Tuesday 1 July 2014

Overwhelming question

Something that's been nagging me: what does the 'J' stand for in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'?

Eliot's poem, written in 1910-11 and first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry magazine, attracted mixed reviews. According to the TLS: 'The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry.' Its original title was 'Prufrock among the Women' - in later years Eliot claimed to have no memory of how he came upon the name of his diffident and ageing mouthpiece.

The form of the name may reflect Eliot's habit at the time of writing his name as 'T. Stearns Eliot' (and this was a not unusual practice in Edwardian Britain - one thinks of the flour miller and film mogul J. Arthur Rank). Prufrock-Litton was the name of a furniture store in St. Louis, Missouri, the town where Eliot grew up, although this appears not to have any particular significance.

But here's my whimsical theory: perhaps that upper case J was merely hanging around waiting to be used - belatedly - in a notorious line from Eliot's 'Gerontion' (Poems, 1920), a line in which Eliot was criticised for using a disparagingly lower case initial 'j' for 'Jew' in the lines:

          And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner

          Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp

He eventually amended this to capitalise the Jew (although it hardly renders the lines any less offensive, with their dehumanising 'squats' and 'spawned'.) I suppose we're expected to bear in mind that the old man who narrates the poem is a mouthpiece and no more Eliot's representative than (say) Browning's Bishop Bloughram or Larkin's landlady at the Bodies. It's an expression of anti-Semitism rather than an endorsement of the view. 

I recall reading with great interest and some irritation Anthony Julius's book about Eliot's anti-Semitism, because although Julius is a very able barrister he's not much of a literary critic. (To be fair few literary critics could hack it at the Bar.) Julius rightly sees more troubling evidence of anti-Semitism in Eliot's 'Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar' and, while he builds a strong case and ultimately sees Eliot's anti-Semitism as a troubling quality rather than a disabling flaw, the case for the prosecution rests upon a couple of lines taken from a very large body of work. Troubling lines to be sure, and offensive - but art should always make us uncomfortable and the fact that they continue to shock is a sign of their continuing value.

As a novelist friend pointed out to me the other day, Joyce never capitalises Jew or Jewish in Ulysses - the main character of which is a Dublin Jew. Or jew, in Joyce's philosemitic formulation.  Nobody could accuse Joyce of anti-Semitism.

Quotation © The Estate of T. S. Eliot

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