Teaching and Learning Guide for: “I Grow Old: T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and Inventions of the March Hare 100 Years on”
Article first published online: 2 APR 2012
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Volume 9, Issue 4, pages 338–339, April 2012
How to Cite
Stayer, J. (2012), Teaching and Learning Guide for: “I Grow Old: T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and Inventions of the March Hare 100 Years on”. Literature Compass, 9: 338–339. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2012.00881.x
- Issue published online: 2 APR 2012
- Article first published online: 2 APR 2012
- Cited By
This guide accompanies the following article: Stayer, Jayme. ‘I Grow Old: T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Inventions of the March Hare 100 Years On’. Literature Compass 9 (4): 317–325. DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00877.x
1. Further Reading
For a biographical approach to the early poems, more information about Eliot’s early life and influences can be found in Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the poet, T. S. Eliot (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984). Though it is dated, Ackroyd’s work is still serviceable. Lyndall Gordon’s revised biography, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (New York: Norton, 1999), is more recent and includes more commentary on the poems. A full scale, scholarly biography of the poet has yet to be written.
To approach the early, published poems from a more literary perspective, there are a number of works that ferret out the sources and allusions in Eliot’s work. The standard, student-friendly work is B. C. Southam’s A Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, now in its sixth edition (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994). Grover Smith’s T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960) also concentrates on the sources Eliot used in his poetry and is more useful for interpretation, though this work is quite dated. A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David Chinitz (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), is an excellent and up-to-date resource with general overviews of all aspects of the poet’s life, poetry, plays, and criticism. The authors in that volume provide useful starting places for even more in-depth reading on Eliot.
With the publication of Eliot’s entire notebook of early poetry, Inventions of the March Hare, edited by Christopher Ricks (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996), much of Eliot’s post-juvenilia creations can be seen in one place, both the poems Eliot published and those he thought he had suppressed. Aside from early drafts of published poems and unpublished works, the book also includes pages of annotations and numerous excerpts from other, relevant sources for context. Since the volume was published fairly recently, much less work has been done on the notebook as a whole, though much of it is very fine. One of my favorites is Helen Vendler’s chapter “T. S. Eliot: Inventing Prufrock,” in her book Coming of Age as a Poet (Cambridge: Harvard, 2003).
2. Useful Links
There is no scholarly website that serves as a clearinghouse for sound criticism and scholarship on Eliot. Here are a few websites that have generally reliable, if limited information about the poet and his works:
If your library subscribes to Blackwell Reference Online (http://www.blackwellreference.com), then you can access A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David Chinitz (referred to above). Otherwise, the old fashioned, physical book does the trick almost as well.
3. In the Classroom
Students are likely to be less intimidated by canonical poems (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”“Portrait of a Lady”) if they can compare drafts to published versions. The notebook contains the drafts of these and other early poems from Eliot’s first published volume, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). It is also instructive to show students failed or awkward poems, of which there are many in Inventions of the March Hare. By looking at Eliot’s hit-or-miss attempts at poetry, students can recognize their own writing as a process of revision and risk.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is Eliot’s most anthologized poem, and one that is most likely to be taught in a literature classroom. Because of the absence of a clear narrative and its lack of transitions, students are often baffled by the poem on first reading. When I teach the poem in introductory-level courses, I give a list of questions for students to work through before they come to class for discussion.
- 1What might the “overwhelming question” be? See line 10 and line 93. Look before and after these lines for hints.
- 2Why does Prufrock decide to not ask this question? See lines 80–6 and 111–9.
- 3What is the purpose of Prufrock’s “visit”? Whom is he visiting and for what reason? What does he end up being so concerned about? Is he nervous or jaded? See lines 35–69.
- 4How do lines 70–4 “answer” or serve as response to the scene described in 35–69? What would be the imagined response of society people to such an admission?
- 5There are at least three different places where Prufrock seems to be: (i) slumming in a poor district; (ii) at a social tea where available young women are put on display; (iii) inside of his own head. Note how he switches between such places without transition or warning. Indicate at least one place in the poem where this happens.
- 6Lines 90–8, Prufrock imagines himself as Lazarus. Who is Lazarus, and what might he have to “tell” these society people?
- 7As counterpoint to the “overwhelming question,” Prufrock posits a series of other questions. Identify two of those questions, and paraphrase them below. Here are places to look: lines 37–8; lines 45–6; line 54; line 61; line 68; line 69; lines 79–80; line 90; lines 99–103; and line 122.
- 8Regarding line 119: in medieval court culture and in Shakespeare’s plays, what is the role of the Fool? Does Prufrock say anything or ask anything that strikes you as foolish?
- 9Prufrock is preoccupied with time and exhibits conflicting attitudes towards it. Identify three places: (i) one place where he seems to have plenty of time (to do what?); (ii) one place where he seems to have no more time (why not?); (iii) and one place where his reference to time seems ambiguous or in-between.