T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
So. Prufrock is like, really cool.
Okay okay okay, I know I don't have to work that hard to make this poem worth talking about. So where do I begin?
Prufrock references two of Western literature's most famous texts in a way that feels neither showy nor unexplained. Yet as someone who has read both Divine Comedy and Hamlet more than once, it took me a little while before the implications of these references took hold. I think that means Eliot did it right.
A quotation from Book XXVII in Dante's Inferno prefaces the poem itself, so thinking about Dante was pretty unavoidable. While this particular Inferno passage dealt with the secrets the dead reveal when they believe no one will be able to return to the world above with information, the connection to Dante as a character that is established has interesting implications. Comparing himself in some way to Dante was not uncommon for Eliot; he dedicated The Wasteland to Ezra Pound by quoting one of Dante's descriptions of Virgil. But this allusion seems a little more involved than that.
Like Dante, Prufrock and his unknown guest are on a journey toward a woman. They both identify themselves as being middle-aged. But the similarities seem to stop there. Dante loves Beatrice. Prufrock does not love the woman or women he is meeting-- though he may long for their acceptance, he actually seems to think their life of parlor-chat and tea is exclusive and petty. Dante feels completely understood by Beatrice, and is led through dangerous situations with her guidance. Prufrock feels completely misunderstood by society women, to the point that he questions whether it is worth it to even attempt to express himself to them. Loving Beatrice saves Dante and allows him to behold Paradise; Prufrock compares the women and their mesmerizing "chamber" to mermaids who lure you underwater to your death.
Though Hamlet is often on my mind, I would not have thought to connect his interesting relationship with women to this discussion unless Eliot had nudged me in that direction. Prufrock seems to bring up the Prince of Denmark only to illustrate that rather than seeing himself as a main character in the scope of things, he perceives himself as more like Polonius; long-winded, easily used, and far less important than Hamlet himself. But a little reflection on Hamlet's own character made me realize that Prufrock is much more like Hamlet than he claims. Hamlet, like Prufrock, has a difficult time trusting women. While Hamlet struggles with hating Gertrude and Ophelia for what he sees as sexual transgressions, Prufrock harbors bitterness toward women because they can so easily and so quickly tear him down. Both men seem paralyzed with indecision, and both are aware of it and unhappy. They are also both acting. Prufrock keeps coming back to little tricks he uses to appear more respectable and hide the signs of his age. Hamlet puts on a front of insanity in order to plot his revenge against Claudius. Both men seem to believe that the facade is necessary; they seem unable to function honestly in society without their outer front.
What am I supposed to think of Prufrock? Why am I given two very different, very famous men to compare him to? I'm inclined to associate him more with Hamlet, but Prufrock rejects that label for a more minor one. Above all else, this poem makes me wonder how hard we should have to work to be understood. It seems like the world of upper-class salons and parlor discussions of fine art do not facilitate real communication or charitable behavior, and Prufrock is exasperated by it. He longs for acceptance to the point that he would rather be a crab at the bottom of the ocean than a human, connecting his desire to move amongst the women in the parlor with the freedom of a crab in the caves of mermaids-- although he may be no more than a beast, at least he won't drown.