Me and Prufrock’s Love Song

I love T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s been one of my favourite works of literature since I first heard it read on my first day of university in the fall of 1999. My English 101: Introduction to Poetry professor (whose name I don’t remember anymore) played us a recording of T. S. Eliot reading the poem himself. His accent was odd and his reading plodding, but I fell in love with it and I’ve been in love with it ever since.

I’m not really a nostalgic person. I don’t watch movies or read books from my childhood or even think about them particularly often. I know that many point to the books they read as a child and speak about how important they were in the formation of their adult selves, but that has never clicked with me. I look back at those books and movies and TV shows with some fondness, but I have little interest in revisiting them. I don’t really consider them to be particularly important in my development as a person, even though I did enjoy them heartily at the time. I would say that this is partly because I believe I have changed significantly over the course of my life and also because I like to move on to new things: keep learning, keep evolving, keep sucking up new knowledge.

But I have lugged Prufrock around with me for nearly 20 years now. It’s really almost humorous, because for many years I spent very little time thinking about what the poem might actually mean. I liked letting the words be what they were. I became remarkably skilled at reading Prufrock aloud (mostly to impress men I was interested in), but didn’t really understand what I was saying. I’m not sure we can ever know what any poem truly means unless we ask the poets themselves and they deign to tell us. We can interpret and guess, but I always believed inferring authorial intent to be a little dangerous. These days I do have my opinions about what T. S. Eliot might be getting at, or at least what the words suggest to me.

Prufrock is a rambling and contemplative journey where a person is exposing and then accepting various truths about themselves. I did some reading online a few weeks ago and it seems that the central debate about Prufrock revolves around the “overwhelming question”:

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.

Whenever Eliot mentions this overwhelming question, it always seems to be something that the narrator is working up to, something that the story is moving toward. Personally, I’m inclined to think that the overwhelming question is a marriage proposal or confession of love. It seems simple, but it makes sense to me based on how the the concept appears throughout the poem.

Regardless of what the overwhelming question might be, the poem has many powerful moments that I think can speak to any of us, no matter where we might be in our lives. My personal favourite excerpt, which has been a great companion over the years and which has taken on a great deal of new meaning recently is:

“But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”
While I have spent a good amount of time in my life being a self-important asshole, this stanza has always reminded me that, while my life may be of great importance to me and those who love me, my existence, in the grand scheme of things, is not particularly important. This is not to say that I am powerless and that individuals can’t accomplish things on their own, because I wholeheartedly believe that that is not the case. But it is a reminder of the importance of humility and that, even when you experience great hardship, the world will continue to turn without you: I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter.
Do you have a favourite poem? Is there a fictional work that is a constant companion for you? I’d love to hear all about it! Post a comment below or let me know on Facebook or Twitter!
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