The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

While poets of the previous century had wandered lonely as a cloud through the countryside (Wordsworth, in 1802) or repaired in solitude to Walden Pond (Thoreau, 1845), Eliot’s Prufrock mostly worries about being looked at by eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase and pin you, wriggling, to a wall

– Susan Cain, Quiet

Quiet is, in my opinion, one of the most important literary works of recent times. For people who revel in solitude, are fundamental loners, are reflective & sensitive, measure the number of words coming out of their mouth to avoid contributing inconsequential information to a conversation, the ones who wake up early in the morning to enjoy that ‘alone time’ with a steaming mug of coffee – there is a place for you in God’s world, a place by no means easy to claim, but there is.

I have never been too big a follower of poetry as a genre. When I began reading ‘Quiet’, which quotes numerous examples and stanzas from famous works of poets, I could not resist going through the listed works in their entirety. Over the last couple of weeks, I read a dozen odd poems by Wordsworth, Whitman, Eliot, Keats until I stumbled upon what probably is one of T.S. Eliot’s best work – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Admittedly, I regularly took help from online sources to understand the hidden meanings behind some of the deeper, more complicated works I came across. The Love Song was one of them. The poem and the speaker in it, constantly float between the themes of anxiety, indecision, desire, communication, modernity, and alienation. The first six lines of the poem are, in fact, an epigraph – written in Italian and derived from Canto 27 of Dante’s ‘Inferno’.

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

The ‘Inferno’ tells the story of a pilgrim, who seeks God’s help to avoid committing sins, and God sends a person to walk the pilgrim through the nine circles of horrors in hell. Here he meets various sinners who narrate their stories of suffering and is quickly drawn towards a man called Guido da Montefeltro, who is stuck in the eighth circle of hell. On being asked the reason for his punishment, he says:

“If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy.”

On a completely unrelated topic, Dante’s most popular works including Inferno and The Divine Comedy have been on top my reading wish list ever since I explored portions of his world in Dan Brown’s books. Dan Brown fans would know the amount of inspiration he draws from Dante’s work to set plotlines around historical artifacts or otherwise.

Buy why would Eliot use Guido and this conversation as his opening setting?

That is because, like Guido, the protagonist of this poem Prufrock is stuck in an imaginary hell, from which he cannot escape. At least that is the explanation I took away from it.

Not wanting to take up a whole lot of space in this post, am not including the entire poem with a line by line explanation. That is not the aim of this write-up as well.

Eliot basically presents us with a character who is so pre-occupied with doing things the right way – eating, sitting, deciding what to speak, forming relationships with other beings, everything is governed by a sense of procrastination deeply rooted in social anxiety. One of the more relatable aspects of my personality, and most of my close friends would attest to it, is that I am continuously paralyzed by the fear of making wrong choices. This also makes me come off as apologetic in a more-than-normal way.

Consider this,

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

How often have you had imaginary conversations in your head? How often have you had to rehearse what you say over a call even with a friend you might hold dear? How often have you given up on wearing that dress or getting that haircut that did not seem to have the approval of the society? How often have you felt inadequate while speaking and then resorted to an only-blink-and-smile routine for the remaining portion of a conversation, of a meeting, of an evening?

The set up and thought process have become too familiar an arena for me. Often during conversations when I have intelligent questions to ask, thoughtful comments to contribute, a subtle joke to make, probably an objection to raise – I end up not doing any of it. Thoughts running in my head, in a familiar loop: I am too quiet for this. I do not belong here. There is no way I would be taken seriously here.

The gift of gab and the gift of good ideas have zero co-relation and yet the formidable world of extroverts and social beings make you feel otherwise. A lot of my hesitation in putting thoughts to words rises from the popular bias against the ‘quiet-type’ I have faced since childhood. For no fault of theirs, my parents or my close friends have more often than not, in social settings, ended up apologizing for my shyness. My parents did understand what I lacked in social skills, I more than made up for it with my various other pursuits. As much as they propagated my academic and co-curricular interests, I am sure they did wish for me to be able to open up more for my own sake. The world after all has long passed the ‘Culture of Character’ and has been worshipping the ‘Culture of Personality’ for several decades now. Their apologies always came more from a sense of protection than embarrassment. But you do not expect children to realize these things at that age.

Susan highlights a client’s expression of a similar situation, in her book:

“By the time I was old enough to figure out that I was simply introverted, it was a part of my being, the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with me. I wish I could find that little vestige of doubt and remove it.”

It comes eerily close to how I would define my twenty-five years’ worth of life and relationship with the society.

And then one of the most poignant moments that I identify with, in this poem are when the poet says of his muse:

Would it have been worthwhile,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it towards 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.”

His sense of communication is so thwarted that he manages to dissolve even his imaginary conversations with his muse in the most unsatisfactory or with a heart-breaking end. Again, a closed path that I have been circling for the past many years. A straight up communication is not one of my greater strengths, as has already been established previously. Even before I get into meetings in professional spaces, or gear up for that uncomfortable talk with parents, or plan to decline friends’ various party invitations, I always conjure up the worst possible scenarios in my head – managers upset with work, parents disappointed with my actions or friends deciding they could do just fine without me by their side. The course of conversation and what I assume would be the opposing party’s expectations, often decide my actions. Seldom my verbal opinions are based on what I actually feel. Simple queries become a hurdle in my mind. No matter how long and from how far you jump, you always end up falling right before crossing the obstacle.

A lot of what the society around me as characterized as pillars of success has got to do with how I and the world of introverts or shy people (both are not the same thing necessarily) around me feel. Being constantly told of the charming, exuberant, outspoken personalities that apparently make-or-break the world, boldness, assertiveness (even in the face of ignorance) – sometimes make me question if respect for individual human personalities has reached an all time low?

No longer are you expected to do what you do best, but you’re also expected to know how to sell it. Nothing could be further from truth than this.

An important question Susan asks in her book is ‘How did we go from character to personality, discrediting an entire section of the population, without realizing we had sacrificed something meaningful along the way?’

It has been a long, tiresome journey for me personally to be able to finally appreciate and approve of myself. There may never be a point in the spectrum of my life where I might be able to say that I am a hundred percent my own person now. But I do believe I have crossed some of the bigger mental blocks along the way.

If you are a child reading this column, know that your personality is not a drawback, not something to be ashamed of or get treated for. And if you are a parent or a socially dexterous friend, consider the lifetime implications of your actions and words on your little one, or on your friend whom you love so dearly.

Leaving you with a beautiful thought from Charles Darwin, who was famously solitary for many years of his life.

‘A shy man no doubt dreads the notice of strangers but can hardly be said to be afraid of them. He may be as bold as a hero in battle, and yet have no self-confidence about trifles in the presence of strangers.’

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