“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
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.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

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.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . . . . .
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?…

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
. . . . . . . .
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.
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.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
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”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
. . . . . . . .

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.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

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.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

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.

T.S. Eliot (1920)

Telescopic Philanthropy Covers a Multitude of Sins

Looking a Long Way Off

I’m only a little way into Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by his Mrs. Jellyby. The reader gets a first impression of her from the “biography” given by Mr. Kenge.

“Mrs. Jellyby,” he says, “is a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects at various times and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa, with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry—AND the natives—and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population.”

In typical fashion Dickens mixes irony with description. Her “remarkable strength of character” is directed “entirely to the public.” Her “extensive variety of public subjects” is qualified by “until something else attracts her.” And we find she has interest in the “coffee berry”, but also the natives, he quickly adds (assuming that this interest in the coffee berry and the settlement of “our superabundant home population” is entirely consistent with a sincere interest in the natives).

We are left with a picture of a woman who is entirely and singly preoccupied with her own “quest” for social action, wherever that quest may currently be directed. We also guess that this singleness of mind may stem from misguided sense of moral earnestness which is driven by her fancy and lacks a thorough consideration of other relevant factors. This picture is only confirmed by later character development.

Our first encounter with the JELLYBY House is portentous; a small confused crowd of mostly children is gathered. We are told “One of the young Jellybys been and got his head through the area railings!” and that the “young Jellybys are always up to something.” From the very beginning the contrast between Mrs. Jellyby and Miss Summerson is apparent in that the former’s attention is elsewhere, and the latter takes responsibility.

The first actual description we are given of Mrs. Jellyby is that she is a “pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if—I am quoting Richard again—they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” She has “very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.”

She asks excuse for the state of the house, saying, “you find me, my dears, as usual, very busy; but that you will excuse. The African project at present employs my whole time.”

When Peepy falls down the stairs and comes to his mother for comfort, it is again Miss Summerson who comforts him as his sobs slowly subside. But ironically it is Miss Summerson who is made to feel shame as Mrs. Jellyby expresses her gratification at her work. “It IS gratifying,” said Mrs. Jellyby. “It involves the devotion of all my energies, such as they are; but that is nothing, so that it succeeds; and I am more confident of success every day. Do you know, Miss Summerson, I almost wonder that YOU never turned your thoughts to Africa.”

Mrs. Jellyby is not at this point a well developed character, but seems to be another emblem of a point that Dickens is trying to make, namely that difficult, earnest, and respectable effort is no guarantee of moral aptness. Dickens makes the lesson very clear in the mouth of Miss Summerson later when she says, “We thought that, perhaps, it is right to begin with the obligations of home, sir; and that, perhaps, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them.”

Looking Nearer

I suspect, however, that the vice of Mrs. Jellyby cannot be summarized simply by saying she picked the wrong thing to do. I suspect that there is a deeper issue that we too deal with. Mrs. Jellyby embodies a sort of moral myopia that Rebecca DeYoung characterizes as sloth. DeYoung objects to the view that sloth is simple laziness. To the contrary, sloth can be characterized by vigorous activity. Citing the desert fathers, she claims that sloth is not a sheer lack of inertia, but rather “a failure of effort…linked to a lack of love.” The old term for it was akedeia (acedia), literally “lack of care.” Fundamentally, this is a inner condition, a resistance to the demands of love.

It is worth noting that Mrs. Jellyby’s “love” operated in the abstract, for “coffee berries,” for “the natives,” for “the population.” Peepy’s actual bleeding knees and sobs did not command her attention. This is why I called it a “moral myopia,” echoing Dickens’ allusion to her eyes. This vice is about that to which we attend, what we see.

What seems to be driving this acedia or sloth in the case of Mrs. Jellyby is also familiar to us. Her efforts were gratifying. The first word we hear about her is a word of commendation. She sees what is far off because when she does, she receives mountains of correspondence and encouragement. Soothing Peepy’s sobs, on the other hand would be thankless. So this is a moral myopia which is driven by common social sentiment.

What’s also worth noting is that its unlikely Mrs. Jellyby ever made a conscious decision to put “the natives” over Peepy. What’s more likely is that she finds herself caught up into this moral inattention. This might give us pause to ask, are we morally shortsighted? Where are we resisting the demands of love for “the natives”? 

Quotable: Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung cites this passage from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to close her book, Vainglory. She says, “Glory is a gift that is shared when we are transparent to God, as in L’Engle’s poem, and also when we are transparent to each other,” and then asks, “Do we have eyes to see goodness in ourselves and in each other, the “glory and honor” with which God himself crowns us, having created us only a little lower than the heavenly beings (Ps. 8)?”

The section of Les Misérables:

The bishop was sitting next to him and he gently touched his hand. “You didn’t have to tell me who you were. This is not my house, it’s the house of Jesus Christ. That door does not ask who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has any pain. You are suffering, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And don’t thank me, don’t tell me I’m taking you into my home. No one is at home here except the man who is in need of refuge. I’m telling you, who are passing through, you are more at home here than I am myself. Everything here is at your disposal. What do I need to know your name for? Besides, before you told me your name, you had one I knew.”
The man opened his eyes in amazement.
“True? You knew what I was called?”
“Yes,” replied the bishop. “You are called my brother.”**

*Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 132-133.
**Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, trans. Julie Rose (New York: Random House, 2008), 73.