Blessay 13: Prufrock, Anxiety and Bad Weather

I turned on the radio to hear Alan Yentob introduce a programme on T.S.Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock.’ It was written 100 years ago and is regarded as one of the great poems of Modernism. Jeremy Irons delivered a masterly reading. So good that all of Yentob’s selected commentators felt a bit redundant. Why paraphrase Prufrock and talk of Eliot’s early literary life, when Irons performance begins to ‘explain’ so much? The actor’s tone, inflection, phrasing and musical ear were in perfect pitch with Eliot’s dense, yet immediate language. We were also given a few seconds of Eliot’s own reading of Prufrock. Eliot is dry, detached, even formally reticent, and quite wonderful. I own a recording done by Alec Guinness that occasionally drops into affectation, especially when he says ‘That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.’ But I love Guinness as well.

However a useful contributor to the programme remarked that Eliot often said of the critics’ interpretations of his work ‘That is not it at all’. I think a real ‘terror’ of being misunderstood pursued Eliot throughout his life. And probably not only over the ‘mug’s game’ business of writing poetry. But trying to get things right with his emotionally distraught first wife Viviene.

The nervousness and indecision of Prufrock seems too have got into my own system today. I woke up to the grey weight of the weather. Clouds and strong winds. It’s a brooding, sullen early June day. The summer is repressed. Its would-be sunny face smothered by a rough gloved fist that will not let go.

I have to print out a boarding pass from the user unfriendly website of Ryan Air. The printer stops. Then starts and prints out two. I discover the return flight pass can’t be done (for no charge unallocated seats) until a week before its departure. Meaning I can’t print it out till next Monday, a few hours before leaving to catch the train for Luton airport, and then on to Spain.

This isn’t of course real suffering, but an excuse for a moan. One of those Elioton ‘revisions’ before the taking of a cup of tea. At twenty-two Eliot was not just writing of his sexual uncertainty, anxiety and acute self-consciousness at how fragmented life felt to him, when pushed into the persona of the middle-aged Prufrock. I think he was talking about being hyper self-conscious. How a frightening fussiness and need to take control can take you over if you feel you are not projecting the right self-image.

(It doesn’t matter about the other half of the boarding pass. You will get it done. Don’t worry. No one is laughing at you. You are not drowning with the mermaids, yet.)

I re-play Jeremy Irons on the BBC I player. Lovely to hear such a thoughtful actor. He shuffles, as if he wants to suddenly cough and clear his throat of the mental stress of enacting Prufrock. I imagine Irons before entering the studio. Deliberately eating a peach to mess up his shirt, rolling up his jeans, and scratching any signs of balding. Putting himself in the groove for such a nervy love song.

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