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TSE  October 2015

TSE October 2015

Subject:

Further Observations on Prufrock

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:07:43 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (89 lines)

Note on Subject Line: I think it best not to insert names into Subject
lines. Except for that caution I might have used the clumsy but more
descriptive lable of "Response to Ken Armstrong Saturday, September 19, 2015
10:54 AM "a fully scrutinized text of Eliot's poems"

Secondly, that post covers a number of different topics and I found a
unified response; hence the series of independent observations below.


Ken writes, I am not sure what makes my interpretation "rough"

	--------

I know of no poem that could be cussed very thoroughly in only 161 words. My
characterization of Ken's interpretation as "rough" was essentially a
compliment. Most 161 word interpretations would be utterly empty; his was,
as I said, defensible. On other lists I have frequently termed my own
treatment of some topic as "rough." I don't understand why Ken objects to
the term.

Ken writes: The fact that Eliot "modeled" Prufrock on himself and one or two
others is a total distraction.

	--------

 A distraction from _what_? I presumed that Ken was referring to the
following passage from Nancy's post: "But it is not clear that Prufrock is
really aging; Eliot was young (22), and he said in an interviews in 1962
that Prufrock was partly himself and partly another, older person. His fear
of growing old may not mean he is doing so.)

What is at issue here is the meaning of a word in the phrase, "I am going
old." I suppose most readers have always puzzled a bit over this line. I
remember being puzzled  by W.D. Snodgrass's "April Inventory" in _Heart's
Needle_ (Snodgrass was a young man at the time.) When I found that there was
supposed to be a sub-title, identifying the speaker as an English instructor
in his '59s the puzzle was cleared up. Nothing here is awfully profound, & I
don't understand at all why Ken is so angered by Eliot's remarks. (It is,
after all, Eliot himself who  Ken is accusing of being an advocate of
Shakespeare typed by a chimpanzee.)


Ken writes: And I am equally sure that the swan song that is Prufrock's,
really a pitiably self-indulgent surrender of his being, is not Eliot's swan
song. It is what Eliot PURPOSELY CREATES to illustrate the constituents of
Prufock's demise.

	--------

(Such certainty is a bit awe-inspiring.)

(Not anyone's Swan Song, but Prufrock's Love Song) I really don't know what
Ken means by "swan song."  Traditionally the phrase referred to a more or
less heroic or admirable facing of death. The swan, mute in  life,  finally
sings (beautifully) as it dies. It imples a high degree of self-awareness in
the singer. One thinks of Hamlet's dying words to Horatio or Antony's "I am
dying, Egypt, dying" (quoted from memory).  But while Prufrock of course is
not dying, he does exhibit  a high degree of self-consciousness, and that
is perhaps part of what Eliot had in mind when he spoke of Prufrock being
"partly himself" - which, incidentally, is not the same as saying he
"modeled" Prufrock on himself. But I am further bothered by the last
sentence quoted: "It is what Eliot PURPOSELY CREATES to illustrate the
constituents of Prufock's demise." The all-caps not only assert a triviality
(all texts are purposeful) but are clearly about _Eliot_ not Prufrock.  The
only "purposes" directly revealed in the text are Prufrock's purposes, of
course. The title informs us of the speaker. And I don't see how _Prufrock_
can be trying to _illustrate_ his own "demise." 

There is a crux here that arises in dramatic monologues, drama, & epic.
Characters _other_ than the poet  "speak poetry," and the puzzle is whether
or not the poetry 'belongs' to the poet or the character.  I first became
aware of this issue in Barbara Lewalsk'is _Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of
Literary Forms_. Both Adam & Eve have speeches in which they espress their
love, & Lewalski suggests that Adam's love song is better poetry than Eve's.
This seemed to me utterly absurd, but it is enough of a problem to be a bit
awkward. The same puzzle arises in _Bleak House_, in which some of the
chapters arre labelled "Esther's Narrative," Esther being a character in the
novel; at least one critic has suggested that in several instances "Esther"
speaks in "The Vocie of Dickens" (i.e. in prose that does not fit her
character). It seems to me that - perhaps, maybe, just possibly - we should
credit Prufrock rather than "Eliot" with the poem's imagery: e.g. "patient
etherized upon a table."  Such a perspective might help both to make sense
of the pronoun shift in the closing lines ("we" rather than the "I" of most
of the poem) _and_  explain the grip the pome  has had on readers for over a
century. A poem that merely  illustrated a character's  "pitiably
self-indulgent surrender" of himself would have been forgotten long ago,
less interesting than Dorothy Parker's "You might as wll live."

Carrol

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