"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

James Merrill
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

The mere thought of commenting upon T. S. Eliot undoes me. I first read “Prufrock” at the age of sixteen. Back then, in 1942, Mr. Eliot was very much on the scene—in fact he was years younger than I am now—and from his work came a sense of live menace and fascination: you felt that any rash expository impulse might cause it to strike back like a rattlesnake. Some of us old-timers feel that way still.

So let me just say a word about the epigraph to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It comes from canto 27 of the Inferno, and the speaker is Guido da Montefeltro. Here is Longfellow’s translation:

If I believed that my reply were made
      To one who to the world would e’er return,
      This flame without more flickering would stand still.
But inasmuch as never from this depth
      Did anyone return, if I hear true,
      Without the fear of infamy I answer.

Guido speaks from within a flame, doomed to eternal torment for having given fraudulent advice to a pope. “Promise much,” is what he said, “but fulfill little that you promise.” People in high places have been listening to Guido ever since.

Critics are bound to have drawn every possible connection between Guido’s narrative and J. Alfred Prufrock’s. It could be said that the latter also speaks from within a flame—a Pateresque flame of language kindled by one of its twentieth-century masters. But I think that Eliot is using Dante to make a simpler point. The epigraph “promises much” on behalf of the poem. By its placement we understand that someone with a ridiculous name has strayed like a fly into a vast and inflexible cosmic web. Whatever he now says, we are going to have to take him more seriously than we might otherwise have done. And take his creator more seriously, too? The epigraph, in any case, has been much imitated; I have imitated it myself. It is a highbrow, or theological, version of Mrs. Willy Loman’s words: “Attention must finally be paid to such a person.” That an Eliot not yet thirty commanded attention by a stroke at once so cool and so incontrovertible is part of what I mean by saying that even now I tremble when I open his books.

James Merrill (1926–1995) was one of the foremost American poets of the later twentieth century. He published eleven volumes of poems, in addition to the trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover. He also wrote plays, novels, and a memoir.
Originally published:
December 1, 1989

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