I realized that in my last blog post I might have been a little harsh on the modernists, so I decided to balance my criticism by reviewing a modernist poem that I think is truly an amazing work, and that is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This poem is a masterpiece that successfully evokes imagery and emotion in a way that the average person can relate to, while at the same time incorporating allusions and imagery that will challenge erudite readers. I have to say, as far as poetry goes, this is flawless.
The poem is essentially the musings of a person nearing the end of his life and contemplating what he has and has not done. This is a feeling everyone can relate to, regardless of age. Who can honestly say they have not sat alone and relived scenarios from their past, or played out events in their heads where the outcomes were different, running through the endless possibilities?
The poem is prefaced with a quote from Dante’s Inferno (Canto 27; Lines 61 – 66), which is followed by what may be the greatest opening lines ever:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
The first two lines are kind of the set up, creating a pleasant sense that is then slaughtered by the third line. This sets up the motif of juxtaposition that carries through the rest of the poem, where images of sickness and death are superimposed upon those of beauty and life.
The following short stanza repeats several times throughout the poem, almost like a refrain:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Something about this has haunted me for years, but I could never put my finger on why until today. Prufrock finds himself in a social situation, where people are engaged, talking with each other and comfortably interacting. But Prufrock is alone, an outsider who is unable to participate in the play of life that unfolds before him. He is a classic introvert. This explains why the lines affect me on such a visceral level, because like Prufrock, I am painfully introverted and feel like an outsider in social situations, watching life unfold before me but unable to step in and participate. Even as I write this, I feel like I am somehow going through a cathartic experience.
There is one more line that I want to write about:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
This line is deeper than it appears. While it sounds like what is being stated is that he was not meant to be Hamlet, we must keep in mind the classic “to be or not to be.” It is a rephrasing of the great existential question and he is saying that he is not meant to live, to participate, or to be a part of existence. Hamlet, despite his hesitance, eventually acts, and then dies tragically and magnificently at the end. But not Prufrock. He feels that his life has been little more than a “Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
While this has turned into one of the longer blog posts I’ve written, there is still so much to say about this poem. You can read it over and over and continue to uncover new ideas and imagery. This is, without question, poetry at its finest.
Click here to read the poem online.