By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D, Commentary | Published December 12, 2019
Yesterday, for perhaps the 100th time in my long career as a college professor, I taught once again T.S. Eliot’s astonishing poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which was published in 1915 in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine, largely at the insistence of Ezra Pound, who argued that Eliot had succeeded in “modernizing himself.”
Over a century later, the poem still remains one of my favorite works in English literature, yet like all familiar works, bringing a fresh perspective to the poem becomes more difficult over time.
So yesterday, looking for a way to renew the vitality of the poem for myself as much as for my students, I took a new approach to it: I read the poem from the perspective of Advent, and in doing so, I discovered some new appreciation for the poem.
You have probably read “Prufrock,” most likely years ago as a college student yourself. To refresh your memory, the poem is about a shy, middle-aged man who plans to attend yet another cocktail or tea party, at which he knows he will once again be assailed by anxiety and desire as he tries futilely to make an acquaintance with a woman. The poem begins with the famous opening lines “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Immediately, we question to whom the “you and I” refer. Are they Prufrock and a companion? Prufrock and the reader? Or more compellingly—and most likely—do they represent Prufrock’s waking self and his deep unconscious persona?
As the poem advances, Prufrock analyzes the impending event, dreading the setting to come: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” He wonders if he will, at last, be able to succeed in romance. Yet his memory of past failure renders him helpless. At the party, he cannot act and remains stupefied “beneath the music from a farther room.” As he ultimately confesses, “And in short, I was afraid.”
Prufrock then rationalizes his failure to act, finally admits himself an aging fool, and retreats deeply into his subconscious, where imaginary mermaids “sing each to each,” but “I do not think they will sing to me.” He then experiences a figurative drowning in the human world where there is no love, no empathy, no communication or understanding. As he cries out earlier in the poem, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!”
It is a bleak scenario indeed, yet it is also filled with paradox. Prufrock thinks himself insignificant, but his modern solipsism and narcissism ironically make him believe that his action or inaction at a cocktail party might actually “disturb the universe.” He protests that he is not Hamlet, whom he misinterprets as a hero, when he actually is like Hamlet, indecisive and unable to act. He compares himself to the beheaded John the Baptist, and to Lazarus raised from the dead, when he actually means to reference poor Lazarus, who the rich man in hell begged to return to the world with a warning for his wicked brothers. Prufrock, of course, has nothing to say. Indeed, the poem is prefaced by an epigraph from Dante’s “Inferno,” in which a tormented soul agrees to confess to Dante because he knows that no one can return from hell to report what he has witnessed.
Grasping the real mystery
So, what does all of this have to do with Advent, this penitential season of longing, hoping, waiting and desire? Advent compels us to make a journey of our own, a pilgrimage literally to the manger in Bethlehem. Yet we constantly face a perversion of this season. The department stores were adorned with Christmas decorations even before Halloween. The season has come to be characterized not by patient hope, but by stress and anxiety. There are errands and shopping to do, and lavish meals to prepare, and lights to untangle and parties of our own to attend, at which like Prufrock we fret and agonize over meaningless small talk and mingling.
Even those of us who are in the church, and who try to faithfully observe the season, are stymied by secularization so rampant we can barely grasp the real mystery at the heart of Advent. Prufrock’s problem is our problem: we know that mystery exists, but it so often seems separate from us, something at which we grasp, yet just seem to miss, much like Prufrock’s mermaids, singing in the distance, as though from a farther room.
The modern problems that are at the heart of Prufrock’s context are further amplified today. All that Eliot experienced in his time—World War I, Existentialism, cultural collapse—are essentially still with us, and characterized by an overwhelming anxiety. When might I be shot? When will the terrorists strike again? When will the earth shrink under our consumption?
In “The Four Quartets,” Eliot writes that “we had the experience, but missed the meaning.” We so often do this. We neglect the sensual in favor of the sensory; we undermine the sacred in favor of the secular. In our own way, we too reduce “Michelangelo” to idle cocktail party chatter.
More than anything, Advent calls “Sleeper, awake!” Prufrock is himself asleep, numbed like an etherized patient insensitive to anything but his own selfish desires. We need to let “human voices wake us,” truly awaken us, so that we understand fully not only our own world, but the spiritual essence at the heart of that world.
Is there hope in the ironic “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?” Perhaps not, at least not in the poem itself. But for T.S. Eliot the poet, the poem marked the beginning of a long conversion experience, in which he moved away from his own mental and spiritual anguish into Christianity which he practiced devoutly as a self-proclaimed “Anglo-Catholic.” That the same man who once pronounced that “the world will end not with a bang but a whimper” would also one day echo the words of the English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich, “And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” remains a remarkable testament to the hope for conversion we should all harbor at Advent.
At one point in the poem, Prufrock thinks to himself that “And indeed there will be time/ There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” Reading the poem again, from the perspective of Advent, I pray that I, and all of us, will be renewed this season, made ready to present our authentic self both to the world and to the coming Savior who so longs to sing to us, if only we will listen.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.