So, a woman in my poetry class wrote a poem in the voice of “Mrs. Prufrock,” giving her husband what for in no uncertain terms. Mr. P is, in her view, an arrogant bossy prick, expressing disgust at her arm-hair and criticizing her makeup, and she doesn’t for a moment buy his whole fake-humility routine. Plus, she doesn’t want to hear his stupid question.
(Here’s the poem, for easy reference: http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html )
The feedback from fellow students cheered on Mrs. Prufrock for finally standing up to her despotic mate. I found this all rather puzzling, until one of the comments referred to Prufrock as ‘the great poet,’ and I realized that everyone thought Prufrock was the same person as T.S. Eliot. That explained at least some of the rage, if not its specific grounds. Then the teacher chimed in, saying that Prufrock is clearly a front for Eliot and his misogyny in the same way that Stephen Dedalus is a front for Joyce. And Eliot was a weenie (I paraphrase) for not daring to eat a peach.
My first thought was, doesn’t everybody know it’s a satire, that Eliot is making fun of Prufrock?, the poor schlub who is so terrified of rejection? But of course what everybody knows is not necessarily true…who knows, maybe it stopped being true in the years since I left grad school. So let’s see.
First of all, do people think the ‘you’ in the poem is Prufrock’s wife? That had never occurred to me; one reason, I suppose, is that ‘love song’ traditionally means a song of courtship. From Catullus to the troubadours to the sonneteers of the 1590s, you don’t see a whole lot of “Our 20 years of marriage have been super” poems. This may be a serious flaw in the Western literary tradition, but surely part of the satire in Prufrock is the hero’s failure to assume the role implied in the title.
Prufrock’s exaggerated fear of rejection also strikes me as more typical of a person on a date than of a spouse, though if she’s as rageful as in my colleague’s poem, his anxiety might be justified. For that matter, I always thought JAP was excited by the realization that she has light-brown hairs on her arm…he does use an exclamation mark, after all. Where’s the disgust?
Eliot had many unattractive qualities, but he was not a complete idiot. If he really was afraid to eat peaches, or quaked at the disapproval of servants (“I have seen the Eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker”), would he have told us about it?
The comparison to Joyce is interesting…he gives his alter ego the name of a mythic hero, a man of superior intelligence and craft, Daedalus. Eliot gives JAP a name that suggests a prude in a frock coat…is that really how he would have chosen to represent himself? We know that Stephen is basically Joyce because he has Joyce’s life, from Clongowes Wood School to the Martello tower in Sandycove, where his roommates are obviously Joyce’s roommates under pseudonyms (e.g., the overbearing medical student Buck Mulligan is the overbearing medical student Oliver Gogarty). They have the same favorite obscure writers, such as Giordano Bruno. One could go on.
Does Prufrock have anything in comon with Eliot? Is he from St. Louis, or even the States? Is he a writer, a student of Sanskrit, and admirer of the theology of Cardinal Newman, does he prefer Coriolanus to the plays everybody else likes? Not so’s I can recall.
If you’re still here, you’re probably wondering why I even care so much. Some of it is just the feeling of being gaslighted, having a teacher who has a PhD believe something that seems so crazy. But I should also admit that I like Prufrock and feel sorry for him. Having been, at times, a shy person terrified of rejection, I am willing to concede that such people are mockable, but it pains me to see them hated and reviled rather than pitied.
Like Apollinaire says,
Car il y a tant de choses que je n’ose vous dire Tant de choses que vous ne me laisseriez pas dire Ayez pitié de moi