Day 29: J. Alfred Prufrock Communicates Before He is Understood

Once my Advanced Placement English Literature students have read Hamlet, they are able to understand a wonderful allusion from lines 111-119 in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, Deferential, glad to be of use, 115 Politic, cautious, and meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool.

So I do wait until after we read Hamlet to read the poem. I usually use the YouTube recording of Eliot reading the poem, but before they listen, I make them write down Eliot’s quote:  “Poetry communicates before it is understood.”

After they hear Eliot read the poem for the first time, they usually look a little confused. I ask them write their immediate impression as to what it means directly in the margins of the poem. They will write about the poem later and see if their initial impression holds up after discussion. So, what did they write down first?

  • “This is about a man who fears death.”
  • “Sad walk with someone who obsesses about what others think instead of living his life.”
  • “He is not even worth the mermaid’s song.”
  • “A balding man who eats tea and cakes and worries about peaches will never disturb the universe.”

All proof that T.S. Eliot was right; he can communicate before being understood.


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