TS Eliot Prose
T.s. Eliot Vs C.s. Lewis – Two Most Popular Persons of Past History in Literature
T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis’ writings differ due to their religious beliefs and time period. Both poets used their religious perspective in some of their writings. T.S. Eliot, a modernist, often wrote on a religious point of view. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis, contemporary, often wrote on an atheist point of view.
The modern era occurred took place from 1914 to 1939. A major characteristic in modernism is nihilism”the rejection of all religious and moral principles as the only means of obtaining social progress”. Most people during this time period were atheists. Atheism is the lack of belief of any gods or any other religious beliefs. “A cause of this is linked to the change in culture. One of the causes of this iconoclasm was the fact that early 20th-century culture was literally re-inventing itself on a daily basis”. During the modernist time period, artists noticed the lack of freedom within art, such as poetry. As a result, artists began to break some rules. These rules were established to keep up with the upcoming advanced technology. Many artists strongly believed that everyone should be allowed have artistic freedom.
The contemporary era took place from 1939 to present. “By the late 20th century Christianity had become the most widely disseminated religion on earth. Virtually no nation remained unaffected by the activities of Christian missionaries, although in many countries Christians are only a small fraction of the total population”. Anglicanism was the religion T.S. Eliot in which affiliated with. Although he was known to be a modernist poet, he still had connections to the contemporary era.
T.S. Eliot wrote the collection of poems “Four Quartets”. In the forth poem, he wrote about God’s forgiveness. His main idea in this poem was that if you don’t ask for forgiveness, you will not be saved. “The only hope, or else despair lies in the choices of pyre or pyre – to be redeemed from fire by fire”.
C.S. Lewis wrote “Ode for New Year’s Day”. This poem was about how God did not care about any of us in this world. “The sky above is sickening, the clouds above God’s hate cover it, body and soul shall suffer beyond all word or thought, till the pain and noise terror that those first years have wrote”.
During the modernist era, many people were often not religious. “Symbolically, the embrace of primitivism is a negation of the very principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition and an affirmation of authentic expression of that hidden self that only finds expression at night when we dream”. Ironically, T.S. Eliot was both a modernist and religious. “The 21st century is the century of the Christian Era”. This is ironic because C.S. Lewis was an atheist and contemporary.
T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis are different, but are joined together by one idea. “What joins Lewis and Eliot together is more important than what makes them different. Lewis later observed “I agree with him about matters of such moment that all literary questions, are in comparison, trivial””.They also have similar concerns. “In retrospect, Lewis’s view of myth and “literary religiousness” apply to Eliot’s work. Both poets’ early verse share common concerns, also. As Eliot’s early poetry seeks to recover the “lost story” by creating a verbal collage of divergent philosophies, religion, and folklores, Lewis’s early poetry evidenced his desire to integrate his modernist atheism with classic mythologies. The two writers appear to echo each other’s concerns” .
C.S. Lewis struggled with his faith a lot throughout his life. In his childhood, he grew up in a Christian home. In September of 1911, he became an atheist, 18 years later, he abandoned atheism and converted to theism. Theism is a religion in which it is believed that one God has created and rules the universe. Then in 1931, he converted to Christianity. In 1959, he and T.S. Eliot become a member of a commission to revise the Psalter-a copy of the book of Psalms from the Bible. Four years later, C.S. Lewis dies. “Clive Staples Lewis was one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century and arguably one of the most intellectual writers of his day”.
T.S. Eliot graduated from Harvard in 1909. He later returned to Harvard and earned his PhD in 1916. Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1927. Anglicanism is a religion in which it is believed that faith should be fully based on the Bible. This belief is similar to the ones of Catholicism. In 1965, T.S. Eliot dies. T.S. Eliot’s religious beliefs definitely play a role in his writing techniques and topics.
T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis had different views in their writing. T.S. Eliot focused on religion while C.S. Lewis often focused on atheism. Along with that, Eliot was a modernist while Lewis was contemporary. However, they agreed in some ways. For example, they agreed that some literary ideas may not be important. “These are the common elements of our universal experience. Stylistically, Eliot and Lewis may be worlds apart, but thematically they journey together”.
Biography, Family and Life of T.s. Eliot
T.S. Eliot was one of the most influential authors of all time, but mostly during the 1900s. He once wrote, “If you aren’t in over your head, How do you know How tall you are?” This one quote narrates Eliot’s personality to the fullest because he strived to write poetry that people would feel. T.S. Eliot’s poems give a personal emotion because he believed that all poetry should make a person feel some type of emotion. Even though, he is not the type of person to share notable events that have happened in his life. In 1910, Eliot was the first person to use the word ‘bullshit’ in his poem, The Triumph of Bullshit. This poem refers to female critics that he has failed to impress with his poetry and ladies he has failed to excite in other ways. With Eliot being able to express the World’s frequent unease with a tone that is very relatable and very established is remarkable. T.S. Eliot is an Anglo-American Poet who was not like any other poet. He developed a new way to approach history complex and sagaciously as any other professional historian. He believed history was the development of cultures.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. Eliot is the youngest out of seven brothers of Henry Ware Eliot and Charlotte Chauncy Stearns. He died on January 4, 1965, in London, England. Eliot died of Emphysema, a condition in which the air sacs of the lungs are damaged and enlarged, usually caused by smoking. As a young boy, he loved going on expeditions and enjoyed being a sailor. Eliot was born with a double hernia, so he could not play like other kids his age. As an alternative, he was eager to read and write. Most of the imagery in his writing was encouraged by the things that surrounded him. These included: Mississippi River, pollution, sailboats, urban St. Louis neighborhood, and beaches near his summer home in Massachusetts.
With T.S. Eliot growing up in such a big family, many think he would want a big family of his, but that was not the case. Eliot did not have any children with any of his wives. Yes, he had more than one wife. Him and his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, were married for thirty-two years. Eliot separated from Vivienne in 1933. After they departed from one another, Vivienne suffered from mental and physical problems. Vivienne never wanted Eliot to leave her, she started writing stories about him and how he would return to her. “The only thing I yearn for & bleed for is the day when Tom calmly turns the keys in this front door, walks leisurely in, finds the room door key, & then has a good look all round, smiles with quiet satisfaction, draws a long breath, & goes quietly to his dear books & to his bed. And if he can then say, God bless my little Welsh wife Vivienne. Surely he will say that.” Vivienne was later sent to a mental institution in 1938 and died in 1947. Ten years later, Eliot decided to marry Valerie Fletcher, his secretary. They were 38 years apart. Eliot lived in London, England with both wives.
T.S. Eliot started his education by first attending to Harvard University in 1906. At Harvard, he studied Philosophy and graduated three years later with a Bachelor of Arts degree. After Harvard, he went to Paris for a year and studied Philosophy at Paris Sorbonne University. There, he earned his master’s degree in Art Philosophy. Later, he went back to Harvard to study Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit for another three years. Then, he went to Oxford University and earned his graduate degrees in English and Philosophy. Eliot has an expansion of knowledge in different types of philosophy.
Thomas would not have had made it far in his career without a few influences in his life. Some of the major influences were Harvard professors, which is not surprising because he was truly committed to Harvard. Particularly, George Santayana, who was a philosopher and poet, and Irving Babbitt, who was a critic. Eliot was influenced by these professors who were prominent in poetry, philosophy and literary criticism.
Eliot was not only a poet, but he also had many more hobbies. He started studying poems of famous poets, so he could learn from them. Then he started writing literary criticism on many different poets and playwrights work. He criticized plays but was also a playwright. Lastly, his absolute favorite, he loved cultural philosophies. T.S. Eliot made money and secured happiness for doing these things he enjoyed the most.
Out of all the years in Eliot’s career, he has had a lot of major works. Most of his popular works are poems such as Old Potassium’s Book of Practical Cats that adapted in 1981, which is a collection of playful poems. Eliot did not just stick to one theme for his poems he traveled all over the place with the themes. A great example is Four Quartets that was published in 1943, this is four poems combined with some of the themes being religion, time, science problem, and the meaning of life. Going further into religion, when Eliot first converted to Anglicanism his first long poem was Ash Wednesday in 1930. Anglicanism is a form of Christianity that is connected to the Church of England. Ash Wednesday is a detailed journey about anyone who has had a lack of faith in God in the past but, eventually moves toward God. One of his famous poems, The Waste Land in 1922, is a very complex poem about the aftereffects of World War I. The Waste Land was considered one of Eliot’s best piece. Eliot was not only a poet, but he was also a playwright. One of his most famous plays is Murder in the Cathedral, which is a play about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Eliot did not just focus on one theme for his poems or plays. He wrote about so many different things. Through his poetry and plays, he wanted to get his audience to feel the emotions that he was expressing in his poems.
In Eliot’s lifetime, he has won many awards for a number of different things. He was the only Missourian to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. Also in the year of 1948, he was awarded the Order of Merit, meaning he was recognized for the poetry he produced. Additionally, he was won three Tony Awards, being recognized for greatness in Broadway theatre. The Cocktail Party won a Tony Award in 1950 for best play. The play is about a problematic married couple who throws a cocktail party and are faced with a few challenges. His next two Tony Awards were both in 1983. The first was won for best book of a musical, which was Cats. His final Tony Award was rewarded for the best original score for Cats. Unfortunately, with the passing of T.S. Eliot on January 4, 1965, there would not be any future works that he will be producing.
Fifty-years after Eliot’s death, the T.S. Eliot Foundation founded the ‘T.S. Eliot House’ It is now functioning as a Writer’s Retreat. The Writer’s Retreat is open to poets, playwrights, essayists, and editors. Eliot always wanted to give back to the community, but he passed before he got the opportunity
T.S. Eliot did not always want to be a poet. In the beginning, he wanted to be a professional philosopher.
Interpretation of Self Discovery in the Stranger, Streetcar Named Desire, and the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
In today’s world, especially in modern Western society, the collective days of the human race are dictated by the facetious and the more-often-than-not tangible ideas of happiness. Everyday an individual wakes up and embarks on an artificial journey. This journey isn’t one of philosophical or enlightening proportions, rather it is a heinous excursion for power and wealth. The world has become more focused on the aesthetics of life rather than what really matters, accomplishing inner fulfillment. This soulful satisfaction is synonymous to true self-discovery. This is seen in Albert Camus’s, The Stranger, Tennessee Williams’s, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Raymond Carver’s, “The Cathedral.” This theme is also expressed in various poems, including Langton Hughes’ “Democracy” and in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In these poems, the theme of self and self-discovery is centralized. The universal truth of self-discovery and its limitations are also expressed in the critically acclaimed film, The Graduate directed by Mike Nichols based on the book by Charles Webbs. The characters in each of these pieces are restricted from finding themselves because of the bounds of society, and twisted reality. These works show that man must embark on the journey of finding true happiness through true self recognition despite varying limitations.
Often times, one’s self is exposed to the volatile and corrupt ideas that become central in their society. In Camus’s The Stranger, Meursault, the main character, says, “Yes, it was the hour when, a long time ago, I was perfectly content. What awaited me back then was always a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet something has changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day…as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent” (Camus 89). Meursault justifies his passivity by saying there is nothing anyone can do anyway. If you are at the mercy of chance and bad luck, you might as well drift along. However, the society that Meursault has been bound to thinks differently of his apathetic ways. Detachment from society is one thing, but nonconformity to, or refusal to play by its rules, is another. The blatant nonconformist is deemed amoral. This is why the passive Meursault is considered an outsider, a stranger. As mentioned in Critical Insights: Albert Camus, “When society condemns him, Meursault realizes that he is not being condemned for taking human life but for refusing to accept the illusion society promotes to protect itself from having to acknowledge the human condition” ( “Works by Albert Camus”). Society has judged that the crime of a passive, detached atheist is punishable by death. Meursault, having nothing to add, accepts the sentence. Albert Camus exemplifies the idea of the inner human journey. This journey emerges from the idea of inescapable mortality. He builds on this theme through his Meursault who essentially embodies the entire journey. Although detached and perhaps slightly apathetic, once he realizes that his death not only is imminent, but also processing at an untimely pace, he begins a subtle contemplation of his life. His true identity has been shaped and marred by society, and when he comes to accept that fact, death no longer seems shallow, but fulfilling. The film, The Graduate, is also a great adaptation of the refusal of one to conform to the wants of those around them. As stated by film critique John Adamczyk, the film “demonstrates a strong sense of rebellion – rebellion against the upper class, rebellion against the older generation, and rebellion against the standard conventions of the American culture during the Sixties (Adamczyk).” The main instance in the plot of “The Graduate” in which rebellion is portrayed is Benjamin’s long-term affair with Mrs. Robinson. This act is Benjamin’s first real revolt against his parents and the expectations placed upon him; he demolishes the moral principles of the Sixties by marring himself with adultery. Although Benjamin eventually realizes the relationship is “disgusting,” his indulgence marks the most scandalous and controversial act in the film. The film also embarks to show the entire concept of self-discovery through the theme of coming-of-age. Ben Braddock, the main character, is a seemingly intelligent young man whom everyone believes is headed onto to bigger and better things. However, it is made abundantly clear to the audience that he is not willing to acquiesce to the whims of society when he responds to his father’s question of how he wishes his future to be as “different” (The Graduate). Ben, like Meursault, may be a wanderer, but he also is similar to the existential character because he too does not understand why society is so opposed to him. This theme of societal restraints is also expressed in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. In this play, the characters of Blanche and Stanley represent the complexities and clash between the infrastructure of Blanche’s traditional societal viewpoint and Stanley’s new world viewpoint. At one point in the play, Stanley explains his frustration with Blanche to his wife and says, “That’s how I’ll clear the table! … Don’t ever talk that way to me! ‘Pig, Polack, disgusting, vulgar, greasy!’ – them kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister’s too much around here! What do you think you two are? A pair of queens? Remember what Huey Long said – ‘Every Man is a King!’ And I am the King around here, so don’t forget it” (Williams 8.14). Stanley represents the new America, land of opportunity and equality, as opposed to Blanche’s more archaic ideals. Blanche seems to think her ethnic origins make her better than others. It is a point of pride for her. She cannot seem to accept the fact that the world is moving forward and the traditional ideals are diminishing. As critic Brenda Murphy says, “Blanche is trapped in a way of life that does not allow her to move forward. She’s trapped in the past, never having got over the death of her first husband. She’s trapped in the present in that tiny apartment with Stanley. She is trapped living with Stella and Stanley because she doesn’t have any money. She is trapped playing the southern belle in order to trap a man to marry her” (Murphy). This play is very much about the symbolic clash between old versus new and past verses present: whether it is Old America versus New America, old south versus new south, the dying aristocratic class versus the rising industrial working class, or imagistic pastoral sensitive past versus harsh straightforward brutal present. Ultimately, Blanche’s Southern Belle persona is what blocks her inner journey to self-discovery.
Living the life of one’s dreams is distinctly different from living a normal life as a dream. This is how Tennessee Williams’s character Blanche is living her life, “Every action and every word out of Blanche’s mouth is based on illusion. Her story of why she’s ended up at Stella’s door is an illusion. The way she covers the harsh light of the bare bulb with a paper shade is an illusion. The lies she tells Mitch are an illusion” (Banach). Blanche is slightly melodramatic and has built this allusion, in which she is still a wealthy, lovely socialite. It is difficult to distinguish between when she has lost her grip on reality, when she is simply imagining a better future for herself, and when she is immersed in fiction and indulging in romantic fantasies. This disregarding of reality is also portrayed in Raymond Carver’s, “The Cathedral,” in which the narrator and his wife are both dissatisfied with their lives. This is seen in their interactions before the arrival of Robert, “‘Are you crazy?’ my wife said. ‘Have you flipped or something?’ She picked up a potato. I saw it hit the floor then roll under the stove” (Carver). Jealousy, insecurity, and communication problems distort the narrator’s reality. His distorted reality makes his wife angry, and makes her husband seem like a more closed-minded person than he is. As critic Lawrence Garver writes, “The husband unwittingly betrays a great deal about his own sour and stunted in nature; his jealousy, insecurity, suspicion, and self-imposed isolation…” (Garver). The husband is metaphorically isolated from his true self. Instead of surrounding himself with ideals of progression and positivity, he is degrading himself with corrupted notions, such as unorthodox jealousy and insecurity. Due to issues of self-esteem, or a lack thereof, the narrator is unable to truly realize the essential dimensions of his self-identity. Self-perception changes not only person to person, but also changes with time. The narrator may not have harbored these feelings of jealousy previously, as he does when he learns and meets the blind man. At the end of the story, he reaches his inner epiphany, but only because he was able to detach himself from these negative emotions while connecting himself to the rest of the world. This concept of self-obstruction by lack of reality is further explored in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The narrator, a shy and timid man, imagines himself growing old, unchanged, worrying about his health and the “risks” of eating a peach. Still, he faintly hears the mermaids of romance singing in his imagination, even though they are not singing to him (Eliot L-122). In a final imagined vision, he sees these nymphs of the sea, free and beautiful, calling him. Reality, however, intrudes in the form of “human voices,” perhaps those of the art-chattering women, and he is “drowned” in his empty life (Eliot, L-132). As critic John J. Conlon mentioned in his analysis of the poem, although an imagination is extremely important in living a colorful life and can even help an individual discover more about themselves, such as Alfred J. Prufrock imagination “leads us to believe he is a romantic and even an optimist at heart, the total lack of reality is what becomes one source of his despair and lack of fulfillment” (Conlon). Furthermore, the audience can see almost the satirical undertones implemented by the poet through his subtly mocking poetic form. For example, the first two lines, “Let’s go you and I, /When the evening is spread out against the sky,” is a heroic couplet (Eliot, Ll 1-2). Critic John Conlon also writes about the irony of the use of Eliot’s heroic couplet when the narrator is as far from heroic as can be (Conlon). This mocking attitude in the form of poetic meter may essentially be T. S. Eliot’s way of poking fun at the cowardice daydreamer who is Mr. Prufrock and his inability to fully accept reality and therefore fully accept himself.
Langston Hughes’ “Democracy” is a concise and passionate piece of literature that emulates the struggles of African Americans during the era of segregation and flaming racism. The form of the poem, including the basic language, doesn’t take away from the message of national self-discovery and is noticed by many scholars and analysts, “Langston Hughes felt compelled to speak his mind for equality and his birthright freedom via poetry. His language, again, is as strikingly strong and direct … is so simply put, and with such spare beauty” (Miller). Hughes is primarily a writer of the vulgar, in subject matter as well as form. For meter he favors the uneven vocal patterns of everyday speech and for his verses blank rhyme interspersed with simple rhymes that lend strength to the key lines. The fact that he used such techniques became a main factor in the overwhelming success of the poem since it was “a particularly unusual style to have when Hughes first began to be published – in the 1920’s when many modernist poets and authors were writing from the extreme opposite pole of esoteric obtuseness and high pretension” (Sanders). The controlled writing of the poem essentially made the message more accessible and deep. The societal norms of the “White Man’s Burden” and the Governments inefficiency to implement a true democracy are the hurdles that Hughes and his fellow black Americans had to overcome to find themselves. He clearly addresses his point of views about democracy in the first stanza when he declares the following: “Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever / Through compromise and fear” (Hughes, Ll 1-4). Democracy back then was laughable and a joke – and outright biased. Government rule by the people pertained to whites exclusively, excluding all African Americans. Democracy implies free and equal representation of people; in more concrete language, it implies free and equal right of every soul to participate in a system of government, which was nonexistent to blacks at the juncture. This poem ultimately encapsulates the idea that many societal beliefs and many laws become limitations to those individuals who wish to find themselves spiritually and mentally. This theme is also embodied in Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Throughout the varying times of humanity, law has been implemented to prevent monstrous and wide-scaled chaos. However, often times the law becomes directly influenced by the bias of a specific society and in turn ends up as the driving force behind the injustice and incomparable treatment of individuals such as Camus’s Meursault. This lack of justice is pointed out by critic Steven G. Kellman when he mentions, “Both attorneys attempt to find some pattern… All details paint the portrait of an innocent man acting in self-defense. Yet the prosecutor finds that Meursault’s callousness about his mother’s death is symptomatic of a cold blooded murder” (Kellman). Although all evidence shows that the murder by the hands of Meursault was an accident, the prosecutor, a symbol of the society Meursault deals with, shows readers that he is being victimized on the basis of his less than stellar personality. Once again, societal shams have proven to be a hindrance in man’s inner journey to self-discovery.
Although there are many outside limitations to one’s ability of self-discovery, some obstructions arise from one’s own personality and character, as seen in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Prufrock’s inability to achieve self-enlightenment stems from his fears and insecurities. In the poem’s opening lines, Prufrock invites the reader to accompany him as he walks through a modern city making his social rounds. Perhaps “he assumes that they share his comfortable wealth and socially active lifestyle. As his proper, even prissy, name implies, Prufrock is neurotic and fearful” (Childs). Alfred Prufock is essentially and insecure and depraved individual. Although his name, and often even his actions portray that is a high class socialite, the fact that he is unable to communicate with individuals in the social world portrays his actual character as an insecure individual. Ultimately this becomes a hindrance to his inner journey of self-discovery because he is unable to accept himself for who he. Insecurity is not the only limiting factor that threatens Prufrock’s inherent self, “Like the limitless streets outside his window, infinite time also threatens Prufrock. The more life he has left to live, the more he is left to wonder and to question. Wondering and questioning frighten him because the answers that they provoke might challenge the perfect, unchanging regularity of his tidy existence” (Conlon). Achieving self-enlightenment is not a path clear of obstructions. One of these road blocks that J Alfred Prufrock encounters is fear. However, his fear is hard to describe. In fact, it is quite paradoxical in that not only does he fear death and the loss of time; he also fears immortality and increased time. He doesn’t not wish for his life to be over but he also doesn’t wish to ponder about it due to his inquisitive nature. The concepts of life and death are intangible ideas, and he fears the answers. Unlike Langston Hughes’ “Democracy,” Eliot’s poem’s form is wordier and a dramatic monologue that allows the readers to gain more insight regarding the fictional character as the poem continues on. What is odd about Prufrock is that, while he is impotent to act because he cannot begin to speak, “he states what he feels about himself in an eloquent and poetic manner, worthy of any social setting” (Menland):
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! Smoothed by long fingers, Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers, Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me. (Eliot, Ll 75-78)
The flow and beauty of these lines demonstrates that Prufrock is capable of speaking about love in poetic style, so he should not be insecure. The reference to Dante is not only appropriate, but it explains how a character as insecure and inarticulate as Prufrock can say exactly what he means in the poem, but not in the scene in the poem. This is similarly seen in Raymond Carver’s “The Cathedral.” The narrator’s blurred view of everything that happened in his wife’s past life shows the insecurity that plagues him. When referring to his wife’s ex-husband he says, “Her officer- why should he have a name? He was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?” (Carver). The upcoming visit of Robert is, as critic Charles E. May says, is where “the husband unwittingly betrays a great deal about his own sour and stunted nature: his jealousy, insecurity, suspicion, and self-imposed isolation.” He is metaphorically isolated from history self. Instead of surrounding himself with ideals of progression and positivity, he’s degrading himself with corrupted notions, such as an unorthodox jealousy and insecurity. Because of these issues of self-esteem, he is unable to truly realize the essential human truth of understanding individual identity. Self-perception changes not only person to person, but also changes with time.
One of the essential human truths expressed in these pieces of literature, is that an individual’s identity not only varies from person to person, but also changes from time to time. Self-identity is not only dependent on an individual’s persona, but also the varying limitations that are set forth in their realms of living. Albert Camus, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot, and Mike Nichols all feature this truth in their pieces using the different restrictions set forth in their characters’ worlds. The also convey the essential truth that to be truly satisfied and content with life, one must acknowledge and detach themselves from the plethora of limitations.
Narrator’s Decision-making in the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
In T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the narrator seems to be an older man who spends a lot of time making decisions but perhaps also second guessing himself. He is unconfident and uncomfortable in his surroundings, because he is always questioning, “how should I presume?” or “do I dare?” (Eliot 2040-2041). The narrator spends his whole life pondering about the decisions he never makes, and he gets nowhere. He is constantly worried about what other people think of him, but he also says something that shows just what he thinks of himself:
For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume? (Eliot 2040-2041).
The narrator leads into this stanza from the previous stanza with, “In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (Elliot 2040). Here, the narrator is saying when he makes a decision, he’ll always have the time to take it back and keep revising it. The narrator thinks that “there will be time, there will be time,” and thus he think he can keep changing his decisions “hundred[s]” of times (Eliot 2040). The narrator is afraid of the possible consequences of his actions, and the he thinks it’s better to not act at all. He goes on to say how he is all too familiar with contemplating his decisions, spending days on them, and getting nowhere. When he says that his life is measured out by “coffee spoons”, the narrator is saying what he thinks about his life, amounting to just small coffee spoons. Coffee is not a very interesting aspect of life; it’s just a daily, habitual part of everyday life. Saying that his life is measured out by something like this is implying that the narrator thinks his life is worthless. Having spent “evenings, mornings, afternoons” in solitude to only have coffee wake him up shows how the narrator is perhaps also very lonely and sad. He, however, knows what he wants (a woman), but he is too afraid to go after her. When Eliot writes about the “dying fall” he is alluding to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (2041). In the play, Orsino listened to music that had a “dying fall,” reignited his love for another character. When the narrator says that this dying fall is coming from “voices” in a “farther room,” he may be saying that love is far from him, or that he witnesses the love of other people, but never his own (Eliot 2041). The narrator then questions how he should proceed, which was really the question that’s been on his mind the entire time. Everything else he describes is a reflection on his life and surroundings, but his life is not over yet and he still has a chance with the love of his life. However, he is never able to make a move because he is constantly debating with himself about what move to make. His ideas change by the minute, and his thoughts are caught in a stalemate of inaction. The narrator is spending his whole life trying to figure out how he will go about getting this woman, but he cannot decide and thus he never even begins.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: Eliot’s Monologue Poem
Upon first reading, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” appears to be a monologue poem spoken by the narrator to someone he loves. This is especially evident in the first stanza. The opening lines, “Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky” (lines 1-2), ask the subject to spend an evening together, and the stanza ends: “To lead you to an overwhelming question …/Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’/Let us go and make our visit” (lines 10-12). This can be interpreted as the narrator preparing himself to ask the subject an important question. However, as the poem progresses, the narrator begins to speak of women in a more detached manner that suggests he is not addressing a romantic interest at all, but instead himself inside his own mind. He observes unidentified women in lines 13 and 14, and again in lines 35 and 36: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” He also states: “And I have known the arms already, known them all—/Arms that are braceleted and white and bare/(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)” (lines 62-64). These lines could be interpreted as an expression of disillusionment with the fleeting nature of modern romance; the narrator feels he has already experienced everything romantic love could offer him.
This disillusionment connects with another dominant theme of the poem, dealing with anxiety surrounding aging. In lines 40 and 41, the narrator reveals his preoccupation with the aging process: “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —/(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)” Upon a second reading, earlier lines could also be interpreted as addressing this theme: lines 15-17, “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,” use repetition to emphasize the color yellow, which is often associated with aging. The narrator is describing how his anxieties about aging insert themselves into otherwise pleasant evenings, reminding him of his mortality. Later, the narrator admits: “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” (lines 84-86). These lines create an obvious allusion to the narrator’s fear of mortality and death, and anxiety that he has peaked in “greatness” and has already experienced the best years of his life. In addition to mortality, the narrator also expresses anxiety about women, beauty, and life in general. In lines 37-38, he states: “And indeed there will be time/To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’” The phrase “Do I dare” is repeated several times throughout the poem, and seems to encompass the narrator’s general apprehension toward living his life. The lines in which he observes women speaking about Michelangelo reflect his inability to participate in the discussion of beauty, or to talk to women at all. Eliot’s narrator is a man who simultaneously feels he has experienced all he can in life, and feels hesitant to “dare” take part in activity that may “disturb the universe” (line 46). This dread leads the poem to end in fantasy, though even this is tinged with the narrator’s feelings of inadequacy: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./I do not think that they will sing to me” (lines 124-125). The final stanza contains continued imagery of the mermaids, ending with the narrator fantasizing about living in a different world, only to be abruptly removed from this daydream by his reality: “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published in 1915, and is a classic example of modernist poetry. The poem reflects the anxieties that were common in the early twentieth century, which was a time of enormous transition. Many people did not know how to navigate their rapidly changing world. It is also important to note that Eliot was in his twenties when he wrote and published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which is a period of one’s life that is also commonly associated with transition and assuming a new role in the world. All of these factors contribute to the poem’s seemingly universal narrator, who personifies the modern anxiety and existential dread that Eliot and his contemporaries were likely experiencing during the turn of the century.