Carol Christ: On "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

It is a striking fact that three of the principal modernist poets--Eliot, Pound, and Williams--each wrote a poem entitled "Portrait of a Lady" within a few years of 1910. The title, of course, alludes to James’s novel and, for Eliot and Pound, refers to the Jamesian project of some of their early verse. Pound asserted that Hugh Selwyn Mauberley was an attempt to condense the James novel, and Eliot told Virginia Woolf that his early inclination was to develop in the manner of Henry James. Behind the model of Henry James, however (indeed, behind James's Portrait of a Lady), is a nineteenth-century poetic mode of female portraiture. Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti, and Swinburne wrote portrait poems – "Mariana," "'The Gardener's Daughter," "Andrea del Sarto," "The Blessed Damozel," "The Portrait," and "Before the Mirror," to name just a few -- that identify poetic style with the portrait of a lady. These poems engage not just the subject of woman but the gender of the poetical.

[. . . .]

For Eliot, poetic representation of a powerful female presence created difficulty in embodying the male. In order to do so, Eliot avoids envisioning the female, indeed, avoids attaching gender to bodies.

We can see this process clearly in "The Love Song of J. Prufrock." The poem circles around not only an unarticulated question, as all readers agree, but also an unenvisioned center, the "one" whom Prufrock addresses. The poem never visualizes the woman with whom Prufrock imagines an encounter except in fragments and in plurals -- eyes, arms, skirts - synecdoches we might well imagine as fetishistic replacements. But even these synecdochic replacements are not clearly engendered. The braceleted arms and the skirts are specifically feminine, but the faces, the hands, the voices, the eyes are not. As if to displace the central human object it does not visualize, the poem projects images of the body onto the landscape (the sky, the streets, the fog), but these images, for all their marked intimation of sexuality, also avoid the designation of gender (the muttering retreats of restless nights, the fog that rubs, licks, and lingers). The most visually precise images in the poem are those of Prufrock himself, a Prufrock carefully composed – "My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin" -- only to be decomposed by the watching eyes of another into thin arms and legs, a balding head brought in upon a platter. Moreover, the images associated with Prufrock are themselves, as Pinkney observes, terrifyingly unstable, attributes constituting the identity of the subject at one moment only to be wielded by the objective the next, like the pin that centers his necktie and then pinions him to the wall or the arms that metamorphose into Prufrock's claws. The poem, in these various ways, decomposes the body, making ambiguous its sexual identification. These scattered body parts at once imply and evade a central encounter the speaker cannot bring himself to confront, but in the pattern of their scattering they constitute the voice that Prufrock feels cannot exist in the gaze of the other.

From "Gender, Voice, and Figuration in Eliot’s Early Poetry." In Ronald Bush (Ed. ) T.S. Eliot: The Modernist in History. Cambridge University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Carol Christ: On "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Carol Christ Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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