T. S. Eliot begins his seminal poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), with a dialogue between Prufrock and someone else, as follows.
LET us go then, you and I,
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
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
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.
Who is this other “you” that Prufrock is talking to? We’re not told overtly but are led to figure out for ourselves, in the remainder of the poem, that he’s talking to himself; an other version of himself; perhaps, a different personified manifestation of himself in his imagination. So it is technically referred to as a dramatic monologue in terms of poetic devices.
The poem traces Prufrock’s thoughts and doubts in the stream of consciousness style that began emerging around the turn of the 20th century (probably even earlier, during the late 19th century, judging by the posthumously published poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I will discuss in a future post). I do not have any new commentary to add above and beyond what people have said for over 90 years regarding this poem. However, this quarrel between Prufrock and himself intrigues me endlessly, and that is what I wish to examine in this post.
Putting aside the inapplicable plot of this poem, I tried to imagine myself having a quarrel with myself. That’s because I find it impossible to understand Eliot’s writing without an overdose of empathy - that imaginative ability to put oneself in someone else’s body and literally go for a walk wearing their shoes. Therefore, if I am Prufrock then I am not Me. I am I, Me is Me, and never the twain shall meet (as Rudyard Kipling might say).
Unfortunately, I got stuck very quickly at the early stage of this endeavour, whereas Me seemed to thoroughly enjoy this detached state of existence! I kept on reading the remainder of the poem while imagining an inner quarrel with Me, but Me was not reciprocating. He was simply not interested in a Socratic dialect. He was measuring out, with coffee spoons, the vastness of the sea chambers that Eliot depicted. The music of fluid rhymes and rhythm levitated his soul. The scattering of words down the page entranced him. He even mused of being serenaded by mermaids!
And all I could imagine was that I am not Me!