Thursday, March 15, 2007


Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliott

A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to him, and which no one else can enter. That, basically, was T. S. Eliot's view. To analyze a poem by scrutinizing the life of the poet, he believed, was banal, robotic and misleading. And yet, it's so tempting. Someone who protests too much surely has something to hide. So when a friend asked me for my thoughts on Eliot's Prufrock, that exhilarating roller-coaster ride through a minefield of prophesy and boredom, Eliot's life was the first thing that came to mind.

Prufrock was published in 1917. Eliot was in his third year of marriage with Vivian Haigh-Wood. He loved her deeply and longed for a partner to share his creative explorations. But life with Vivian Haigh-Wood, who probably had BPD and whose behavior was to say the least erratic, was, like the poem, a roller coaster ride through a minefield. So of course I thought of her.

Prufrock is quite sensuous and at times erotic in its imagery:

"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!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?"

The protagonist wants to love, to be loved, and most important to communicate with someone. What's the point of any thought or exploration, he says, if she, perhaps his beloved, perhaps anyone at all, says, "that is not what I meant at all"

I've always thought, along with everyone else that the poem was an indictment of British society in 1917. Maybe it is. But, thinking about the lonely barren wasteland which was life for Eliot and Vivian, I realized that maybe it's more universal: a Jeremiad about love and communication. Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus, a philosophical investigation on the nature of language and the limits of communication with this: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Maybe Prufrock is a lamentation on the limits of human beings. Yes, there's always the hidden condemnation in the poem, he should have done better, he wasted his life but he should have done better. Maybe he couldn't. Maybe no one could.

Finally to top off my ruminations, I thought of this: 1917... there was a war on. As Prufrock drinks his tea, thousands of soldiers were charging into German machine guns and dying. Maybe that's the prophetic ghost at this banquet.

And then all at once my house of cards came tumbling down. Though not published in 1917, Prufrock was written in 1910. There was no war, no Viv, Eliot was, by his own account a virgin and had never visited England. So maybe Eliot was right. Biographical interpretation may look pretty on paper, but it's a waste of time. But then I realized: there is a sort of biographical analysis that does make sense. It's foolish to tie a theme in a symphony with the life of the composer. But one can attempt to analyze the structure of the melody.

Eliot grew up in staunchly bourgeois St Louis. He then moved to Boston and went to Harvard, which was quite cultured but was a safe isolated harbor from the winds sweeping in the modern age. In 1910 Eliot spent a year in Paris. And landed smack in the middle of artistic ferment. He may or may not have seen Braque and Gris and Picasso lording it over their acolytes in some picturesque Montmartre cafe, but he certainly was aware of cubism. And if you take cubism at its word — that it takes familiar objects, dissects them, reassembles them — you could argue that the meandering, elliptical structure of Prufrock is indeed cubist.

In 1910 Paris it seemed as if momentous things were happening, as if profundity was just around the corner. So maybe Prufrock is simply an indictment of St Louis compared to Paris. (In 1910, later on the US caught up with a vengeance.) Women come and go talking of Michelangelo. Maybe all that Eliot meant was, they should be talking of Picasso. But maybe, in spite of all, Prufrock indeed is a Jeremiad about love and communication. That's universal. And after all, as every writer knows, a writer writes alone.

1 comment:

rch said...

Hello, I saw your feed on Poets 101. I just recently bought a book with that poem in it and I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your piece, very thought provoking and the end says it all. Great read! So long,