When T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” made its first appearance in print 100 years ago, it did not in any way disturb the universe. Having languished in a drawer for four years, the poem was finally first published in the June 1915 issue of the Chicago journal Poetry, placed toward the back because the editor didn’t much like it. Two years later, it was published in London with some of Eliot’s other work, but only after Ezra Pound, having already bullied Poetry into publishing “Prufrock” in America, paid the printing bill. The first British print run was 500 copies, and it did not by any means sell out. The reviews were a mix of indifference, confusion, and disdain. The Times Literary Supplement remarked that Eliot’s “observations” were “of the very smallest importance to anyone—even to himself.”
The uncertainty of the reaction was, no doubt, partly due to the uncertainty of the poem’s most famous character: Who could think much of someone who clearly thought so little of himself? The first irony of “Prufrock” is that the great boldness of Eliot’s artistic statement adopts the voice of axiomatic timidity: “Shall I say,” “do I dare,” “and how should I begin?” The poem advertises itself as a love song, but is like no other before or since. For starters, love doesn’t come into it, and while it’s undoubtedly musical, it’s not a song so much as a series of riddles. It teems with paradoxes: It’s a dramatic monologue that contains zero drama, a series of questions that seek no answer, the product of a consciousness that may not be conscious, the lament of a soul that comes alive only in order to die. And in perhaps the most obvious evidence of its “modernity,” it self-consciously salvages beauty from a position of nihilism. For Eliot’s contemporaries, used to the picturesque meanderings of the Georgians, it was a lot to take in.
Of course, it’s now clear that “Prufrock” is one of the great poems of the twentieth century. It is widely taught in schools, and its strange and subversive incantations are freely released into the unformed souls of adolescents without any regard for the consequences. Eliot himself was alive to the potentially severe effects of early literary love affairs: “Everyone, I believe, who is at all sensible to the seductions of poetry, can remember some moment in youth when he or she was completely carried away by the work of one poet,” he wrote in the 1930s. “What happens,” when poetry is read by the young, “is a kind of … invasion of the undeveloped personality by the stronger personality of the poet.” Over the decades, “Prufrock” has created precisely this effect: A love song, a lament, it has also been the battle cry for legions of bookish virgins, the supreme validation of the neurotic soul.
I myself was invaded around the age of 15. I read the poem in English class and the following weekend I walked steadily, possibly a little grimly, to the local book store, where, accompanied by a sense of almost sickened excitement, I bought The Waste Land and Other Poems in paperback for one British pound. The little book offered a range of perfections. It bore its title on an austere, stylishly minimalistic, dark blue-green. That title was set in large white text, so any number of people could see very plainly what I was reading. It was the ideal size to fit in a school blazer pocket during the week, then either the anorak or a rear jeans pocket on the weekends. It was bendy and slim enough to cope with both locations and short enough (70-odd pages) that it offered the potential to be mastered.
The fact that most of the book was largely incomprehensible was not in any sense a defect. At 15, I was not interested in certainty, or the algebraic style of literary analysis that pretends to solve a poem for X. Some of this stuff was in German, some in Greek, some in French, some seemingly in gibberish: What or where is Himavant? “Jug jug jug jug jug jug”? Qui his locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga? Who is Fresca, and why should I be interested in her other than that she sounds cool and possibly thirst-quenching?
It was the English, however, that was the most mystifying; was I supposed to understand it? As soon as any sense of meaning emerged, it would evanesce, and I would encounter a passage that seemed to have been dropped in by mistake, or had no discernible purpose other than to make me turn back a page to see if I’d missed something. And I was completely fine with this. In fact, it was kind of the whole point. What a dreadful demand to be put on something, that it be knowable! What could be more perfect for a boy no one understands than a book that can’t be understood? But also, rising from the virtuously assembled bric-a-brac, there was something more compelling than a mere miasma of brilliance: Here was someone attempting a poetic reproduction of an entire civilization, an enterprise that, like its subject, was ravishing and horrifying in equal measure.
All self-respecting adolescents desire sublimity from their artists, and Eliot delivers like few others. The last section of “The Waste Land” is a series of intertwining wonders, an escalation of technical mastery, emotional power, startling allusion, and improvisational energy that is nothing less, and sometimes more, than Shakespearean. There was thankfully no need to be acquainted with the Upanishads to perceive the vast, imaginative reconciliations attempted in the poem’s final pages: the broken king, a soul in torment, London and France collapsed, hope imprisoned, intimations of madness, but also discernible amongst the ruins, pleas for compassion and understanding, a yearning to be free, a spirit undergoing a nervous breakdown that nonetheless perceives something worth salvaging in its peripheral vision. This was Eliot grimly and ecstatically engaged in his life’s work: the expending of massive intellectual and psychological effort to understand his gravely conflicted conscience.
Who needed girls when you could have stuff like this? And anyway, maybe girls were attracted to the kind of person who could appreciate such enigmatic and magical art. So on the bus home from school, surrounded by strange, synthetic perfumes and hair, like that of the siren of “A Game of Chess,” which “spread out in fiery points” (enabled by faintly glittering hair spray), there was the boy—hoping but never expecting them to talk to him, caring but not caring, because when the girls got off the bus, the book remained.
Which brings us back to “Prufrock,” the first poem printed within it: the superannuated adolescent whose twilight is present in his dawn, who dare not move or even speak, who speculates with wan disgust on sex and death and deems inaction superior to either, and yet who remains a miracle, not least because of the suddenness and strangeness of his arrival in Eliot’s mind.
Robert Crawford’s possibly unimprovable recent biography, Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land, maps Eliot’s progress from a shy, intellectual undergraduate to a shy, intellectual poet possessed of a voice that would change the English language. Crawford has taken on an immense task: to tell the story of the poet’s poetic development alongside the story of his life, and he succeeds pretty much entirely. The book is brilliantly perceptive on the interaction of the life and the work, and it charts with erudition and wit the development of Eliot’s unique poetic sensibility—particularly the origins of “Prufrock.”
Eliot’s undergraduate poetry was either bawdy verse written to win favor at drinking parties—“The queen she took an oyster fork / And pricked Columbo’s navel / Columbo hoisted up his ass / And shat upon the table”—or was desiccated floral arrangements seemingly written from deep within the next day’s hangover: “Fresh flowers, withered flowers, flowers of dawn.”
Neither mode offered a viable route to world fame, but Eliot thought he had a good excuse. He believed that the entire tradition of English language verse was moribund. “Whatever may have been the literary scene in America between the beginning of the century and 1914,” he later wrote, “it remains in my mind a complete blank. … I cannot remember any English poet then alive who contributed to my education. … The question was still: Where do we go from Swinburne? And the answer appeared to be nowhere.” As Swinburne hadn’t written a good line since 1866, Eliot was effectively claiming that poetry in English was dead.
But in December of 1908, in the Harvard Union library, he discovered The Symbolist Movement in Literature by the English aesthete Arthur Symons. The book’s somewhat overheated thesis states that the symbolism deployed by mainly French writers of the nineteenth century—including Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, and Paul Verlaine—offered the only possible way forward for poets of the new age. Symbolist poetry had the power to speak “as only religion had hitherto spoken to us, it becomes itself a kind of religion, with all the duties and responsibilities of the sacred ritual.” But more important than Symons’s theorizing were the translations the book contained, which awakened Eliot, as he later put it, to “a precedent for the poetical possibilities … of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis, of the possibility of fusion between the sordidly realistic and the phantasmagoric.”
Crucially, Symons introduced Eliot to Jules Laforgue. This displaced Uruguayan of Breton parentage was raised in Paris. An Anglophile, obsessed with Hamlet and Ophelia, he sought out Eastern religion for succor once he had acknowledged his agnosticism. By his own admission, he was “old and bald at 20,” and he died at 27, but not before having produced a remarkable and eclectic range of work. As Symons wrote, “[His] verse and prose are alike a kind of travesty, making subtle use of colloquialism, slang, neologism, technical terms, for their allusive, their factitious, their reflected meanings. … The verse is alert, troubled, swaying, deliberately uncertain.” Eliot immediately ordered Laforgue’s complete works, and once they arrived he would have discovered this:
And yet … and yet … why so pale?Come, trust your old friend, you can tell me the tale.Ah no? Can such things be? …… Such things! Such things!Matter for sleepless nights and nail-bitings …
And we! Drowned in such seas
Another poem begins, as Crawford points out, with startlingly Prufrockian self-analysis: “I will have spent my life in failing to embark.”
Years later, Eliot described the impact Laforgue’s work had on him: “When a young writer is seized with his first passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks from a bundle of secondhand sentiments into a person.” Here was an entirely new prospect: a chance to revive the tradition of English verse lay hidden in plain sight in Europe.
In 1910, Eliot, not entirely a person yet, found himself in Paris, attempting to give poetic life to the notions that Laforgue had stirred within him. The French Symbolists allowed Eliot to realize—as he put it more than 50 years later in “To Criticize the Critic”—that “the sort of material that I had, the sort of experience that an adolescent had had, in an industrial city in America, could be the material for poetry.” In addition to the stuff of his youth (the name “Prufrock” was known to him as the owner of a furniture store in St. Louis), Eliot brought a decade of scrupulous, devout reading, his anxious and serious relationship with his Christianity, his philosophical bent, love of poetry, and extreme sexual trepidation to bear. After a few months, he had the makings of a poem.
Ironically, the creative liberation enabled by Eliot’s encounter with French kindred spirits set him free merely to relate the conditions of his imprisonment. The epigraph of “Prufrock” quotes a character from Dante who is enclosed in a tongue of fire; he relates his tale only because he believes that the person he is addressing will also never return from hell. The nature of Eliot’s personal hell during his time in Paris was complicated and multifaceted, but the fact that he was still a virgin was undoubtedly part of it. Eliot suffered from a congenital double hernia, which meant he wore a truss from an early age. His cadaverous bookishness and universally remarked-on shyness didn’t help his cause with women at Harvard or anywhere else. When alone in a city, he would suffer “nervous sexual attacks,” no doubt bewildered, like the boy on the bus, that the women he encountered refused to approach him unbidden and offer him the gentle education he so anxiously required. This nervousness was surely only heightened by his time in Paris, where he was immersed in the heathen, febrile world of the avant-garde and its theoretical and practical interest in synesthesia, mysticism, and erotomania. He listened to Henri Bergson lecture to apostolic audiences on his theory of “creative evolution”; he read Charles Maurras on the depredations visited upon literary intellectuals by capitalism. There were melees in the streets between new and old schools after a young playwright criticized Racine in a public lecture. Paris had shed its Catholicism and had replaced it with a chaotic swirl of sensuality, intellectual tribalism, and highfalutin bullshit. And Eliot was perhaps the only adult male in the city who couldn’t use this hurly-burly of priapism and intellectual posturing to get laid.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” was completed in Munich a few months after he left Paris, as Eliot emerged from a bout of one of the seemingly undiagnosable illnesses that affected him throughout his life. Although the poem is gravid with a morbidity of body and spirit, it represents an act of the utmost artistic bravery. Prufrock, not so much an antihero as an un-hero enacts an astoundingly heroic feat of imaginative renovation, finally answering the question of where to go after Swinburne:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streetsAnd watched the smoke that rises from the pipesOf lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…I should have been a pair of ragged clawsScuttling across the floors of silent seas.
The poem should be read aloud to allow its incantatory power to reveal itself. The whiff of a new kind of incense is present throughout, and there is a strong sense of religion in the sepulchral atmosphere and muted antiphony. It’s not just the evening that is etherized. Prufrock himself is a sleepwalker, equidistant between life and death, the poem’s barely discernible physical spaces and disembodied human characters nothing more than distant stirrings in a highly sophisticated yet barely conscious mind.
With its companion piece, “Portrait of a Lady,” and other poems written around this time, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” “Preludes,” and “La Figlia Che Piange,” Eliot, at 22, had arrived at a highly compressed summation of his life so far: the literary influences of Dante, Laforgue, and Baudelaire of course, but also Shakespeare, the Bible, Marvell, and many others. Every aspect of his imaginative personality speaks: erotomane, virgin, aesthete, suicidalist, murderer, well-mannered New Englander. There are faint traces of the bawdy Harvard Man, more of the child of industrial St. Louis, and the disassociated Parisian avant-gardist and Europhile. It is no surprise that after “Prufrock” Eliot wrote little of merit for the next six or seven years. The violent disinterring of his life that this early work entailed, combined with the extent of the artistic revolution it represented, wiped him out. Eliot feared that “Prufrock” was his swan song, and threw himself into the study of philosophy, submitting his conscience to another rigorous bout of interrogation.
It was not until this was completed and after he’d been a graduate student, editor, lecturer, and banker that he began to work on his poetry again. His next major piece, “Gerontion,” wasn’t written until 1919 and was an attempt to deal with the abysmal World War I and the beginning of the end of his torturous first marriage. A pattern that originated with “Prufrock” and persisted throughout his career: Eliot’s greatest work could only emerge when his world, internal or external, was in a state of catastrophe. As Crawford’s book makes clear, the heroic efforts he expended in doing justice to the enormities that confronted him make him an exemplar amongst artists. He constantly challenged his own deepest beliefs, pursued the entailments of those beliefs to the utmost, and attempted, through painstaking labor and absolute seriousness, to express the consequences in his work.
The idea of Eliot as a heroic figure seems quaint now. Since his death we have been told that he was a fraud (he used epigraphs from Dante in the original Italian, but couldn’t read the Italian himself); that he treated his first wife abysmally, closing her out of his life entirely as her mental illness intensified; that he was an anti-Semite and casual misogynist; that he was a social climber whose most famous work, “The Waste Land,” was basically a cut-and-paste job by his friend Ezra Pound and his despised wife. He became an Anglican and infused his verse with pseudo-Catholic kitsch. He was in later life a reactionary on a Wagnerian scale, cloaking his instinctive disgusts in grandiose pronouncements on “culture” and “tradition.” The playwright Michael Hastings named him as one of five “American fascists” who have had a uniquely pernicious effect on our modern world.
Even to devotees, Eliot is a damaged old god, heaving his cutlass in marshes that now appear polluted and alien. Some of the charges stick: the fact that his friend the Jewish poet Stephen Spender called him “the most gentle of men” cannot absolve Eliot of the facile disgrace of “the rats are underneath the piles / The jew is underneath the lot. Money in furs.” Equally, the fact that he achieved happiness toward the end of his life in a second marriage does not absolve him of the calculating brutality of his behavior toward his first wife. But the conscience is not inerrant. Any serious reckoning with one’s internal life, if enacted in literature, inevitably involves confrontations with and expressions of the unreconstructed id. The task Eliot was given was to create art from the horrors of his era and the struggles of his conscience. Ethical purity tests are entirely beside the point.
The questions we ask of Eliot he has already asked of himself. The work embodies pain and is its partial consolation, it speaks of sin and represents an attempt at forgiveness. Most of all, it strives to achieve a state of complex beauty that transcends the nameable elements of its construction. “Prufrock” speaks of a state of murky sexual tension that borders on violence; Prufrock himself is a cipher, a narcissist, a loser. Yet from this confluence of thwarted desire and laughable insipidity:
I have seen them riding seaward on the wavesCombing the white hair of the waves blown backWhen the wind blows the water white and black.We have lingered in the chambers of the seaBy sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brownTill human voices wake us, and we drown.