Poem of the Month: ‘A Soft October Night’ in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T S Eliot (1917)

This may be a difficult post for me to write.  I get so emotionally involved in ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ that reading it tends to leave me drained and agitated, unable to read anything else of lesser worth and incapable of fighting off the angst.  Basically, I love it and am going to try to explore why in under 800 words.  Here goes:

‘The Love Song’ is one of the great dramatic monologues in literature.  It is spoken by J. Alfred Prufrock, a fully realised character who is almost too close to reality for comfort.  He can be read as an old man, middle-aged or (my personal favourite) an adolescent waiting for life to open up for him.  As a self-conscious observer of society, he is crippled by the awareness that he is being judged himself.  He does make plans: ‘There will be time, there will be time / to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’.  Sadly, such attempts to fit in are futile, ‘There will be time/ to wonder ‘Do I dare? and, Do I dare?’ / Time to turn back and descent the star, / with a bald spot in the middle of my hair – (They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!)’  As Prufrock dithers on the edges of conversations, he relishes his rich inner life, if only this was a life that could be shared!

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Young Eliot

I do love Prufrock, but he is not the only reason the poem works.  A further level is the genius of the writing, coupled with an exploration of the limits of communication.  Prufrock thinks so beautifully and evocatively, but he is continually confronted by his inability to express this.  In the emotional climax of the poem, the most sublime of modern poetry is revealed as somehow still not enough:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor –
And this, and so much more –
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patters on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning towards the window, should say
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’

I’m not a poet, but I don’t think they come much better than Eliot.  I find it so powerful that the wonderful lines above are undercut by their content, which is all about the inability to communicate.  Prufrock wants to be Hamlet and Lazarus, he wants to share the truth with a spell-bound public.  Such a public is so hard to find though, especially when he also wants admiration from the real people he meets; Prufrock suspects he does not understand them and feels confident they will never understand him.  I think that all of us secretly wish to astound our friends and confound our enemies.  Eliot brutally exposes this human dream by phrasing it in his protagonist’s own, cripplingly self-conscious, inner monologue.  On the one hand I find it terribly depressing, after all, if Eliot can’t express what he means, what chance do the rest of us have?  On the other hand though, it reveals a comforting truth about humanity.  Maybe everyone has the same inhibitions, if so, such doubts do not prevent them from achieving wonderful things.

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Middle-Aged Eliot

Poor Prufrock lacks this specific insight, everything is from his own point of view and this view is not a happy one.  One of the wonders of the poem is how Eliot manages to tie together a largely incoherent inner crisis.  He succeeds through one of the most masterful feats of poetic structure I’ve every encountered (did I mention that I loved this poem?) ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ is not short and it travels an incredible distance, though air, land and sea, cityscapes and intimate interiors.  Despite this however, the repetition of words and images mean that the overall effect is of a tightly woven fabric, every line links back and forward in a complex tapestry of ideas.  I’m in danger of overreaching my stated word count, but the poem ends with mermaids, and it all makes perfect sense …

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Elderly Eliot

Prufrock is one of my favourite characters in literature because I find him hideously relatable in his pretensions and self-consciousness.  He also stars in a poem which leaves me breathless because of how it combines wonderful poetry with an awareness that sometimes carefully crafted words aren’t enough.  It’s a poem for all seasons, but it’s irresistible right now:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house and fell asleep.

Happy autumn everyone!

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13 Responses to Poem of the Month: ‘A Soft October Night’ in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T S Eliot (1917)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent piece. I don’t always get what Eliot says but his words are quite hypnotic and beautiful.

    • With this and ‘Cats’ I’ve now covered all of his works that I feel I ‘get’. Another reading project for the future is to get to grips with ‘Four Quartets’ and *gulp* ‘The Waste Land’.

  2. Aviva Dautch says:

    Love it! Xxxx

  3. I love this poem and really enjoyed reading your views on it in this post – you really captured it. Its such a beautiful, confounding poem. The line “Do I dare to eat a peach?” always makes me laugh, but feel sort of tearful too – I think that’s the sort of poem it is!

    • Completely, there is a lot of humour, but it’s very bitter-sweet. I love the peach line too, not least because it means I’m getting near to the mermaids ‘singing each to each’!

  4. BookerTalk says:

    Every time I hear that line about the yellow fog, I get the shivers. I think were so a new edition of The Wasteland that has just been published, a very scholarly edition full of annotations

  5. FictionFan says:

    Great post! This is my favourite poem. I see him as middle-aged though, and I think I did even when I was young myself. I couldn’t get into The Waste Land at all, though I haven’t tried since my student days – I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

    • For a long time I had a theory that when people spoke about ‘The Waste Land’ they actually meant Pruforck, one has a famous reputation and name, while the other is the poem readers actually enjoy!
      Personally, the speaker was always middle-aged for me until I heard the adolescent Prufrock theory which suddenly changed my reading and made perfect sense to me. I picture him as a kind of teenage Adrien Mole, desperate to be older than he is …

  6. Aquileana says:

    This is such an amazing post… on one of my favourite poems ever… BTW have you listened to ‘The Love Song’, as read by Anthony Hopkins… Here is the link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLNsPhKlucY Sending best wishes. Aquileana 🐉☀️

    • Thank you so much for your kind comment and for the link. I’m going to listen now, though it will be very hard to accept a Prufrock that sounds different from the one inside my head…

  7. Pingback: Blogbummel Oktober 2015 | buchpost

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