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Phoebe PettingellDonoghue's passionate readings make Eliot sound fresh, lyrical and exciting.
— New Leader
Now in this volume, one of our most distinguished readers of modern literature offers his most personal book of literary criticism. Donoghue's Words Alone is an ...
Now in this volume, one of our most distinguished readers of modern literature offers his most personal book of literary criticism. Donoghue's Words Alone is an intellectual memoir, a lucid and illuminating account of his engagement with the works of T. S. Eliot-from initial undergraduate encounters with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to later submission to Eliot's entire writings. "The pleasure of Eliot's words persists," Donoghue says, "only because in good faith it can't be denied."
Submission to Eliot, in Donoghue's case, involves the ear as much as it does the mind. He is a reader who listens attentively and a writer whose own music in these pages commands attention. Whether he is writing about Eliot's poetry or confronting the (often contentious) prose, Donoghue eloquently demonstrates what it means to read and to hear a master of language.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
I was born in Tullow, a small town in County Carlow about fifty miles southwest of Dublin, but I grew up in Warrenpoint, a town not much larger, in County Down, just across the border into Northern Ireland. For secondary education I attended the Christian Brothers' School in Newry, five miles away. The brothers were not priests; they were a lay order dedicated to giving lower-middle-class Irish Catholic boys a working education, nothing fancy, elaborate, or expensive. For English literature we had anthologies of stories, plays, poems, and essays. I recall with satisfaction The Poet's Company, an anthology predicated on the lighter Yeats—"Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven"—as an introduction to music might have been predicated on the lighter Elgar. I don't think we were ever told what literature was or how we might know a literary work when we saw one. A poem could be recognized at a glance: the words stopped short of the margin and every line began with a capital letter. I grew up thinking that poetry must be intimate with "the blue and the dim and the dark cloths / Of night and light and the half-light." The only alternative to early Yeatsian pathos was rollicking verse, preferably in anapestic tetrameters, easy to memorize. I can still recite the first two stanzas of Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib," a featured poem in The Poet's Company:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; And the sheen of theirspears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green, That host with their banners at sunset were seen: Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown, That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.
"Strown" was hard to deal with. Our English teacher, Brother Cotter, allowed us to turn it toward "strewn." Reciting the poem in class, I introduced for effect a pause, which I did not know enough to think of as rhetorical, between "deep" and "Galilee."
The Poet's Company did not include any of Eliot's poems. I suppose he was still regarded as foreign, difficult, and vaguely unpleasant. He didn't come into my life till I went to university in Dublin. It is my impression that I first read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in the National Library, Kildare Street, my home-away-from-home. I knew that it was a different kind of poetry from Yeats's or Byron's and that I would never forget it. My criterion for poetry at that time was simple: a poem should be memorable. Music during those years was my second avocation. At the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dorothy Stokes taught me harmony and counterpoint, and Brian Boydell tried to make a singer of me, preferably a lieder singer. In one year I worked with pleasure if not success through songs by Dowland, Bach's "Es ist vollbracht," Schumann's Dichterliebe, and Peter Warlock's The Curlew. Eloquence for me was Brahms's "Wie bist du meine Königen" as sung by Alexander Kipnis. In default of knowing what poetry was, I settled for having poems take possession of my mind as Schumann's "Ich hab' in Traum geweinet" did. I wanted every poem I read to be my singing school. "The Destruction of Sennacherib" was easy to remember, but I had to decide to commit it to memory, it didn't hold my imagination. There was some satisfaction in reciting it with Assyrian speed, but nothing much remained, the poem didn't take. The choice poems seized me without any decision on my part in their favor. "Prufrock" was one of those. At first reading, it took up residence in my mind. From that day to this I've never wavered from my conviction that it is a fully achieved poem or doubted that Eliot is one of the irrefutable poets.
I wonder about some poets I enjoy reading and much admire: why do their poems not lodge in my mind? Between readings, they sink into the vagueness of their reputation. I have read most of John Ashbery's poetry and reviewed three or four of his books, but I couldn't recite two consecutive lines of his work. When I go back to "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," I assent to a cultivated voice as it leads me through the lines, but when I've finished reading it, nothing of the voice stays with me but a fading echo. If it is a superb poem—as I think it is—its quality is consistent with a culture that reads with the eye and keeps the ear idle.
"Prufrock" seemed to me a poem about a man's dread of being no good. Later readings have made me think that it is about spiritual panic, the mind whirling in a void, or the penury of one's being in the world. No one instructed me to think of the poem in relation to Allen Tate's assertion that "in Mr. Eliot, puritan obligation withdraws into private conscience." Now that "Prufrock" seems to be the only poem of Eliot's that young people in America read, I find that my students at New York University take it as an uncanny description of themselves, their distress, their fear of having already failed. Prufrock is brooding on his insufficiency in mock-epic terms, but the terms don't remove his conviction of being inadequate. Growing up in Ireland, where there were no choices and one was lucky to get a job of any kind, I was likely to internalize the theme and to find Prufrock already defeated.
Knowing no Italian, I could make nothing of the epigraph to Prufrock and Other Observations or the further one to "Prufrock." The poem began for me with "Let us go then, you and I ... "I'm still puzzled by the epigraph to the poem, but for different reasons. In Inferno xxvii Dante meets Guido da Montefeltro, confined in a single flame of punishment for having given false counsel to Pope Boniface. Guido answers Dante: "If I believed that my reply would be to someone who would return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but since no one has ever returned alive from this abyss, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy." It's not clear what bearing this has on "Prufrock." In the "No! I am not Prince Hamlet" passage, Prufrock speaks of himself as if he were Polonius, but he doesn't confess to having given the king fraudulent advice. Perhaps the epigraph has him saying: I'll tell the truth about my life, however humiliating it turns out to be. Or it may be Eliot's device to clear a space for himself, ridding the reader's mind of extraneous matter, all the more effectively because the epigraph is in a foreign language. Or his way of insisting that what follows is a made poem, not what it might seem, a transcript of someone's confession. Eliot tended to choose an epigraph related to the poem it preceded by congruity or contradiction: either way, he enjoyed the latitude of keeping readers on their toes. I note, incidentally, that in his recording of the poem, he hasn't included the epigraph; he goes straight into "Let us go then ..."
Like most of Eliot's early poems, "Prufrock" seems to have started as a bundle of unrelated fragments, bits of verse he wrote under the force of impulses amounting to inspiration and put aside till one day a certain loose affaliation among them might suggest a possible poem. Many years ago, when I was transcribing one of Yeats's notebooks for inclusion in his Memoirs, I was shocked to find that he started a poem by sketching the argument in a sentence or two. He then picked a word here or there, jotted down its nearest rhymes, and set about turning the sentences into verse. A rudimentary argument plus "colt," "dolt," "jolt," and "bolt" turned into "The Fascination of What's Difficult." It seemed a blunt method, though I recognized that in the process of revision his genius asserted itself, as it did in giving him the decisive word "indignant" in "The Second Coming." But Eliot's method was more bizarre than Yeats's. In the early poems he didn't start with a theme or something he wanted to say. By his own account, what came first was a fragment of rhythm, a motif he felt impelled to stabilize in a few words. Those words might suggest a few more—or might not—and the fragments would be set aside. Sometimes he failed to find a destiny for them. But on a happier day he would put one fragment beside another and stir some energy or reverberation between them. "Prufrock," even at a much later stage than that of its fragments, was called "Prufrock among the Women" and included a different epigraph, from Purgatorio xxvi, and a section of thirty-three lines called "Prufrock's Pervigilium." In its definitive form it includes three rows of dots, dividing one sequence from the next, as if to acknowledge their origin as fragments.
The first line is odd, though I had to read it many times to see how odd it is. Who is speaking? J. Alfred Prufrock, presumably. But who is he? Hugh Kenner calls him a name plus a voice: "He isn't a `character' cut out of the rest of the universe and equipped with a little history and a little necessary context.... He is the name of a possible zone of consciousness where the materials with which he is credited with being aware can co-exist." He's more than that. But Kenner is right in maintaining that Prufrock isn't the man next door or a character set loose from a novel. We are not encouraged to think of him as someone who exists, as we fancy that Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus exist, before and after the novel in which they appear. Prufrock begins and ends with what he says: if he seems to live beyond the pages of the poem, it is because his words do, moving out from their context in Eliot's Collected Poems. But the words don't repose upon an implied character or a personage. Who on earth would say to his friend: "Let us go then, you and I?" But Prufrock isn't quite on earth, nor is he quite "he." Eliot's language here and in the early poems generally refers to things and simultaneously works free from the reference. He seems always to be saying: "That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all." When he gives a voice a name—Prufrock, Gerontion—he makes no commitment beyond the naming.
Let us suppose that Prufrock and his friend set out on a foggy October evening to visit an important lady-friend. Prufrock may make a proposal or he may postpone it:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, And seeing that it was a soft October night, Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
Two verbs in the present tense—the same word, "rubs"—yield to a sequence of verbs in the past tense—"Licked ... Lingered ... Let fall ... Slipped ... made ... and fell asleep." But the relation of the language to its ostensible referents is equivocal. The lines don't say that the fog and the smoke were like a cat. Nor do they quite describe a city under fog. The scene is internal to Prufrock's state of mind, or to a hypothetical state of mind we have to call Prufrock in default of another designation. The apparently objective references enable us to imagine a scene, but they don't establish it as independent of Prufrock. The plural nouns—"corners ... pools ... drains"—generalize the impression and release the language from the mundane duty of referring to something: no particular corner, pool, or drain is intended. Cat and fog do not hold their places, as they would if a definite relation between them were in view. The verbs—"made a sudden leap" and "curled"—point to a cat, but "Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening" is more fog than cat. The effect is to keep the reader among the words and their internal relations, as if the apparent local meanings were an unfortunate but necessary distraction, a gesture toward an external world that has to be placated, short of being granted its independence. We are not allowed to escape from the words into another place.
There is a minor difficulty with "you." Eliot told Kristian Smidt that the "you" is "merely some friend or companion, presumably of the male sex, whom the speaker is at that moment addressing, and that it has no emotional content whatever." But in an interview in 1962 he said that Prufrock was a man of about forty and in part himself and that he was using the theory of the split personality. This is a better hint, especially as it allows us to take "you" as a second self removed from the first—as in Conrad's "The Secret Sharer"—and fulfilling another mode of being, admonitory though silent. It is typical of Eliot to exert critical pressure on the matter in hand by establishing another scale of reference, another perspective. But some of the invocations to "you" in "Prufrock" are perfunctory, they hardly mean more than "one." It is hard to believe that the "We" at the end, "We have lingered ...," includes more than Prufrock's sole if notional self. I take it as a last flourish of the plural of majesty before the drowning.
When I first read the poem, I winced at "etherised." No one was etherized in a poem by Yeats. I didn't know Laforgue's "Jeux"—"Morte? Se peut-il pas qu'elle dorme / Grise de cosmiques chloroformes?" I had only the vaguest notion of Eliot's being an American Baudelaire, determined to make poetry out of distinctively modern experience, good, bad, indifferent; willing to live on his nerves. I didn't appreciate that the modern literature Eliot and Baudelaire exemplify is an affair of dries—London, Paris, Dublin, Prague—and that the friction, the crowds, and the desolate charm of urban life are its chief provocations. I knew nothing of Eliot's debts to Dante, Shakespeare, George Herbert, Beddoes, Baudelaire, Tennyson, Dostoevsky, Laforgue, Apollinaire, André Salmon, Gautier, Corbière, and apparently a hundred other writers. Nor did I see that Eliot's procedure in "Prufrock" is to refute Wordsworth. If Romanticism was—as F. W. Bateson called it—the shortest way out of Manchester, Eliot's early poems send the poor pilgrim back there. Instead of celebrating a spousal relation between man and nature, Eliot sets figures adrift in a modern city and makes them inhabit the confused exchange of energy between inanimate and animate states. Instead of taking human feeling for granted, he shows it dispersed among people and the streets through which they move. In "Prufrock" we read of the "muttering" retreats of restless nights, of streets that "follow" like a tedious argument, of a fog that "rubs its back," smoke that "rubs its muzzle," eyes that "fix" you in a formulated phrase, arms that "wrap" about a shawl, mermaids "combing the white hair" of the waves blown back. The transfer of feeling from scene to agent is most complete in
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! Smoothed by long fingers, Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers, Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
The effect is to remove the sentient privilege from human beings, or to show the desperate intensity with which we project our little grammars and dictions upon an objective life that is, so far as we know, indifferent to our yearnings. Isn't it pathetic to see Prufrock's mind lavished on such puny epiphanies?
The pervasive cadence of the poem is a tentative afflatus followed by inevitable collapse: these strivings rise, shine, evaporate, and fall. "All" is their leitmotif, as prevalent here as in Paradise Lost—"For I have known them all already, known them all." The rhythm of rise-and-fall begins with the rhyme of "streets" and "retreats" and the repetition of "Streets"—
Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question ... Oh, do not ask, "What is it?" Let us go and make our visit.
The most complete fall comes when Prufrock's talk breaks down—"It is impossible to say just what I mean!"—and the next sentence barely gets to its feet with the helpless "But as if a magic lantern ... "Again, this:
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, I am no prophet—and here's no great matter; 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.
"Should I?" joins other vain questionings: "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare"; "Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" "And should I then presume? / And how should I begin?" "Shall I part my hair behind?" The most heartbreaking of these is "Shall I say?" as if saying or not saying made any difference. The verbal wondering collapses nearly as soon as it begins:
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? ...
—and the feeling declines upon lowly, primordial certitude:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
That at least would have entailed an appropriate relation. But for the time being the afflatus is permitted: associations with John the Baptist, Salome, and King Herod allow Prufrock to indulge himself in "the moment of my greatness" before it flickers and dies in the unloving arms of Death, the eternal Footman. "And in short, I was afraid." "In short" retains a touch of dignity, like Buster Keaton before he sinks, his body standing to attention, beneath the waves. What is compelling in this passage is the force of rhythm, the inevitably controlling cadence; not just the rise and fall but the getting up again, such that the dying fall in "I am no prophet—and here's no great matter" is followed at once by another heroically blustering lift of feeling—"I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat." That second "And I have seen" mimes the futile but not ignoble gesture of pulling oneself up, starting over. It is the hero cheering himself down, as R. P. Blackmur said.
The most elaborate afflatus comes at the end in the passage about the mermaids, which begins as an astonishing change of reference:
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me ...
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. ,
In "Song," Donne gives a list of impossible achievements of knowledge and power:
Go, and catch a falling star, Get with child a mandrake root, Tell me, where all past years are, Or who cleft the Devil's foot, Teach me to hear mermaids singing ...
But Donne doesn't ask that the mermaids sing to him, as Prufrock does. Claiming to have achieved one impossibility, Prufrock rises to another and asks that the singing be in his sole favor. No wonder the courage of his fancy fails him. His description of the mermaids is a further claim to distinction, but it exhausts itself in the telling. This little Ulysses can't get back to Ithaca, and besides, no Penelope awaits him. In the first version of the poem, "sea-girls" was "seamaids." The change was an inspiration, making pathetically erotic the relation between the siren-singers and the love-singer of the poem in our hands.
There has been much discussion of the "overwhelming question," though many critics end up claiming that there's no point in asking what it is. I don't see any reason to assume that Prufrock doesn't know. His gesture of impatience need not be a device to conceal ignorance. Empson once remarked that Hamlet keeps his secret by telling everyone that he has one. A comparison with Hamlet is worth pursuing, given that Prufrock glances at it. J. Peter Dyson has argued that since everything that Prufrock aspires to appears in the poem as an echo of something else, the overwhelming question is an echo of Hamlet's: "To be or not to be, that is the question." He reads the relevant line as if Prufrock were saying: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. To be or not to be, that is the question." It's an attractive suggestion, but I wish Dyson had gone further with it. He thinks that "Prufrock" is "a poem about the difficulties of realizing one's nebulous potentialities." It seems to me more than that.
If Prufrock is a dying fall from Hamlet, we might ask what Eliot thought Hamlet's problem is. His essay is a confused account of the play, but it reveals a lot about himself: "Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet's bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action." Hamlet's buffoonery—his levity, repetitions of phrase, and puns—is "the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action." In more general terms: "The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it is doubtless a subject of study for pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feelings to fit the business world; the artist keeps them alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions. The Hamlet of Laforgue is an adolescent; the Hamlet of Shakespeare is not, he has not that explanation and excuse. We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know." I don't understand what Eliot means by intensifying the world "to his emotions." I suppose him to mean that artists work up their sense of the external world to the pitch of intensity at which it seems to justify their emotions, however violent. I don't know under what compulsion Eliot attempted to express, in "Prufrock," an emotion that could not otherwise find an outlet in action. I can only suggest that Prufrock is Hamlet still further removed than in Shakespeare or Laforgue from having found an "objective correlative" for his emotions. What corresponds to Hamlet's buffoonery is Prufrock's rhythm of rise-and-fall: it takes the form of self-regarding irony, dandyish repetitions of phrase, amplitudes of interrogation—"And would it have been worth it, after all?"
But Prufrock's problem is not merely the lack of a sustaining context, the fact that he comes into the world—to the extent to which I can say this without being fanciful—bereft of parents, wife, or children, without a station in life, indeed with only a few minor possessions and an oppressive desire that he can't express. If we take Eliot's essay on Baudelaire seriously, we will not think that Prufrock's predicament might be relieved by a few sessions with a psychiatrist. In Baudelaire's "Le Balcon" we find "all the romantic idea, but something more: the reaching out towards something which cannot be had in, but which may be had partly through, personal relations." Again resorting to general terms, Eliot says: "Indeed, in much romantic poetry the sadness is due to the exploitation of the fact that no human relations are adequate to human desires, but also to the disbelief in any further object for human desires than that which, being human, fails to satisfy them." In the years between the essay on Hamlet (1919) and the essay on Baudelaire (1930), Eliot had come to believe that the finding of an objective correlative for one's feelings is not enough, if that correlative is merely a human relation. After his conversion to Christianity, he could not have believed otherwise.
The practice of committing poems to memory is rare, I gather, but while it lasted it had consequences good and bad. Among the good ones for me: it allowed me to take pleasure in the sway of syllables and rhythms, variations of tone, changes of inflection. I was willingly kept among the words. Only with difficult poems like "Prufrock" was it necessary to ask what the poem was about or what was going on. Even though I wondered who spoke the words, I didn't fret over the answer. The words seemed to have an acoustic presence that did not need to be distinguished from their presence of mind. The merit of memorizing was that I didn't reduce the poem to the implied crux of the speaker and lose it there, replacing the poem by a quandary. But I see that I've come close to replacing "Prufrock" by a predicament, as Eliot replaced Hamlet by its hero's problem. In earlier years, the risk I took was that I might find it easy to detach the words not only from an implied speaker but from their referents. "In the mountains, there you feel free": those words became a tune in my head, evocative but evocative of nothing in particular; they could be released from "The Waste Land" and turned upon whatever mood in me elicited them. Murmuring
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), And I will show you something different from either Your shadow at morning striding behind you Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust ...
the last thing I felt inclined to tease out was what precisely was going on, who was offering that appalling experience to whom, and why: the lines sounded as unquestionable as if they issued from a burning bush.
|||"La Figlia che Piange"||58|
|||"Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar"||96|
|||"The Waste Land"||110|
|||The Music of "Ash-Wednesday"||138|
|||Stevens and Eliot||181|
|||The Idea of a Christian Society||206|
|||Reading Four Quartets||229|
|||The Communication of the Dead||271|