For me, T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock epitomises why I love – and am able to look past the propensity for pretension and drama of – Modernist Literature.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky,
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
It has an aspect of lethargy to it, which seems to capture the essence of a city at dusk. Personifying the city and its streets to be ‘muttering’, or likening them to an argument, it has an aggressive laziness to the opening.
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
But it is about so much more than that:
It’s about growing old, about self-consciousness:
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
[They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!]
Putting these self-consciousness thoughts in parenthesis makes them seem to be an aside
[They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’]
But it draws our attention to them, revealing how much they are holding the speaker back, occupying this mind.
It’s a poem about the pretension of talking instead of doing,
In the room where women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
About the trivialities of life;
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of toast and tea.
Which, after all, are the little things which build up to make our lives:
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
But mostly – and this is why I love this poem – it’s about the human tendency to over think things; to think that a decision you’re making is momentous or important:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
When it isn’t:
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
To wish you had the confidence to make a decision – to tell someone you love them, or propose (who knows what decision the speaker is making?).
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;
For me, it’s a call to stop over thinking, to make decisions and be bold enough to make these decisions, to take steps you want to, not to sit and worry over them. Not to stop yourself from doing something now, because in the future you will sit and wonder:
Would it have been worthwhile?
Because – maybe – the inability to make these decisions, choices, movements, will leave you to think
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
– a line which, while made to sound beautiful due to assonance (‘claws’ and ‘floors’) and alliteration (‘Scuttling’, ‘silent seas’), contains the lowest self-esteem I have read of. Not just a crab, but a pair of claws. And ragged claws at that. And, then, at the bottom of the sea – and a silent sea, where there is no-one else for company. (On an aside, I know someone who thought these lines sounded nice, but didn’t read into them, and got them as a tattoo. I haven’t the heart to tell him how negative the quote really is…).
The poem, while several pages long, contains so many truths about human nature, and is also beautiful to read aloud or to listen to. Read it aloud and feel as your tongue travels across your mouth, as if doing a dance to the alliteration or consonance or other techniques T. S. Eliot has used. And, when you’ve done that, come back and tell me what your favourite parts are.