My current roommate has never read Eliot (much different from my previous roommate, who gave the greatest two-hour drunken lecture on Prufrock ever – seriously, it was pretty amazing), so I decided to read these poems to him. I am a fan of Eliot for a very specific reason: Tiresias, the blind seer of Greek myths. Tiresias is duality incarnate, and it is this idea of duality that pervades Eliot’s work. Though the only mention of him is in section three of “The Waste Lands,” he can be seen as the voice of many of Eliot’s poems, including “The Hollow Men.” But it is the idea of duality that I want to speak of here, as this was what my roommate and I discussed after I read these poems aloud for him, everything from whether he was an English or America poet to, well to whatever...
Prufrock is clearly defined by duality: an urbane man of society realizing the superficiality of his life and desiring a simple, honest life. A man consumed by regret, wishing rather to be the lowliest beast at the bottom of a dead sea than the man he is. A man who comes to terms with his foolishness and the hollowness of his life’s journey. This poem is about failure.
On the other hand, I very much enjoyed reading “Journey of the Magi,” which a much more positive duality of character. Written in the same year that Eliot turned to reflect on more religious themes, such as in his Murder in the Cathedral, this poem examines the duality of a moral life. In this poem, the Magi face great conflict in their journey to Bethlehem to take part in the birth of Christ. Yet, upon returning to their homelands, they find that great conflict still awaits them, as they have been transformed by this event, yet their peoples have not been converted.
It is the duality in self that interests me about these poems: the idea of the self as something in transition. In one case, the opportunity to transition to something else is rejected in favor of outlandish aquatic sentience; in the other, it is embraced. As Prufrock was one of Eliot’s first poems, I am always reminded when reading it of how he must have felt as he wrote, in his Four Quartets, “In my beginning is my end.” This statement stood out to me when first studying Eliot in any depth, and I am reminded of it now fifteen years later, and I can only remember the regrets that I’ve had over those years and how they’ve shaped my life. I wonder, is it ever too late to act upon our long-held regrets and change our lives? Will I, one day, be Prufrock, and hate who I have become? I don’t regret at all who I am today, but before Prufrock was balding, neither did he.