JANE RYDER NOMINATES: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

123_2302a I nominate “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.

One of the reasons I’m convinced of its sublimity is that I’m really not keen on poetry, and in fact don’t care for anything else Eliot ever wrote.

But this particular poem encompasses, encapsulates, the entirety of human existence, in a way no other type of writing could. A novel would make all the subtext into text, and rob it of its nuance; a play would make it mundane and common by forcing the words to be spoken by mere mortals; setting it to music would limit and trivialize it. It has a solemn, tragic beauty that would be diminished in any other form.

The poem isn’t flawless (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws …” is a tad goofy), but the missteps add to the poem’s overall perfection, the way a slightly “off” feature on a beautiful face makes it even more beautiful.

This is my favorite stanza:

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.”

Sad, hopeless, frustrated, but also affirming of common humanity. We will never say just what we mean because words are simply insufficient at times, but Eliot proves in this poem that the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts, and that by even *trying* to communicate, we may transcend our own limitations.


THE AUTHOR:  In the profession of words, Jane Ryder lives and works in Tucson, Arizona.  She is a key (and always supportive) figure at THE EDITORIAL DEPARTMENT, a very fine firm specializing in writing and publishing support.

TO SEE THE FULL POEM, click here:

Photo by J S Anderson:  Chairs on Stairs, Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D C.

2 Responses to JANE RYDER NOMINATES: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

  • What an interesting beginning, Jane. What a way to make a case for sublimity!
    Some literary critics espouse (that’s a good, distance-setting phrase, don’t you think?) that while this work is important as transition from older to newer forms of poetry, “Prufrock” is hopelessly mired in the mundane and the dithering of its primary character.
    That’s one more good reason to read, hear and see poetry, music and art for oneself before tuning in to the critics. It’s clear to me that Elliot uses the low world and common, everyday physical existence to achieve some transcendent observation—not only about the man in the narrative voice, but about the inherent isolation and tendencies of members of the human species. And how impossible it is, no matter the words, to say what you actually, really, completely mean.
    As a writer, I must say the following excerpt has a kind of sardonic resonance: “In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
    It’s a great nomination, Jane. Thank you so much.

    And please invite your friends and associates to join in.

    Best regards,

    • Thank you for the kind words, Steve, and for reminding me why I left academia. Because of (rather than despite) my love of literature, I found it the height of self-indulgence to analyze art word by word. As Peter Gelfan so often reminds us, the best writers intentionally leave room for the reader to bring her own meaning to fiction, and that goes triple for poetry. The mundanity of the poem is, to me, exactly the point: as human beings, we’re forever between the mundane and the sublime.

      Thanks for the post!

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