Monday, 11 January 2010

You, You, You and Mrs Prufrock

There's a letter in this week's Economist on the meanings of the word we.

In English we have three: the regular we meaning you and I, as in "we had dinner together"; the royal we meaning I, as in "we are not amused"; and the marital we meaning you, as in "we need to take out the garbage."

This is all awfully true and reminded me of a theory of mine about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the word you.

You has two meanings in normal English. It can mean you, the person I'm talking to, or it can be synonym for one, as in "I know the route I have to take. You go up here and turn right", which is the same as "One goes up here and turns right."

In love poetry (and songs) you acquires more ambiguity. You can be the poet addressing the reader or the poet addressing the beloved. I just listened to "You're sixteen, you're beautiful and you're mine" even though I am none of the above. I understood that Johnny Burnette was singing to somebody else. Whereas when Paul McCartney sings "She was just seventeen/You know what I mean", the you is me, the listener.

The word you pops up ten times in Prufrock. Two of them are in inverted commas and don't count ("I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"). That leave eight. Two of them pretty much force an interpretation.

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

You and I are the same person here, which means that you must be one.

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,

You is part of a list of physically present objects and is clearly another person. That leaves us with eight other yous malingering in the poem. Two of them are in inverted commas and don't count. So that leaves six. How should you/one/I interpret them.

That leaves six uses that could be considered ambiguous, but I don't think they are. The reason for this is the title of the poem. I once wrote a poem called Letters to the Sultan. I showed it to a friend who said that he liked it but "They all seem to be letters, right?" "Right," I said. He paused and then asked, "Who are they to?"

Readers tend to discard titles and all the information given in them. Eliot did not have to call The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock a love song. He could have called it a song, or simply Prufrock (in fact he originally titled it Prufrock Among the Women, which suppports the point I'm about to make).

So the title of the poem is:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

And the first line is:

Let us go then, you and I,

So the you, is the beloved. Not to interpret it so is, at best, perverse. It is not the reader, it is not one (or there wouldn't be an I attached). Nor is there any suggestion that he is addressing his consciousness. It is pretty much the same as Come live with me and be my love: a love song addressing an imaginary beloved and enjoining her to get a move on. And things become more interesting if you carry this through.

The next you is here:

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.

We are only on line ten. There is no suggestion that the you has changed. You, the woman, is being led to the overwhelming question, not Prufrock. Prufrock is just walking. His woman is thinking about profound and overwhelming questions and he wants her to stop so that they can make their visit. Capish?

The next you is:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
If we stick with the you as a woman the line makes extra sense. It's about make-up.
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.

Again you is getting a question dropped on her plate. It's therefore reasonable to assume that this must be the same you who was being led to the overwhelming question twenty lines before. You is not me. There is time for you and time for me, clearly separated and delineated. And here's the important point: the murder, creation and question that are for you, are contrasted with the time for me (Prufrock) which will be devoted to indecision, toast and tea.

Here is the point. Prufock is unhappy, conscious of his own inadequacy etc etc etc (all the usual interpretations of him) because he is going out with such an profound woman. That is the conflict and the constrast of the first half of the poem. The point is the juxtaposition. The man's spiritual and intellectual inferiority among the women. She asks overwhelming questions. He worries about baldness. She wants to murder and create. He wants tea.
There is a simple delineation that every critical essay I've ever read manages to miss. She's profound and he's doesn't want her to be because it makes him feel shallow. He wants them to make their visit and not have some deep discussion on the way (I have been on similar dates).
There's even further evidence that a woman is physically there in lines 55-6:
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
So that's the first half of the poem. A carefully constructed juxtaposition of profound woman and man who doesn't dare to think about such things and disturb the universe. Then in line 69 he starts to try and say something. But he then realises that any attempted profundity on his part would not have been worth it after all if it wasn't the same profundity that the woman had meant.
And the beauty is that it is at this point that the yous disappear. She becomes a one, remote and considered. The poem now seems to become a soliloquy. (I imagine the dietary enquiries concerning peaches to be aporias). Until the woman with all her magical, other-worldly thoughts has become transformed into a magical other-worldly woman - a mermaid - and the women will not sing to each other, not to him.
Got that? Now go back and read the poem again. Don't pretend you have something better to do. You don't. Here's the link.
Of course you can go on reading it as an allegory of the Bermaniac relationship between image and consciousness of whatnot, so long as you remember that there's absolutely no reason to do so. Whereas my reading is clear and simple and takes account of the title.

Does Obama dare to eat a peach?


  1. the word "we" has more than three meanings. I'd like to propose a fourth:

    There is the we as in 'you and I' but also the we as in 'us but not you'. English makes no distinction here but Indonesian does. Kita means you and I (as in 'we are human') and Kami means a group of us excluding you ('we love your blog).

  2. I think you have those two examples the wrong way around. Every creature loves the Inky Fool, even mongeese.

    Although, I quite agree with you and Auden that "in our shambling, slovenly makeshift world any two persons, whether domestic first or neighbourly second, require and necessarily presuppose in both thier numbers and in all their cases, the whole inflected gamut of an alien third, since, without a despised or dreaded Them to turn the back on, there could be no intimate or affectionate Us to turn the eye to".