With our fixation on anniversaries - today's the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo - let's not forget the 100th anniversary of Poetry magazine's publication of T.S. Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufock." The poem first appeared in Harriet Monroe's little magazine in June 1915.
That reminds me of my days working in downtown Atlanta, when I visited the main library nearly every day in the throes of my poetry mania. The library had subscribed to "Poetry" since Miss Monroe founded it in the early 20th century, so I was able to find the original publication of "Prufock" and other seminal American poems by Wallace Stevens, H.D., Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. The magazine also published verse such as Joyce Kilmer's "Trees."
Alas, in one of Fulton County's myopic cost-cutting binges, the subscription to Poetry ended sometime in the early 21st century. I wrote a letter in protest, which did no good at all. The letter probably sat upon some bureaucrat's desk, if it got that far. Whether the subscription to Poetry remains moribund I do not know.
"Prufock" remains my favorite Eliot poem, much more so than "The Wasteland," although I'm increasingly drawn to "The Four Quartets." While its shocking themes of despair seem strange for such a young poet, "Prufock" expresses attitudes of a certain type of sensitive young man. Its emotional climate stands as the template for a range of books that followed, from "The Great Gatsby," "The Sound and the Fury" and "A Catcher in the Rye" to "The Moviegoer." Needless to say, many a young poet has sought through the years to repeat the poem's mood. "Prufock's" language remains new and vital, in dynamic contrast to its message.
The poem appeared when European civilization was wrecking itself in World War I, the aftermath of which Eliot surveyed in "The Wasteland." The branches are difficult to trace, but the seeds of that early 20th century war were planted on that ridge in Belgium 200 years ago, when the Prussian army saved Wellington's scruffy British soldiers.