You don’t have to be sexually frustrated to enjoy “Prufrock,” although I certainly was as a young high schooler when I first encountered the poem. Only my life was an exact inversion of Eliot’s Brahminical privilege and Grand Touristry. Nevertheless, Eliot’s uneasy mixture of elitism and sexual anxiety mesmerized me. So did its allusive range and musicality, its dissected and etherized bodies. I never took for granted that the opening lines were entreating the reader (me) and a young woman at the same time. I guess Prufrock was my Virgil:
LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
We still broadcast on Prufrock’s frequency of selfhood today. One of the loudest and most convincing voices in contemporary poetry, for example, is Frederick Seidel’s anti-Prufrockian taunt. (It’s worth noting that Seidel’s backstory is remarkably similar to Eliot’s.) In popular culture, too — in film, television, music, whatever — sexual neurotics of every stripe owe a substantial debt to Prufrock, whether they know it or not. “Let us go and make our visit,” Prufrock says. One hundred years later: Prufrock’s world seems strange and distant, a repressed imaginary where one should tread lightly. And it’s a place we visit every day.