By Crystal Hurd
The first time that I encountered The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I was an undergraduate English Lit major at the University of Tennessee. Newly married, I also worked a part-time job at a local high-end retail outlet to make ends meet. I remember nibbling on my lunch with my trusty (and hefty) copy of Norton’s Anthology of Modern Literature and being completely arrested by this poem. I read it over and over, wading through the glorious language, the images, the allusions. It was the most poignant poem I had ever read about human atrophy. Not death, but the journey towards death.
I often joke that I have experienced a “mid-life” crisis since the tender age of nineteen when I started seriously reading poetry in college. The whole crux of the mid-life crisis is to realize one’s impending demise and reassess his/her life with new scope and sharpened focus. Humorously, it is indicated with convertible sports cars and flings with receptionists or complete abandonment of one’s previous “life,” as if the whole thing has been a strange, foggy pantomime in which you had no control of emotions and actions. Then you wake up one morning and everything has this dull hue. The puppet can see his strings now and they are cumbersome. There is no joy, only weariness. The tap dance is now a tired march. The roses of promise are fading. You are fading. Every day. Every hour. When that time is up, what then? And what have you to show for it?
The doorman is snickering. Will you admit that you are afraid?
And in those moments of selling expensive clothing and reading Eliot, I realized that the whole world is trying to wear a mask, an uncomfortable one fitted with retail price tags and social expectations. Our whole existence is about appeasing someone. We desire to be valued, but valued for what? Being passive? Blending seamlessly in with an apathetic crowd? Maybe it is not cultural popularity we desire. Perhaps it is just recognition- in art or athletics or academics. “Do I dare?” Eliot asks. “Do I dare disturb the universe?” or do we sink quietly, playing our designated roles (“I am no Hamlet,” “I am no prophet,” “I am Lazarus”) with no mermaids to serenade us?
What I love about this poem is Eliot’s hesitancy. I will/ I won’t. I should try/I won’t try. I should ask/I wouldn’t dare ask. How many of these frivolous decisions we make in a day and all to lead us to the bigger inquiries: What am I? Where am I going? When I look in the mirror, do I see someone I had hoped to become, or a fraud?
Roll up the bottoms of those expensive “trousers”. Whatever needs to be done to show yourself approved. Approved not to any deity, but to the ever fickle “in crowd” or “Inner Ring” as C.S. Lewis called it. At that time, I felt I was a cog for this ridiculous machine, contributing to a commercialized notion by telling old ladies with high-limit credit cards that they absolutely needed this shirt and jacket and belt with those jeans, all to ultimately finance a liberal arts education which would ironically make me despise such displays of materialism.
But there I was, staring down the rest of my life in the break room of a fashion empire, railing against the very ideas which allowed me to pay bills and purchase the very book in my hands. Astounding, isn’t it? The difference between occupation and calling? Eliot warned me that chasing the world’s approval would lead me astray. To dark alleys, and rooms full of strangers, down avenues of unceasing misunderstandings. Must one always feel that antagonism? It goes much deeper than being unique. It is the comprehension that we are made for purposes of God’s design. I decided then that I never wanted to live a life of regret. I am employed now as a teacher, leading students down the (sometimes thorny) paths of critical thinking, but also of understanding and appreciating literature. I help to support my family by encouraging teenagers to be content with themselves, to engage in self-expression, to read liberally, and to find peace within. No numbness. No shame. No nagging inadequacies.
How far I have come in those fifteen years since I first read, “Let us go then, you and I.” I followed through half-deserted streets. I listened to Eliot’s whispered wisdom. He covers the gamut of a mortal’s emotions and repeats, with startling accuracy, the questions that haunt us. He made me, at twenty-one, take a long glance ahead, down the trajectory of my own life, and rip the mask away. He urged me to live authentically, to measure out my life “in coffee spoons” so that I would comprehend what is genuinely important. And travel, confidently, toward a life of compassion and significance.
Most of all, Eliot made me want to be a poet. For that, and for his unfailing insight, I am ever grateful.
Dr. Crystal Hurd is a writer, reader, public school educator, and adjunct professor. She is happily married with three beautiful Terriers (adopted from local shelters). She is a certified book nerd who loves to read and research works involving faith, literature, art, and leadership. You can visit her webpage www.crystalhurd.com , friend her on Facebook, (Crystal Sullivan Hurd) and follow her on Twitter: @DoctorHurd and @hurdofficial.