“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me.” These self-pitying lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” are some of the most often quoted from this poem. In fact, Stephen Colbert quotes them in an interview with Elizabeth Alexander (see this recent post on Humor In America for the link). Colbert is convinced that the mermaids will sing for him, a confidence which causes his guest and audience to laugh. Colbert makes light of the speaker’s self pity, and his faux-innocent position seems refreshing.
“Prufrock” is a poem with a tone that seems to change over time––for the reader. Presumably resonant with all adolescent forms of urban angst and anguish (see this recent article in the New York Times about a man for whom the poem characterized a romantic sense of adolescence), “Prufrock” is really a silly poem the more one reads it. Yet silliness makes the poem richer and perhaps more profound than angst ever could. Colbert is right: it is ridiculous, even comically melodramatic to worry about whether or not the mermaids will sing to you––to worry about personal worthiness.
We are warned of the poem’s deadpan humor in the opening lines, which open classically with the line, “Let us go then, you and I…” and follow with a comparison between “the evening . . . spread out against the sky” and “a patient etherized upon a table.” Romantic vision and complete physical, social, and emotional inertness are juxtaposed. “Do I dare disturb the universe?” a voice in the poem wonders. Spontaneous boldness is not an option for this voice. Cowing and reticence and quiet observation of others are its modes.
We think of these personal characteristics in something of the same light that we view adolescence: brooding, sensitive, thoughtful, withdrawn. We rarely think of these states as funny. Yet coming back to “Prufrock” after adolescence has been over for many years is a humorous experience. Why should a love song about a man with a funny, unromantic name begin in Italian? We are already in parody here. The choice to rhyme “come and go” with “Michelangelo” is hilarious (“In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo”). The choice to rhyme at all in a poem like this is worth a pause and a smile.
Noting parody and play in Eliot’s early poetry is nothing new. Drawing connections between the feline imagery here (“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,/ The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes”) and Eliot’s later light-spirited cat poems is also nothing new. But it occurred to me the other day, as I watched ten teenagers work their way through this poem, that adolescence is rarely a state of being that inspires laughter. It inspires eye rolls, awe, and worry mostly, but not often overt chuckles of understanding. Perhaps we recognize the difficulty of the changes and uncertainties one faces at that age. Perhaps we shutter at remembering those difficulties.
Yet isn’t humor present in any cartoonish, shape-changing, awkward phase of life? Isn’t the comic persona fundamentally awkward and uncertain? The humor in “Prufrock” comes from the very same notes that strike adolescent readers as serious and true. Coming back to the poem after adolescence is over, one realizes that the awkward phase of life, though dramatically uncertain, was not very serious or permanent after all––nor did the self turn out to be as central to the drama as we thought. Just as Stephen Colbert hopes and Elizabeth Alexander encourages, the mermaids will sing to you if you want them to.