equivalent) in an outstretched hand and asked, “Do I dare?”
As I began to set down an introduction to this new edition of Prufrock’s Dilemma, I thought, okay, maybe I’d better find out what the Best Minds think Prufrock’s dilemma was. So, from my recliner (I grow old . . . I grow old . . .), I looked over at the Edu-Mate, seated in another recliner nearby (we grow old . . . we grow old . . .), and asked, “So, what is Prufrock about?”
The Edu-Mate thought for a nanosecond and replied: “Well, it’s about the existential terror of being an ordinary person in a non-heroic world.” Not bad for a one-liner, right? I certainly couldn’t have said it better. Truth be told, I couldn’t have come up with that at all. Yet for me, at least, it hits the mark.
Late in the poem, before the memory-tracks Vendler quotes, Prufrock sums up his life:
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.
It’s the dilemma of my life, too, and that of most of us, I’d venture. But what I hope is to be of use, exploring the arts and celebrating those who make it, with bits of the natural world and other miscellany offered up along the way.
I thought of writing solely about music. But what about that poem I read or that art exhibit I saw? And what about scenes from the wider world I run across that others might enjoy? I also contemplated the idea of writing within a structure. I thought it might be helpful to offer some semblance of predictability about the topics I would take on, so readers might have a better idea what to expect from post to post.
Narrowing down to a single topic or predictable sequence of topics, though, felt antithetical to open exploration. I’m continuing to think on that, but, for now, what seemed most feasible was to write about what strikes me and manages to get itself down on “paper” and out the door.
I hope you’ll join me on these explorations, even if I’m not able to tell you what’s coming next. Or, as Prufrock said (in a poem full of questions, it’s the one time he resists):
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
T. S. Eliot reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock