Prufrock revisited

The illustration is from Julian Peters’ comic-book version of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Julian Peters Comics is well worth a visit – he has illustrated poems by Wilde, Kipling, Poe, Rimbaud and many more. There is even a Manga-style edition of Yeats’ When You Are Old.

Turning to Eliot, I love Prufrock, but am I alone in being increasingly irritated by his relentless line in self-depreciation and self-pity? I’ve known J. A. P. for decades and I always used to nod in wise agreement during our many conversations. Now, I’m beginning to lose patience. Consider, for example, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two.” It makes you think. What is so wrong with being an attendant lord? It is not a condition that necessarily requires you to be, as Prufrock later suggests, “obtuse” or “ridiculous”. And who in their right mind would want to be Prince Hamlet, knowing what we know and having the opportunity to be someone different? Later Prufrock complains that he “heard the mermaids singing, each to each…’, adding, “I do not think that they will sing to me.” Surely he got off lightly, as anyone who has been sung at by a mermaid will tell you. Once they start, it’s very hard to silence them. Another maudlin bid for sympathy: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Who hasn’t, apart perhaps from millions of non-coffee-drinkers considerably less privileged than Prufrock or oneself. “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” Well, there are scenarios significantly more depressing than this to be endured on the social scene. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Pull yourself together, man.

There is a Prufrock in each and every one of us, and Prufrocks dotted amply around our circles of acquaintance. They all need a stern talking-to, a stiff drink and a gentle but firm replenishment of their sense of humour. That way it would be a great deal easier for them to deal with the inevitable problem we all face. Eliot’s articulation of it is the true cornerstone of the poem:

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.