Do I Dare?

If you were a subscriber to Harriet Monroe’s monthly magazine Poetry in 1915, you received your June edition this week 100 years ago. It was an issue with 16 poems, one of which was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. Eliot was 26, about to marry, wrote the poem in 1910, and put it in a desk drawer. He devoted himself to his graduate studies and then moved to England, where he met his fellow American, Ezra Pound.

Eliot showed Pound some of his poems, including “Prufrock.” Pound, whose skills at publicity sometimes outmatched his poetry (if he were alive today, he would be on Twitter ’round the clock, which is not necessarily something I write out of admiration), talked about a new young poet he had found at every opportunity.

Prufrock and “Prufrock” are 100 this week. The response to the poem in the 1910s was visceral; in the ongoing critical conversations “Where is literature now?” and “Where is literature headed?,” “Prufrock” revealed that 1915 was a moment in which both questions were the same for once. A critic in the Times Literary Supplement wrote a year later, “The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the smallest importance to any one—even to himself. They certainly have no relation to ‘poetry.'” That is not a vote in favor. Pound’s positive reaction was no less effusive: “Prufrock” is “the best poem I have yet had or seen from an American.”

Pound directed it to Monroe, the editor of Poetry, and then began campaigning for its publication. Several letters came from his desk, each asking when she would publish it. He knew not to ask whether she would publish it and cut out the prospect of not running it.

The Poetry Foundation, Poetry‘s web site, published a brief history of Pound’s letters to Monroe this week, in honor of the 100th anniversary. Three of them survive, but there were more.

“Prufrock” did not sound like anything else being published at the time. To our ears, a century later, it is not as attention-grabbing because we are accustomed to art that depicts the inner monologue of an isolated man, or that presents a moment in the dramatic inner life of a man with little drama in his life. Besides, so many of its lines are still quoted and misquoted throughout all culture, without attribution. It is a part of our culture’s inner monologue now.

But in 1915, the world was taken by surprise for at least a split-second by the appearance of a “head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter.”

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

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 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.”

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.


* * * *
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  1. Martha Kennedy · June 11, 2015

    I hate this poem with every fiber of my being. I hated it when I was first obliged to read it in high school; I hated it again just now. At least there is something in which I am consistent. But I accept it must be a great poem to make me hate it so much and for so long. This marks the end, in my mind, of poetry belonging to people and beginning to belong only to the ghastly men (all but one who wasn’t ghastly and a couple who fought with some success against ghastliness) who taught in my grad school program. If I have to read Eliot, I’ll take “The Rum-Tum Tugger” any day over Prufrock. Shudder. I still like you, though. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Catherine Hamrick · June 14, 2015

    Okay, Martha, as short stories go in your slot here–“A Rose for Emily.” The most worn-out “record” of my student-teacher days. I love Faulkner, but this ditty always make me tired.

    On another note: Mark, do you read this online zine? One of your essays might fit.

    Thanks for the reading, too. Do you follow The Poetry Foundation daily podcast (a poet reading a work)?


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