I was away from my computer yesterday so I just got around to reading the List mail this morning. Sorry for the delay.
C> I presume there has been quite a bit of commentary on the
C> poem by reasonably intelligent and responsible critics,
C> and it seems a bit odd to speculate without some attention
C> to some of that body of commentary.
C> Haven't some of these questions been explored?
That is a great question, Carrol, and I'll try to give you a thoughtful answer.
Certainly a poem like Prufrock, widely acclaimed and nearly 100 years old, has received a ton of literary commentary. I have, in fact, read a lot of commentary on the poem. One answer I can give as to why I'm posting my questions/comments on the poem is that this is the purpose of the TSE list, to discuss ideas about TSE and his works with a live group who might have useful insights to offer in real-time.
But the other answer I will give is that, while the poem is almost 100 years old, there are aspects of Eliot's work that it was "forbidden" to discuss for many years, sometimes under the threat of legal action (e.g., Consider John Peter's 1952 essay of 'The Waste Land' and how it was suppressed for over a decade after a threat of legal action from Eliot himself to Peter). If a literary analyst believed there were homosexual themes in an Eliot poem, those themes could not be openly discussed in a public forum until after Eliot's death. And even then, the Eliot community generally dismissed those analyses as wholly without merit, even disgusting, trashing the reputation of a great poet to score a few literary points (e.g., Consider the reaction to James Miller's book on TWL in 1978). In other words, over the years, it was not easy to have a calm, non-judgmental review of a reading that suggested homosexual themes in TSE's works.
Carrol, you take Prufrock's 'overwhelming question' to be:
C> "Will you? (Will you go to bed with me, that is)".
And you added,
C> But had Prufrock called up to courage to ask this certainly
C> overwhelming question, he asks himself, would it have made
C> a difference -- or would it only have called forth the
C> devastating response, Down Boy, that's not what I meant at all.
That's a very reasonable interpretation of those Prufrock lines. My take is different. I think Prufrock is imagining himself approaching more and more intimate terms with this woman who could someday even become his wife. The conversation turns to something like, "Tell me _everything_ about yourself. I want to know _all_ your secrets; tell me everything there is to know." Hearing this, Prufrock reflects on telling _everything_ : "Would it have been worth while,/To have bitten off the matter with a smile,/To have squeezed the universe into a ball/To roll it toward some overwhelming question,/To say: 'I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all' ". What is "telling all"? Assume for the sake of argument (and I'll try to support this later in the post) that he is thinking about saying, "I'm bisexual (or maybe, at root, homosexual). I've gone through certain half-deserted streets and watched the smoke that rises from the pipes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows". Prufrock then contemplates the woman's disgusted reaction to this news, and imagines her saying, "I asked you to tell me _all_ about yourself and you tell me that you're gay?? That's not what I wanted to hear. You think I want to hear information like that about a possible future husband!?! When I asked you to tell me everything, that's not what I meant, at all".
The same imagery appears in the next stanza. Prufrock thinks about "a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen" (that is, revealed the inside of himself, normally not visible). With his inner homosexuality revealed, again, he imagines the woman saying "that is not it at all", i.e., no, I did not want to know _that_ about you.
Without making this post overly-long, let me just add a few more points.
The Prufrock epigraph has been much discussed over the last 100 years, but, nonetheless, I'd like to look at it one more time. The quotation comes from Dante, Inferno (XXVII, 61-66):
S`io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocchè giammai di questo fondo
Non tornò vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.
One translation from the Princeton Dante Project is:
"If I thought my answer were given
to anyone who would ever return to the world,
this flame would stand still without moving any further.
But since never from this abyss
has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true,
without fear of infamy I answer you."
The key word here is "infamy". Webster's dictionary defines "infamy" as:
Date: 15th century
1 : evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal, shocking, or brutal
2 a : an extreme and publicly known criminal or evil act
b : the state of being infamous
Now, what in Prufrock's love song would make him think he would be "infamous" if the information was publically revealed? As CR's post notes, the poem reveals that Prufrock has a fear of women, a fear of death, a sense of inadequacy, etc. Are any of those things candidates to declare someone "infamous"? I don't think so. But a confession of homosexuality? -- Now _that_ would certainly rise to the level of "infamy", at least in 1911 when the poem was written.
I think the key to the poem is to understand what is behind these lines (which Eliot offsets in the poem by lines of dots [. . .] to unmistakably call them to the reader's attention for special consideration):
"Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . ."
About a year ago I sent in posts arguing that these lines were an allusion to another set of Dante passages, namely:
Inferno XV, 16-19 (image of men looking at each other at dusk, with sexual implications)
quando incontrammo d'anime una schiera
che vevian lungo l'argine, e ciascuna
ci riguardava come suol da sera
guardare uno altro sotto nuova luna;
[we met a troop of souls that were coming alongside the bank, and each looked at us as men look at one another under a new moon at dusk; (translation - Charles S. Singleton)]
Inferno XV, 115-118 (image of rising smoke in the circle of Hell punishing the sodomites)
Di più direi; ma 'l venire e 'l sermone
più lungo esser non può, però ch'i'veggio
là surger nuovo fummo del sabbione.
Gente vien con la quale esser non deggio.
[I see yonder a new smoke rising from the sand; people are coming with whom I must not be (translation - Charles S. Singleton)].
If you see these lines as this Dante allusion, Eliot's intentional inclusion of homosexual themes is likely. If you don't read these lines as this Dante allusion, you won't see this as any evidence of my interpretation at all.
In summary, in my interpretation, the overwhelming question that Prufrock is struggling with is: Should I live as a respectable married man or should I follow my true nature (and risk societal condemnation, i.e., "infamy") and live with a homosexual lover? That, in my reading, is the fundamental conflict agonized about in his love song poem.
Anyway, a year ago, when my post was met with a lot of skepticism, I ended with something I'd like to repeat:
"Keep an open mind about Prufrock. It's not just the pipe. It's the references to Michelangelo, and the mermaids, and the lonely men in shirt-sleeves, and the half-deserted streets, and the poem's dedication, and the book's dedication -- stuff like that."
-- Tom --