First Lines Wednesday – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-62 (Faber & Faber: 1963, 9780571055494)

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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.

I remember leaving the pub after last orders with a small group of friends, early on in my first year at university, arms linked, reciting the first lines of this poem. It was glorious, and I still wonder why it is that this poem is so popular with young people. It invites us to wander about “when the evening is spread out against the sky” – cool, very bohemian. Then it compares the evening to “a patient etherized upon a table” – less cool; a bit grim. But it doesn’t matter – reading ruminations on death and failure at an age when your life has barely begun and we think we are a little bit deeper than we might actually be can be exciting. Less cynically, writing like this does present an opportunity for deeper thought at any age.

Then there is the fact that reading Prufrock out loud is almost like singing. The rhymes occur so naturally that you forget that they are rhymes, and the repetitions feel like reciting incantations. You can find many readings on Youtube, by the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston. The one that I have been listening to for over 10 years is by T. S. Eliot himself. It’s a bit eerie and he sounds like a priest delivering a sermon, but there’s something special about listening to one of the biggest names of Modernism reading his own work over 70 years ago.

Prufrock was written before T. S. Eliot identified “the mythic method” in James Joyce’s Ulysses (defined by Eliot as drawing “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity”) and employed it with unbelievable complexity in 1922’s The Waste Land. Prufrock is a gentle introduction to Eliot, as the allusions to Dante, Shakespeare, The Bible, etc, are not overwhelming and the general atmosphere of frustration experienced by Prufrock can be understood by most at one point or another in their lives. This mixing of classical and literary allusions with “one-night cheap hotels” and “coffee spoons” makes the poem feel atemporal. It is also very quotable, with very memorable imagery: the fog that moves like a cat, “ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” “a magic lantern [that] threw the nerves in patterns on a screen” …

Prufrock can be read and re-read over the years and it will always have something new to give you.

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