Despite whatever I might have said about it in previous blog posts, I’ve taken quite a liking to T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Things have changed and where I once saw a vague jumble of modernist ramblings, I now see a brilliant piece of verse.
A big part of what changed my mind was hearing the poem instead of just reading it silently off a page: its rhythm and its sound make it pretty fun to read out loud, and it can be very nice to listen to too, if you have the right reader. Below, I’ve ranked a few of the more interesting readings I’ve come across.
5: T. S. Eliot
I agree with the friend of mine who said that Eliot reads his poems as if he doesn’t understand them. Not only does he seem to miss the point of the poem, he also misses the rhythm and all the changes in tone and mood. Practically every line is delivered in the same droning, “bank-clerky” voice as the one before it so that the listener feels like he’s being lulled to sleep instead of being taken on a journey. I would mention the grating sound of Eliot’s voice too, but I’m sure I’ve lost enough followers already.
4: Anthony Hopkins
Whoa, Hannibal, don’t hurt yourself. It’s bad enough that he speeds through the poem like an auctioneer, but then he takes long, somewhat awkward pauses between a few of the stanzas, which, I think, gives the poem an awful choppy feeling. But at least his tone changes a little in parts, which is an advantage over Eliot’s reading.
3: Tom O’Bedlam
As far as anyone knows, Tom O’Bedlam (who takes his pseudonym from this) is neither poet nor actor: he’s just a guy who reads poetry and posts his readings to YouTube. While not as spry and dramatic as some readings, O’Bedlam’s certainly has character: the variations in mood are subtle, but they are there. And his gravelly, tired-sounding voice makes a nice complement to J. Alfred’s world-weariness. Although, for some reason, O’Bedlam reads the second line of the sixth stanza as “To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I care?'”, when every version of it that I’ve ever read or heard has J. Alfred repeating the phrase “Do I dare?” So, points off for that.
2: Jeremy Irons
(This reading was recorded to be used in a program for BBC Radio 4 and, unfortunately, is not on YouTube. So you’ll have to listen to it on Radio 4’s website instead.)
I think Irons presents an interesting image of Prufrock in this reading, one of a man angry at his lot in life and grudgingly resigning himself to it, instead of the waffling, inoffensive weakling that I and others often imagine him being. It’s a side of J. Alfred’s personality that I had never really heard anyone explore before. Of course, that’s not to say that indecision and anxiety have no place in Irons’s portrayal of Prufrock: far from it actually, I think Irons captures J. Alfred’s crippling self-consciousness better than most readers.
While I did enjoy this darker, more angry Prufrock for the most part, there were some moments that I felt were a little over-the-top. Take for example the famous lines “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” Of course, these are some of the most important lines in the poem, and as such they need special emphasis. But what Irons does with his voice here—making it even deeper, slowing down, stretching out the words—might have drawn just a little too much attention to the phrase.
Really, it’s only a few places that I thought were a bit strong. Overall, it’s a terrific reading.
1: Alec Guinness
I was hard-pressed to choose between the Irons reading and this one, but ultimately, Guinness’s mellifluous tones won out. Of course, like Irons, he had the advantage of being a trained actor, and therefore was better able to understand and to express the feeling behind these lines. He also appreciates the sonic quality of this poem better than some other readers, giving the piece a richer, more musical sound. Listening to Guinness’s reading is probably the main reason why I was able to memorize this poem: because he captures the rhythm and the sound effects, without making them too forceful, the words tend to stick in your head like a song. Now, I do think his reading of the first couple of stanzas is a little fast. I prefer his sound later in the poem, where he slows down a bit and gives the words time to hang in the air. Other than that, it’s a perfect reading delivered in a perfect voice.
So, poetry fans, what did I get wrong? Who’s your favorite interpreter of Eliot? Let me know in the comments.