My literature class was unexpectedly cancelled so I wandered over to the college library to get a head start on the homework. We are to “briefly” research T.S. Elliot’s life and write about whether or not we believe his personal life is reflected in the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I somehow remember that I had read a very good essay on Elliot a few months ago in The New Yorker (my poor memory being one of the great disappointments of my life).
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky”
It’s a beautiful beginning, even if the next line is ” Like a patient etherised upon a table;” The poem, if you’ve not read it, I think, relates the apathy, possibility, indecision, and frustration (sexual and otherwise) of Alfred in a potential amorous encounter with “another woman.”
“No! I am not prince hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
Of course he had a notoriously horrible marriage, that is perhaps why I remembered the article. A particular phrase that the author of the piece, Lewis Menand (Sept. 19th 2011 issue) used to describe the union, “an asphyxiating mutual dependency,” stuck with me. Never the less, as it turns out this poem was written before he met his first wife. They met in the spring and married in June of 1915 the very month the poem was first published. He said that his poem “The Waste Land” was the poem that described his marriage. I thought I would read it as I had some time left until my next class.
“April is the cruellest month”
So it is.
It is a very long poem, and not so easy to read. I decided that I would just swallow it whole. Read it straight through: absorb it more or less.
I came to “II. A Game of Chess” when I glanced at the young man sitting next to me. He had his hood over his head and was slumped over in such a way that the only part of him I could see was his hand on the mouse. I looked up at his computer screen, the image was of a young woman taking a picture of herself in a mirror with one breast exposed. I felt simultaneously, shock and weary.
It was some sort of local site of…I really don’t know; were they just looking for guys, or was it some sort of home spun prostitution site? He would click on a girl and then pick up his phone to, what, text her? There was quite a bit of texting in between the clicking. I hesitate to judge, but, I mean really, we were in a public space – his and my college. Was I wrong to feel that this was perhaps not the most appropriate thing to be looking at while a woman who could have been his mother sat RIGHT next to him. Oh no, not her, definitely the one before was kind of cute… I find myself thinking. Stop looking, mind your own business, I chastise myself. Feeling a little uncomfortable I redirect my attention to the task at hand.
“And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug, Jug” to dirty ears.
And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.”
I hazard another glance at my neighbor and am relieved to see that he has switched over to algebra. I look at his hand for a while, poised above the mouse.
“Shantih shantih shantih”