Shawn Ware Prufrock: A Homosexual in Hiding T. S Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker of the poem, Prufrock, takes the reader on a journey into his inner psyche. Many literary and poetic experts have studied and dissected the persona that is Prufrock to help show the complexities that compose him. But how does one begin to shed light on this mysterious man? Before actually delving into the words spoken by Prufrock, it is beneficial to take a look at the author of the poem, T.
S. Eliot, as well as the epigraph Eliot quotes at the preface of his poem.
By understanding every aspect of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” from the author and the use of allusions and themes within his writings, to the epigraph, to the actual poem, one can see the entire portrait of the man that is Prufrock: a man struggling with homosexuality.
Eliot undoubtedly is one of the greatest and most complex poets of our time. As stated by Donald Fryxell, all of Eliot’s poems are complex, never simple: oftentimes, they are concentrated pieces of intellectual and emotional conflicts that are written either as dramatic monologues, like “The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock,” or dramatic lyrics (33-34). Eliot’s poems are complex because he extensively uses allusions to deal with complex emotions and ideas. The use, and sometimes even overuse, of these allusions make deciphering the meaning of his poems like solving a “literary crossword puzzle” (Fryxell 34). As James Knapp points out, even Eliot himself justified the use of such allusions by stating; “a poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate, if necessary, language into his poem” (Eliot qtd by Knapp 6).
With this being said, when reading Eliot’s poetry, one must keep these ideas in mind and remember, never take anything at face value. If something seems simple, it probably is not. Keeping in mind when decoding Eliot’s poetry nothing is quite what it seems, one should also take into account common themes present throughout other writings authored by Eliot. One theme that seems to be prevalent in many of Eliot’s writings is one of homosexuality and homoeroticism.
Works that provide ample evidence of Eliot’s lifelong fascination with the homoerotic include “The Little Passion,” “The Burnt Dancer,” “The Love Song of St. Sebastian’” The Waste Land as well as the obscene Columbo verses he [Eliot] inserts in letters to a male friend (Churchill 8-9). Though there is not time to completely dive into all of Eliot’s writings, I will, however, give insight into a couple of these works to prove this underlying theme Eliot uses in his writings. One personal letter Eliot writes to his friend Conrad Aiken, as noted in Suzanna Churchill’s article “Outing T. S.
Eliot,” includes the passage: “The great need is to know one’s own mind, and I don’t know that: whether I want to get married and have a family, and live in America all my life, and compromise and conceal my opinions and forfeit my independence for the sake of my children’s future; or save my money and retire at fifty to a table on the boulevard, regarding the world placidly through the fumes of an aperitif at 5 p. m. ” (Eliot qtd by Churchill 9). In this passage, Churchill argues that Eliot himself “emerges as a psychosexually conflicted man, torn and tormented by the conventional demands” (9).
Why does Churchill believe this? Let us recall the previous notion that Eliot tends to write cryptically and when reading his writings, nothing is as simple as it may seem. In his letter to Aiken, Eliot depicts a life in America with a wife and kids, a heterosexual existence, for which he loses his independence and he will be forced to “compromise and conceal” himself and his opinions. He then describes another life choice, retiring early in life at a “table on the boulevard,” purposely leaving out the heterosexual lifestyle with a wife and kids previously mentioned.
This letter to Aiken, according to Churchill, becomes “homosexuality coded by its opposition to the counterimage of a normative heterosexual family life and its association with the concealment of one’s true self” (9). One can see from this letter that instead of openly comparing a heterosexual lifestyle to a homosexual one, Eliot, with a wink and a nod, uses his words to code what he actually means. Much like Eliot, as we will see later, Prufrock also uses a counterimage to code homosexuality. In examining homosexuality in Eliot’s poems, keeping in mind we want to illuminate the possible meaning behind “The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock,” let us take a look at another one of Eliot’s love songs: “The Love Song of St. Sebastian. ” Though the content within “The Love Song of St. Sebastian” is not inherently homoerotic, the figure of St. Sebastian has been linked to homosexuality and alludes to homoeroticism. Richard Kaye, assistant professor of English at Davidson College, states that Sebastian was a symbol used to code homosexual desires in works authored by Walter Pate, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust (109). The symbol of St. Sebastian as a “gay icon,” according to Kaye, came about due to an image painted of the saint during the Renaissance.
The painting pictured an extraordinary beautiful man at peace being penetrated by arrows (113). This image of a beautiful, effeminate man, Sebastian, makes an appearance in another one of Eliot’s poems, “The Death of St. Narcissus,” which is extremely homoerotic. The poem, as interpreted by Churchill, describes an “erotic awareness of the male body- ‘his legs smoothly passing each other and his knees grasping each other’ (95)” (114). Churchill also notes that Eliot alludes to the homosexual icon, St. Sebastian, in “The Death of St. Narcissus” by incorporating the homoerotic penetration of male flesh by fiery arrows:
Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows He danced on the hot sand Until the arrows came. As he embraced them his white skin surrendered Itself to the redness of blood, and satisfied him. (93-97) The connection between these two “saint poems” cannot be ignored. The image of the homosexual icon, St. Sebastian, evoked in “The Death of St. Narcissus” helps decode “The Love Song of St. Sebastian. ” By investigating these poems as well as his letter to Aiken one can begin to see a common theme that interweaves Eliot’s works: coded homosexuality. Could “The Love Song of J.
Alfred Prufrock” share this underlying theme of coded homosexuality? Let us find out. With this new found knowledge, or not, of T. S. Eliot, let us plunge into “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” starting with the epigraph. The epigraph appears at the beginning of the poem before the spotlight is shined on Prufrock and he commences his dramatic monologue: If I thought my answer were to someone who Might see the world again, then there would be No more stirrings of this flame. Since it is true That no one leaves these depths of misery Alive, from all that I have heard reported,
I answer you without fear of infamy. This passage is taken from the scene in Dante’s The Divine Comedy wherein Guido Da Montefeltro confesses to Dante and Virgil why he has been sentenced to the eighth circle of Hell, which is reserved for the treacherous and fraudulent. As researched by Jill Franks, Guido Da Montefeltro was a famous military leader turned religious monk of his time who was sought out by Pope Bonifazo for council on dealing with his enemies. Montefeltro gave Bonifazo false council to promises his enemies absolution and other tidings and never keep those promise.
This is why Montefeltro has been condemned to Hell and this information is the secret he does not want the world to know (21). Reluctant at first to confess this secret to Dante, Montefeltro is willing to speak to Dante only because he believes Dante is dead and, therefore, will never reveal his secret to the world (Irwin 186). The entire purpose for using the myth of Dante’s Inferno is to provide the reader with an image of a man in Hell guarding a deep dark secret before reading Prufrock’s monologue.
Finally, with the preliminary background information all accounted for and just as Prufrock takes a deep breath before beginning his dramatic monologue, let us focus in on him. The first line “Let us go then, you and I” is notably one of the most debated lines in the entire poem. The debate regards specifically “Who is the ‘you? ’” The “you” has been widely debated to be an anonymous male companion, the author, or even the reader. The most common interpretation is the “you” represents another side of Prufrock that is different from the “I. For those, like Jill Franks, who argue that the “you” is some sort of male companion of Prufrock, support their claim by stating Eliot himself defines the “you” as male companion (Smidt qtd. in Franks 22). However, the mere fact that the love song is a dramatic monologue suggests this is an inner conflict or struggle within the speaker, Prufrock. As for Eliot himself stating this is a male companion, Eliot also proposes that in poetry “what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed in the course of time a oet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting the original meanings – or without forgetting, merely changing it” (Eliot qtd. in Churchill 25). Furthermore, Fryxell finds the “you” to be an amorous self-extension of Prufrock that is sexualized and uninhibited but suppressed by the “I” that’s timid and always opposed by fear (42). It is the “you” Prufrock hides from the world; for like Monefeltro, Prufrock will only reveal his true self, the “you,” to somebody who could never return to the outside world and disclose his revelations.
Now with the information that Prufrock is going on a journey not with another, but with himself, let us follow Prufrock into the depths of his persona. The first stanza tries to set the mood of what to expect while diving into Prufrock’s soul. The immediate picture is drawn: 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 (2-6) Even in this short stanza so much information is given about Prufrock.
The denotation of the words Prufrock uses such as etherized, muttering, deserted, and restless are dark, gloomy, isolated words, specifically used to convey Prufrock’s feelings of loneliness and disconnect with the world. This theme of disconnect and loneliness is prevalent throughout his monologue. One begins to wonder: “Who does Prufrock feel disconnected from? Why does Prufrock feel disconnected? Does the ‘you’ that Prufrock is hiding from the world have anything to do with these feelings? ” The second stanza begins to answer these questions: “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo. (35-36). The importance of these lines are accentuated by being the only lines in poem repeated verbatim. The imagery provoked by these lines is that of a group of women, perhaps high society women, are sitting around a table gossiping. It is these women that Prufrock feels disconnected from. The reason for this disconnect is explained later in the poem when these women become sexualized: 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. (62-67) One can immediately see that these women become sexualized by the description of their bare arms. This, however, does not mean Prufrock is sexually attracted to these women. Colleen Lamos in her book Deviant Modernism contends that these women are from a “female-dominated literary salon” and play the part of a phallic mother (77). The phallic mother is a Freudian concept used to describe authoritative mothers in place of a father.
If this is true, and Prufrock views these women as authoritative mother figures, he obviously is not sexually stimulated by these women. This is can be supported through the lines “Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress? ” (65-66). These lines suggest Prufrock is aware of a heterosexual norm that the perfume should cause him to be attracted to these women. However, the fact that Prufrock questions this heterosexual norm instead of stating it further accentuates the claim that Prufrock is not attracted to these women, thus the feeling of disconnect with them.
Much like Eliot’s letter to Aiken, Prufrock codes his homosexuality. He does this by contrasting his disconnect to these sexually charged women to his lack of disconnect-ness to the “lonely men in shirt-sleeves” that closely follows the passage regarding the sexualized women (72). “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? …” (70-72). Once again, Prufrock is noticing arms of another group of people. However, this time the arms he is noticing belong to men not women.
Prufrock follows the observation of the men’s arms with the use of an ellipsis; this proposes that Prufrock is omitting/hiding something about these men. Immediately following Prufrock’s omission, he states “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. ” (73-74). These lines are Prufrock’s way of trying to hide his homosexuality. He tries to dehumanize himself by stating he should be a pair of ragged claws; not human. Yet, at the same time Prufrock tries to disconnect himself from these lonely men with idea of his dehumanized boy being alone in silent seas.
However, by using the conditional “should,” Prufrock feels ought to feel dehumanized and disconnected from these men and his body but does not. The sheer fact that Prufrock feels he has to hide his homosexuality clearly indicates that the “you” Prufrock is repressing is his homosexual identity. There is further evidence pointing to Prufrock’s concealment of his homosexuality. One such evidentiary support lies within a sequence of lines that allude to the homosexual figure St. Sebastian that Eliot evokes in “The Death of St. Narcissus” and “The Love Song of St. Sebastian” Prufrock compares himself to St.
Sebastian by arousing the imagery of the homosexual icon by stating; “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…”(56-58) The intrusive eyes of others and the act of Prufrock being pinned give the imagery of penetration much like the arrows penetrating St. Sebastian (Kaye 109). More evidence of Prufrock’s homosexuality can be found by analyzing his behavior. Throughout his monologue, Prufrock paints a picture of himself by pointing out all his shortcomings and flaws and displaying genuine self-contempt (Evans 176).
These are classic behaviors of closeted homosexuals. According to Dr. David Allen and Dr. Terry Olsen, closeted homosexual tend to struggle with psychological distresses, depression and have problems with self-esteem, all associated with shame of their homosexuality. The shame component can be brought upon by several avenues. These include the shame provoked by falling short of the heterosexual norm and becoming undesirable in the eyes of society and God (34-72). This shame is what keeps Prufrock in the closet and is the source of his self-loathing.
One such instance in which Prufrock displays apparent shame and distaste for his appearance comes across in the lines: 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! ”)(40-44) According to Knapp, Prufrock feels that his body is inadequate, ridiculous and somehow defected. He tries, to no avail, to overcome these insecurities by overvaluing his clothes as an extension of his body image (10).
For even after describing his “overvalued clothes,” Prufrock still hears the voices of the gossipy salon women ridiculing him. Prufrock also seems to, as proposed by Merrill Cole, define himself negatively by asking: Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? But Thought 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. (79-86) Several things are happening in this stanza. Let us recall that Prufrock’s shame in his homosexuality is caused by his fear of being ostracized by society and God. This stanza highlights both of these fears. Cole points out the significance of the feminine rhyme scheme present in the first line. The use of the feminine rhyme accentuates the feminine gender role associated with the partaking of tea and cakes and ices that Prufrock is comfortable with (23). Will this be enough for Prufrock to overcome his fears “force the moment to its crisis” and come out of the closet?
Unfortunately, Prufrock is still afraid of the salon women as well the eternal Footman, who seems to be a stand in for a working class man, that will snicker at his effeminacy (Cole 23). Within this stanza Prufrock states “I am no prophet. ” This is the beginning of a series of stanzas with a common theme of Prufrock stating who he is not. Eric Levy believes by stating who he is not over stating who he is is a symptom of Prufrock self-contempt: he is not a prophet, he is not Lazarus, he is not Prince Hamlet, he is not the one to whom the mermaids sing (4).
In classical mythology, sirens or mermaids are beautiful women whose song lured men out to sea to meet their death. Prufrock invokes these sirens by saying “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me. ” (124-125). These two lines say a lot about Prufrock’s sexuality. First, Prufrock does hear the lure of the sirens, however, their song has no effect on him. The reason that Prufrock is not lulled by hearing the sirens song is because of his homosexuality. Secondly, the sirens are not singing to Prufrock, they are singing to each other. Why are they doing this?
The sirens are singing “each to each” because they know Prufrock would not be intrigued by their song and it would be a waste of energy to sing to him. Prufrock knows the mermaids will not sing to him with the line “I do not think they will sing to me. ” (125). This line further proposes that Prufrock wants the sirens to sing to him but not for the conventional reasons of being lulled by them but so he can fit into the heterosexual norm. In his final words to himself, Prufrock ends his journey with having accomplished nothing and returning to his feelings of loneliness and disconnect.
For “like a patient etherized upon a table,” the “I” and “you” “have lingered in the chambers of the sea. ” These two lines present at the beginning and the ending of Prufrock’s monologue, respectively, convey an image of disconnect from the world. This disconnect is due to his closeted homosexuality. Finally, Prufrock is brought back to reality by human voices. These voices disturb him before coming to terms with his homosexuality. Because of this, Prufrock is ultimately consumed by his secret thus feels as though he is drowning. It is important to understand exactly what Prufrock is going through for many reasons.
Homosexuals today have similar fears of being snickered at and ridiculed. They do not have the same rights or protection under the law as heterosexuals do. Though much has changed since Prufrock decided to stay in the closet, many homosexual teens, young adults, and adults alike opt to follow Prufrock’s path and remain closeted. The closet not only denies homosexuals their dignity to be themselves but forces them to go through each day a mere shell of what they could be. Yet there is hope for anybody who can listen to Prufrock’s story and learn from it. For being true to one’s self is definitely “worth it, after all. ”
Cite this Prufrock: a Homosexual in Hiding
Prufrock: a Homosexual in Hiding. (2016, Oct 26). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/prufrock-a-homosexual-in-hiding/