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TSE  April 2003

TSE April 2003

Subject:

Up in smoke: a long post

From:

Jennifer Formichelli <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Wed, 2 Apr 2003 20:21:00 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (95 lines)

Dear Listers,

It is with not the least regret that I admit I have misplaced the
original post on 'Prufrock's Smoke'. But I am surprised and chagrined
that such deranged fantasies, so far, far away from the words on the
page, have provoked such bursts of discussion, whilst meritorious posts
meriting such discussions have vanished (no references to smoke will
here be made, in the name of common decency) without comment. Alas, I
did not write to make this point.

Aside from the late time when Eliot wrote that one important thing
about any interpretation was that it ought to be his own interpretation
('Frontiers of Criticism', 1956), he mainly stuck to his earlier
principle in 'The Function of Criticism', 1923, that 'interpretation is
always pulling parts of the body out of its pockets, and fixing them in
place' (I quote from memory).  I have not seen a better example of this
than the recent thread on 'Prufrock's Smoke'.

A few examples of careless reading:

1. George Carless (no pun intended)

> I've always felt that Prufrock was about something more than mere
> shyness,
> and I think that homosexuality might (but probably doesn't) fit the
> bill.
> It would do something to explain the poem's dedication and epigraph;
> in n
> other words, if the poem *is* related to homosexuality then there may
> be
> an implicit message there: that since Eliot himself *does* expect to
> return, as it were, from the gulf of the poem, he is not entirely free
> to
> speak 'without fear of infamy' of his 'overwhelming question'.
>

First, 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' does not carry a
dedication. The 1917 book, 'Prufrock and Other Observations' carries a
dedication. Second, the epigraph is spoken neither by J Alfred Prufrock
(presumably if it were it would not be an epigraph) nor by TS Eliot:
instead it is spoken by Guido da Montefeltro, a rather different
character (that is if one can call Prufrock a character at all, which I
for one would not); and part of its richness comes from its disparity
from the poem to which it is attached. A sense of this is captured in
the above (not careful) use of the word  'explanation' .

2. Steve (already quoted)


> Here Prufrock goes deep into his soul to reveal his innermost secrets
(which is why the section is
> physically set apart from the narration of the rest of the poem).
> Prufrock
reveals that the purpose of his > journey "at dusk through narrow
streets"
is to watch "the smoke that rises from the pipes/Of lonely
> men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows", that is, to pursue his
desires for homosexual encounters.


This is just fiction (and not good fiction either). Has everyone lost
faith in observation (Eliot hadn't. In fact, he admired, see
introduction to Bubu of Montparnasse, observation without judgment;
precisely the opposite of what is going on on this list)? Why cannot
the lonely men in shirtsleeves just be lonely men in shirtsleeves? I
think the lines are extremely poignant as they stand, and I am not, I
believe, alone.

My other point is that it is quite clear that, unlike Guido in
Inferno--not, you will note, in the epigraph at all (and very unlike
the usual dramatic monologue form)--, the speaker of 'The Love Song of
J Alfred Prufrock' makes no confession at all. Perhaps that is why some
critics are so tempted to wrest his confession from him (tantalisingly
promised, never delivered), or rather, to make it up. Compare Hamlet:

'Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play
upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart
of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my
compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little
organ, yet you cannot make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier
to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though
you fret me, you cannot play upon me. '

Hamlet kept his secret by making a show of it; and 'Hamlet' has a
nearness to 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' which is, I think, not
fictional at all.

The chief merit of such a list as this (and the one it largely
possessed when I joined it in 1996) lies in the exchange of scholarly
information and critical ideas and principles. When  discussions
descend into a brawl over such nonsensical posts as 'Prufrock's Smoke',
we all have something (and not something small) to regret. For we all,
I think, have something (not something small) to lose.

Yours, Jennifer

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