Tuesday, July 2, 2019

J. Alfred Prufrock explications

J. Alfred Prufrock explications
    A common explication, an explication I would call banal, sees The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock as a character depiction of a man who lacks self-confidence, who dithers, and can’t make up his mind.  As the poem proceeds Prufrock sinks lower and lower until he like a crab with ragged claws is at the bottom where he hears mermaids singing, but not singing to him.  The voices he complained about earlier in the poem then wake him, get him caught up in their concerns, and he drowns.

I see the poem differently. T. S. Eliot knew (he wrote the poem at, I think, age 27) that he had it in him to be Prufrock, and that is what he became, but not totally. He knew what it was to be inspired during his writing of his poetry – the mermaids singing. And his early successes made him an instant success with the English literati. So should he have set his social and literary successes aside and seek the mermaids?  Or should he ignore them and settle for the fame he had already achieved, something he valued greatly and wished to enhance. He compromised by devoting himself to criticism, teaching and publishing. None of which activities required his listening for mermaids.

Even though he has “heard the mermaids singing, each to each.” He does “not think that they will sing” for him. And yet he has “lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown” until “human voices” woke him [with banal responsibilities] and he drowned.

What do critics do with a poet who produced relatively few poems but is still (or they want him to be still a) major poet? Another such poet was Dylan Thomas. In his introduction to A Reader’s guide to Dylan Thomas, William York Tindall (in 1962) wrote,

“Thomas wrote sixteen great poems – give or take a couple. Few poets have written so many. If I were making an anthology of the hundred best lyrics in English, I should include two or three by Thomas along with half a dozen or more by Yeats. To those who want to know which sixteen of Thomas’ poems I have in mind I offer a list of seventeen: “I see the boys of summer,” “The force that through the green fuse,” “Especially when the October wind,” “Today, this insect,” “Hold hard, these ancient minutes,” Altarwise by owl-light,” “We lying by seasand,” “After the funeral,” “A Refusal to Mourn,” “Poem in October,” “Ceremony After a Fire Raid,” “Ballad of the Long-legged Bait,” “Fern Hill,” “In Country Sleep,” “Over Sir John’s hill,” “Lament,” “In the White Giant’s Thigh.”

Tindall goes on to justify his choice: “Value judgments of this sort, notoriously subjective, and uncertain, are not unlike the reports of a winetaster, which depend upon experience in tasting.  Saying that Thomas wrote sixteen great poems means that, having read his poems again and again and having read many others through the years, I find these sixteen agreeable. . . .”

Agreeable though they may be, my impression is that Thomas’s reputation as a poet is not faring well. He was a “rock star” in his age. That is, he had a beautiful reading voice. He did outrageous things.  He spoke his mind regardless of the cost, and was a drunkard and womanizer.   He was an interesting personality to a great number of people . But do many read his poetry today? Maybe in Wales, but they aren’t totally reconciled to his having written in English.

In T. S. Eliot’s case many still do read his poetry. I just reread The Love Song of J. Alfred Profrock” and found it . . . agreeable.

No comments: