Prufrock, Lewinsky, and the Poetry of History

How T. S. Eliot’s lovelorn classic still sways us.

One of the more striking literary essays in recent memory appeared this summer to zero fanfare. That in itself is no surprise: most literary critics could reveal the nuclear codes without even the NSA noticing. Still, you might have expected some buzz around a splashy Vanity Fair tribute to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” penned by a longtime fan named Monica Lewinsky.

The occasion of the essay was the “Prufrock” centenary; the author’s guiding impulse was sheer enthusiasm. Lewinsky writes that she was “smitten” by T. S. Eliot’s lovelorn classic as a teenager and that after “more than 20 years, these feelings have not waned.” She’s a connoisseur of “Prufrock” allusions, from the pop to the highbrow; one “personal favorite” comes from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: “Prufrock is my mantra!” Even her e-mail address contains a “Prufrock” reference—a fruitful conversation starter, she says, with fellow lovers of the poem.

As it turns out, this isn’t the first revelation of her fandom. The 1999 biography Monica’s Story, which Andrew Morton wrote in collaboration with his subject, mentions her “life-changing” love of poetry and of “Prufrock” in particular. Covering the Morton bio for Time in 1999, John Cloud peppered his article with excerpts from the poem. He introduced a section on Lewinsky’s publicity tour with “Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”; he suggested that, like Prufrock pinned to the wall, she’d “begun to feel fixed and formulated by the eyes of the public, the prosecutors and the media.”

In 2004 Lewinsky withdrew from public life, fed up with all those prying eyes. When she re-emerged a decade later as part of an anti-bullying campaign, she invoked her old hero:

I believe my story can help. Help to do something to change the culture of humiliation we inhabit and that inhabits us. I had been publicly silent for a decade—but now I must, as T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock said, disturb the universe.

All in all, you sense that “Prufrock” is her mantra and that her devotion to it verges on spiritual zeal. Although she argues that the poem transports us “beyond meaning,” it seems to have had a sizable and definite meaning in her own life. Reflecting obliquely on his early reading in a 1934 essay, Eliot wrote, “Everyone, I believe, who is at all sensible to the seductions of poetry, can remember some moment in youth when he or she was completely carried away by the work of one poet.” By her own account, Lewinsky was such a reader, and her consuming passion was for the starchy, High-Church Anglican who wrote modern poetry’s great song of shyness.

If she’d had the choice, Lewinsky couldn’t have picked a more fitting inspiration. Eliot learned early in his own life that diffidence and daring, intense inwardness and intense exposure, can be twin edges of a single sword. Few 20th-century poets were as painfully reticent or achieved greater fame. None brooded more on the convergence of literature, sex, and history—the ways in which the private mental and physical lives of individuals intersect with the public life of the masses.

That obsession, which burns through the early poems, first flickers to life in the figure of Prufrock. Poor J. Alfred is the archetypal bit player on the world’s stage, anonymous and foppish right down to his abbreviated name. Mockingly comparing himself to biblical and Shakespearean heroes, he mourns his romantic failures and thwarted “greatness”:

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in
upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

In the end, he accepts the role of “attendant lord” in life’s drama, “cautious” and “deferential,” aiding the major players but staying in the background. (He could be describing a model White House intern.)

In his own recent “Prufrock” tribute for the New Republic, Damian Lanigan called the poem “the battle cry for legions of bookish virgins, the supreme validation of the neurotic soul.” At first glance, this seems too triumphalist: surely it’s no battle cry but a cry of disgust and pain. After all, we never feel that Prufrock’s self-mockery is mistaken—that he is destined for greatness or that the beautiful girls will sing to him. However, he is poignantly wrong about one thing: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” As Lanigan affirms, legions of readers have disagreed. Prufrock may lose out on love and glory, but his neurotic soul is validated in private eloquence.

By Eliot’s own admission, he was himself a frustrated virgin during the poem’s composition. Five years after its publication, his anxieties had curdled further. “Sweeney Erect” (1920) depicts the brutish title figure shaving in a brothel:

(The lengthened shadow of a man
     Is history, said Emerson
Who had not seen the silhouette
     Of Sweeney straddled in the sun).
Tests the razor on his leg
     Waiting until the shriek subsides.
The epileptic on the bed
     Curves backward, clutching at her sides.

The diminishment of sex in this sleazy little scene is the failure of history itself. Sweeney’s callous indifference both perverts and grimly affirms the Emersonian metaphor; he’s repellent, but he’s a Representative Man of his time. The prostitute’s seizure is a sort of shadow orgasm, an image of uncontrollable suffering.

This sexual desolation becomes downright apocalyptic in The Waste Land (1922), with its arid plains and rotten marriages, its arrogant youths “assault[ing]” jaded women, its sweeping indictment of cultural sterility. Near the close of that poem, a memory of “daring” breaks the spell of barrenness, heralding regenerative rain:

Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries …

The erotic crackle of the language leaves no doubt: this is the daring that eluded Prufrock. (“Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” … “Do I dare to eat a peach?”) It’s the transgressive daring of Romeo: “For stony limits cannot hold love out, / And what love can do that dares love attempt.” (Lewinsky reportedly once quoted these same lines in a valentine to President Clinton.) The “surrender” is exhilarating but impossible to “retract” and necessary to conceal. The “age of prudence” could be personal or historical, a period of caution, repression, waste.

It’s well known that Eliot wrote The Waste Land after the collapse of his first marriage. Though the poem was received as a judgment on a culture, it was also agonizingly personal—in a sense, the projection of a private breakdown onto the wider world. As both spouses’ letters attest, its vision of exhaustion and impotence drew on the poet’s bleak experience. Eliot hinted as much publicly in a comment on Tennyson’s In Memoriam: “It happens now and then that a poet by some strange accident expresses the mood of his generation, at the same time that he is expressing a mood of his own which is quite remote from that of his generation.”

“Strange accident,” maybe, but in the essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), Eliot argued that the poet’s goal is precisely the depersonalizing (or universalizing) of mere “personality and emotions.” No wonder he has always appealed to readers who conceive of their lives in broad symbolic terms. In the mid-1980s, one young scholar, reflecting on The Waste Land and the “Tradition” essay, wrote to his girlfriend:

Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, [Eliot] accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. … This fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.

The astute, brooding commentator was a 20-year-old college kid named Barack Obama.

Of course, few readers see their self-projections onto the “tradition” justified so spectacularly. Yet Eliot entices all of us, even the most Prufrockian schlub, to view history as personal—and to personify it as the source of our daily temptations and frustrations. The heart of this vision is a passage in “Gerontion” (1920):

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear.

James Longenbach stresses that the speaker, Gerontion, is fooling himself; “history is not something separate from the life of the individual in the present.” True, but the illusion is as vivid as anything in Eliot’s phantasmagoria. With her distractions and suggestive whispers, this allegorical History mirrors all the other femmes fatales in Eliot’s poems, from “Prufrock” (“Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?”) to The Waste Land (“A woman drew her long black hair out tight / And fiddled whisper music on those strings”). Meanwhile, Prufrock’s private foibles—fear, weakness, poor timing—have become enshrined as constants in the human drama. His winding streets have become History’s “cunning passages”: the corridors of power, maybe, or the female anatomy (as the scholar Gabrielle McIntire has argued) or the halls of a brothel or the writings of historians. However we imagine the maze, it will forever frustrate the seeker.

The tacit misogyny here is only partly relieved by the jabs at male folly. At the same time, Eliot’s language partakes deeply of what it portrays. The verse itself is supple, cunning, confusing; it tantalizes and withholds (but “communicate[s],” as Eliot said great poetry can do, “before it is understood”). Its rhythms are pulsing, its rhetoric seductive—all this in a poem supposedly about European history.

But then sensuality is the master key to early Eliot, the method in his madness (or vice versa). William Carlos Williams complained that he gave poetry “back to the academics”; Hart Crane called The Waste Land “good, of course, but so damned dead.” What they ignored was the wildly beating heart in the sarcophagus, the torrent always gathering in the desert atmosphere. In his most thrilling moments, Eliot leaps from repression to revelation. His breakwall of allusions, fragments, evasions yields to grand outpourings: Prufrock’s mermaid fantasy, the gorgeous “heart of light” passage in The Waste Land, the thunderous vitality of that “moment’s surrender.”

Of course, he never reveals too much. Eliot biographies abound in shadowy figures alleged to have haunted his love life: his Boston friend Emily Hale; Adeleine Moffatt, who apparently inspired “Portrait of a Lady”; the doomed soldier Jean Verdenal, to whom he dedicated Prufrock and Other Observations. Scattered evidence emerges, year by year, but the poems keep their counsel. Finally the phantoms recede into the labyrinth, leaving only the record of a tremendous longing.

That longing, which turns out to express the mood of every generation, has kept this “academic” poet remarkably popular. The Eliot who launched a million annotations is also the Eliot who spawned Cats, the pop song “Afternoons & Coffeespoons,” the Midnight in Paris line, and sportscasters who tell us the big game ended “with a whimper.” He’s the Eliot who spoke for my youthful angst, and yours, and Monica Lewinsky’s.

Here my winding argument leaves me at the threshold of a delicate question. Lewinsky is not, herself, a Prufrockian figure. She describes her favorite poem as a kind of anti-inspiration, a lesson in “the importance of having the strength, despite my fears, ‘to force the moment to its crisis.’” She didn’t linger in obscurity for long, though the limelight that found her in 1998 was unexpected and grotesquely harsh. At the same time, the scandal that changed her life was entangled in literary fantasy: the Shakespearean valentine, the copy of Leaves of Grass that Clinton famously gave her.

Was “Prufrock” somehow implicated too? It’s easy enough to read Eliot—bard of historical pessimism and sexual malaise—in detached, ironic relation to Clinton and Lewinsky. (It’s possible to do the same with Walt Whitman: sensualist, optimist, presidential admirer.) But could the “Love Song” in some dim sense have influenced the affair? Is the idea ridiculous? Are the emotions stirred by poems—by the lines that haunt and inspire and goad us most—confined to reading hours? Cultural impact is one thing, but can a poem sway the little crisis moments, the crucial indecisions and decisions, that make up history?

In many ways, poetry is the Prufrock of the arts. Its critics mock it as effete, feckless, unable to say what it means; some wonder whether it still has a pulse. Even its advocates often view it as a current separate from life’s main flow—an undersong, a commentary, not an agent in the drama. In Auden’s imperious (though ambiguous) phrase, “poetry makes nothing happen”; it’s the product of a region “where executives / Would never want to tamper.” Presumably, that rules out any direct link to events in the executive branch.

And yet: poetry lovers know that favorite poems really are mantras—not mottos, exactly, but objects of meditation. They whisper in the ear, sometimes beneath conscious hearing. For better or worse, they guide. Try to pin tangible effects on them and they’ll vanish; they’re never the prime impulse behind any act. But for some sensitive or restless souls, they’ll always hold a talismanic power. They won’t be found in official obituaries, but they’ll echo in back passages, across transgressed boundaries, in the covert imaginations of figures who disturb and dare.

Originally Published: September 22nd, 2015

Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.

  1. September 27, 2015
     Liam Orodochain

    I would like to say to Mr Allen:

    I am, perhaps, not a poet, but I admire poetry. An unexpected series of Internet jumps led me to the article. 'Prufrock, Lewinsky, and the Poetry of History.'

    This is a beautiful essay to read. It taught me, challenged me, and offers to teach me more. For that, I am grateful.

    I am 73 and I have both been a part of history and an observer of it. I am glad I've been able to make the journey and rejoice that it's not over. For, as I read the essay of Mr Allen, the rhythm of his words caused these words to unexpectedly visit my thoughts:
    Never better have I heard
    Recounting of written word . . .

    Thank you, Mr Allen. I will look for more of your thoughts, wherever I can find them.


  2. October 1, 2015

    Wait, your essay is horrible as Monica "Blow Job at The
    White House" morality.