“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” written by a 22 year-old T. S. Eliot, turns a hundred this year. A brilliant poem, according to those who keep the cannon, though many despaired it was written by a man deemed a fascists, whose title character was named after a furniture company and which, as a work, was neither a song nor about love. So writes Damian Lanigan in the New Republic. (“Music from a Farther Room,”Sept/Oct 2015 pgs. 54-58) Some of the writer’s observations are ones with which I disagree, but I join him in celebrating the long life of a poem which would have died but for the patronage of the poet, Ezra Pound. As Lanigan points out, Pound bullied the Chicago Journal of Poetry to publish the piece, then took a step further by republishing at his own expense, later. (Ibid pg. 54) I also agree with the author that the poem should be read aloud and to that extent, it is a kind of song.
I am an old friend of Elliot’s poem. In my early days, as an English teacher, I was obliged to introduce “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” to attention deficit aged 17 and 18 year-olds who were bored by what the poet had to say, despite the fact that he was near their age when he wrote it. I admit, I was surprised by his youth, as well. The poem befitted the shy, uncertain ramblings of someone much older, someone with the ability to look back on youth’s follies and conclude, as Eliot did in another poem, “I will have spent my life in failing to embark.” (Ibid pg. 62) Because the poem reads like an incantation, as Lanigan suggests, I read aloud each time before making it a writing assignment, read it to the gangling and callow youth who slumped before me in desks that were not only hard and uncomfortable but too small for them. Would they smirk at a hero with a bald spot in the middle of his head? Could they grasp the futility of a life measured out in coffee spoons? That they would never grasp the icy lines of, I grow old…I grow old… is a truth I never doubted.
Certainly, they could understand the perils of insecurity. Shall I part my hair behind? And the perils of constant self-doubt: Do I dare? and Do I dare? But could they understand such doubts follow us to the grave? There is no moment of growing up. Uncertainty dogs us to the edge of doom where, at last, we conclude, I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter.
I warned them, my indifferent scholars, the poem was one they wouldn’t understand. Life as yet had taught them little. “But remember Prufrock,” I would advise, as if sharing a secret. “One day he will speak to you.” I know this is true because he still speaks to me with deeper and deeper meaning. I grow old and know the mermaids will never sing to me. Still, I rejoice that a single poem can squeeze into its few lines all the mystery and heartbreak of existence.