Thursday, February 9, 2012

Analysing Prufrock: T. S. Eliot

This well-known poem by T. S. Eliot was written when TSE was in his last year at Harvard and completed in 1911 when on vacation in Munich while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. TSE was only 22 years old.

 What is the nature of this person Prufrock. The following is the first part of a discussion in relation to this poem …

First, look at the name J. Alfred Prufrock. It has a certain pretension or arrogance whether or not given by family. Of course if that was the case Prufrock would never change it because of his timid nature. Apparently there was a Prufrock family in existence in America.

An interesting choice ...

PRUde … a person who affects extreme modesty or propriety.

PRUdent ... a concern for the future and the taking of action in relation to what might happen … careful of one's own interests; provident, or careful in providing for the future.

FROCK ... well, feminine dress association ... and one definition … a coarse outer garment with large sleeves, worn by members of some religious orders.

deFROCK /unFrock... to deprive of priestly status

… so maybe to prufrock (as a verb)… is to deny self-expression or the self by fear and inaction … in the severe case it could lead to death by inaction … to deprive oneself of one’s own being … to be a fraud (consider the reference to Dante in the epigraph below).

So Eliot creates the subliminal connotation of a ‘prude’ in a ‘frock.’

The Dedication

Jean Verdenal was an important friend from his time in Paris. Interestingly, TSE’s foundation work is dedicated to this person and not to family or other friends so perhaps Verdenal understood TSE as a fellow student and one with an appreciation of literature. Verdenal was certainly not a Prufrock. Unfortunately he died in the Dardanelles in 1917 in action while treating a wounded soldier. TSE updated the dedication in the 1925 edition of Prufrock with details of his death. (Verdenal was born on 11 May 1890 and not in 1889 as recorded by TSE.)
The quote is from Dante … Purgatorio, Canto XXI, lines 133-136

Or puoi la quantitate
Comprender dell' amor ch'a te mi scalda,
Quando dismento nostra vanitate,
Trattando l'ombre come cosa salda.

[TSE’s translation from the Italian - Now can you understand the quantity of love that warms me towards you, so that I forget our vanity, and treat the shadows like the solid thing.]

TSE ensures Verdenal will be remembered with love.

The Epigraph

The published version of the epigraph also came from Dante's Inferno:
S'io credessi che mia risposta fosse
a persona che mai tomasse al mundo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per cio che giammai di questo fondo
non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

A translation …

‘If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy.’
These words are spoken by Count Guido da Montefelltro (1223-98) in Dante's Inferno xxvii, 61-6. Dante recounts his visit to the underworld. In the eighth chasm of Hell he meets Guido, punished here, with other false and deceitful counsellors, in a single prison of flame for his treacherous advice on earth to Pope Boniface. When the damned speak the voice sounds from the tip of the flame which trembles. Guido refers to this, and goes on to explain that he speaks freely only because he believes that Dante is like himself, one of the dead who will never return to earth to report what he says.

(TSE had a a draft version of the epigraph - Purgatorio, Canto XXVI, lines 147-148.)
Relating the Epigraph to Prufrock in the poem …

Prufrock is fraudulent and deceitful – if only to himself – guilty and being punished … punished by his continual paralysis … living a shadow existence … ‘like a shade’ in Dante’s underworld.
Prufrock is only willing to share his unfortunate nature to himself… never to the world at large … in the form of dramatic monologue … TSE invites the reader into this hidden world of his sub-conscious thinking … Just as Dante invites the reader to the shaded world of the dead who speak without being heard.

Looking at lines 1-12
Let us go then, you and I,
An invite to join Prufrock as he talks to himself …

When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

To Prufrock the sky is etherised … ether,  an anaesthetic to take away pain … Prufrock can’t appreciate the sky … he also fears pain … ironically his fear of pain is much more crippling

Later we see that Prufrock himself is an etherised patient … unable to stir from his mental paralysis
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The streets are half-deserted in another sense because of Prufrock’s internal preoccupation

The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
Connotation of cheap love … unable to sleep … unhappy, and of course something is on his mind
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
The floor of cheap restaurants with shells as plates … concentrating on negative

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
… perhaps the physical journey and the mental are one of the same, I know people who find the mental indecision in this poem a little tedious

To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

He has a problem … like many who have problems … don’t ask me  … it is too big to discuss … I don’t want to think about it … while of course it is ever present and it is usually followed by an elaboration ... in this case provided by the poem

Let us go and make our visit.
Come join me (Prufrock) on this journey … and you will discover more of Prufrock

Prufrock is clearly a thinker and his indecisive thoughts contribute directly to his paralysis. But perhaps of more import living in his thoughts and fears dulls his awareness of the present. He inhibits sensitivity to his surrounds which are somewhat a bleak and empty city, an expression of where he is mentally.
Later we will see how ‘his problem’ surfaces through the continuing expression of his underlying thoughts. He may be a solitary figure vying for communication but at least he invites you to a privileged insight into his underground world (perhaps under the sea is more appropriate).

How would you like all your underlying thoughts known to others?
End of the first part of a discussion for U3A.

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