Prufrock & Other Observations is a thin volume of T.S. Eliot’s first poetry collection, which is perfect in is own way because what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up in quality. The poems are difficult to understand and they require close reading, contextual information is certainly helpful, too. The difficulty is not necessarily pretentious – depending on your definition of what constitutes pretentious literature – but a result of several influences on Eliot. This early collection is influenced by the French Symbolists, particularly the poetry of Jules Laforgue, whom Eliot borrows heavily from in terms of technique and subject matter. But the influences go further, the philosophy of Henri Bergson on space and time, as well as by Ezra Pound’s and F. S. Flint’s Imagism.
The longest poem is ‘The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’, which has nothing really to do with a love song. In fact, the poet persona of the poem is assumed to be Prufrock simply because the name is mentioned in the title; otherwise, the first person ‘I’ has no name: “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky”. All the other poems here adopt the first person point of view, and it is not clear whether it is the same poet persona throughout or a different one.
Bergson’s influence on Eliot is clear, with the latter’s obsessive yet intriguing use of time obvious in the bulk of the poems here. Consider again this passage in ‘The Love Song’ where time is generalised and used to speculate:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
Compared to ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, which is the most surreal poem in the collection, time is also a key factor, but in a different way. In ‘Rhapsody’, time is used as a linear marker to indicate the passage of the hours as the poet persona makes his way home in a drunken stupor, while the images he encounters trigger his memories:
Along the reaches of the stree
Held in lunar synthesis.
Half past one,
The street-lamp sputtered,
The street-lamp muttered,
The poem begins each stanza this way, marking the passage of time at the start. In this manner, the reader remains involved in an otherwise fragmented journey, where the images spotted by the poet persona and the memories associated have little in common, such as:
I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.
Eliot’s poems are saturated with allusions, and unless one has read the classical canon of literature, many of these will pass one by. One key interest amongst critics is whether this matters in deriving pleasure and understanding of the poems. A full understanding of any subject matter will always impart a stronger and fuller appreciation of a work of art, but art speaks differently to different people, and I think if you do not know what you are looking for, then you will not miss it. I grasped some of Eliot’s references, but in no way did I know them all. And when I did read the explanations, it made little difference to me in terms of the pleasure garnered from the poems.
‘Portrait of a Lady’ begins with an epigram of Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta:
Thou hast committed-
Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides the wench is dead.
‘The Love Song’ alludes to Michelangelo ‘The women come and go / talking of Michelangelo’ and ends with a large swath of lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Then there are more subtle uses that do evoke an image if one were to capture the allusion. Consider the line ‘An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb’ in ‘Portrait of a Lady’, for those who have read Romeo and Juliet, they may be able to recall the unfolding tragedy and use it to foreshadow what is about to take place between the poet persona and the elder lady speaking to him upon his permanent departure. Eliot is lighting the spark of sorrow and pain upon the lose of a confidant – almost like loosing a loved one in death. Although later on in the poem this sense of sorrow is felt, grasping the early allusion sets the atmosphere of the poem just like Juliet’s tomb sets the atmosphere of tragedy.
I shall continue this review in a second instalment.
Samir Rawas Sarayji