‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each’ is one of the most famous lines from a poem filled with famous lines. T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ has been called, by the critic Christopher Ricks, the best first poem in a first volume of poems: it opened Eliot’s debut collection, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917, having been first published two years earlier in Poetry magazine.
‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was written in 1910 while Eliot was still a student at Harvard, in his early twenties. It was his friend and fellow poet (and fellow American) who hawked it around the poetry publishers to find someone willing to publish this dazzlingly new kind of verse. Harold Monro, an influential publisher and owner of the Poetry Bookshop in London, was offered the chance to publish the poem but flung it back, labelling it ‘insane’. This ground-breaking modernist poem has attracted many interpretations, involving everything from psychoanalysis to biographical readings, but it remains an elusive poem.
But what is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ about? It’s a dramatic monologue, but utterly unlike those written by Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the previous century. Tennyson and Browning virtually invented this new form of poetry in the 1830s and 1840s, and their names were synonymous with it. But Prufrock is a modern-day, urban speaker, who talks frankly about his failures: chiefly, his failure to ‘grasp the nettle’ or ‘seize the day’, his lack of sexual fulfilment, and his overall sense of failure. There is something far more meandering, too, about his meditations and thoughts, which range from the trivial (does he dare to eat a peach?) to the cosmic (does he dare disturb the universe?).
We cannot always be sure that what he is confiding to us is actually being uttered: we may instead have a direct line to his thoughts, to the inside of his head, as his mind wanders from thought to thought and subject to subject, from John the Baptist to his male-pattern baldness, from Prince Hamlet to lonely men in shirtsleeves hanging out of windows. The style of ‘Prufrock’ has been likened to stream of consciousness, that much-misunderstood device more commonly associated with fiction than poetry. It seems likely that Prufrock is nervously hopping from one subject to another, within his own mind, while he struggles to fit in at the social events, the tea parties and drawing-room soirees, which he attends, in the company of those women who talk ‘of Michelangelo’ while (at least in Prufrock’s own imagination) gossiping about how thin he, and his hair, is when they think he’s out of earshot.
The line that reads ‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each’ appears towards the end of the poem, in a triplet rhymed peach/beach/each. The long e sound of these words is then echoed by the standalone line that follows, in which Prufrock confides that, although he has heard the mermaids singing ‘each to each’ (i.e., to each other), he doesn’t think ‘that they will sing to me’.
Who are these mermaids, and what does Prufrock mean? ‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each’ is often glossed as an allusion to John Donne’s ‘Song’ (which we have analysed here):
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
Catching a falling star is, of course, impossible. A ‘mandrake root’ is a plant associated with fertility in the Old Testament, but the idea of getting the plant pregnant (rather than it helping a human woman to conceive) turns the usual association on its head. The other commands which Donne’s verse lists are all similarly difficult or impossible. ‘Teach me to hear mermaids singing’ is usually interpreted as a twist on the song of the Sirens from Greek mythology: the Sirens’ song was so bewitching that when they sang, passing ships were lured up onto the rocks so the Sirens could devour the men on board. Contrary to popular belief, however, Sirens were half-woman and half-bird (the lower half being the bird’s, of course), unlike the mermaid of myth, whose lower half resembles a fish.
Sirens are more famous for their song than mermaids, and the oceanic associations of both, combined with their half-woman half-animal composition, may have contributed to a confusion or conflation of the two mythical beings. Shakespeare also encouraged parallels between the two, in The Comedy of Errors. In Act 3 Scene 2, Antipholus of Syracuse commands Luciana:
O, train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note
To drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears.
Sing, Siren, for thyself, and I will dote.
The point, of course, is that it was impossible to hear the beautiful enchanting song of the Sirens and survive, unless you were Odysseus, who famously managed it thanks to a cunning plan.
So when Prufrock confides, ‘I have heard the mermaids singing’, it might be regarded as not only an allusion but also a riposte to Donne’s dismissive reference to ‘mermaids singing’: ‘actually, Donne, I have heard the mermaids singing’. But then he immediately adds: ‘But they only sing to each other; they’re not trying to sing to me’.
The meaning of Prufrock’s ‘I have heard the mermaids singing’ then becomes clearer, at least in this interpretation of the poem: Prufrock has heard those women (non-fishy) ‘talking of Michelangelo’, and heard (or imagined he heard) them discussing him between themselves (‘how his arms and legs are thin’, etc.); but he does not think that these modern-day ‘mermaids’ will talk to him. He is not considered marriageable material by the women who attend these social occasions. That ‘overwhelming question’ (marriage?) is too big for Prufrock to confront because he doesn’t think he stands a chance with women.
There are limitations to such an analysis of Eliot’s lines: for instance, Prufrock seems at home with the mermaids, in the chambers of the sea while ‘sea-girls’ are nearby. Indeed, in an overturning of expectations, Prufrock and his female companions only ‘drown’ when those human voices wake them and recall them from their marine fantasy world and back into the real world of New England drawing-rooms. The lines are dizzying and disorienting.
But what would lend credence to the idea that Prufrock is indulging in (faintly comical and Laforgue-inspired) self-pity in the ‘I have heard the mermaids singing’ line is the fact that, in Donne’s ‘Song’, the subject is women’s inconstancy. The second verse of the poem ends on a rather bitter misogynistic note:
If thou be’st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true, and fair.
Could this sentiment of the poem, as well as its reference to ‘mermaids singing’, be reflected in Prufrock’s lines about them not singing to him? There, it is not that women are unfaithful that is the problem, but that they don’t even notice him.
Perhaps, then, the point is that even in the world of daydream Prufrock escapes to in his imagination, where he hears mermaids singing to him and hangs out with them in the chambers of the sea – even there they aren’t interested in him. Just as he is not even the hero or protagonist of his own life (‘I am not Prince Hamlet’: instead, he is only a supporting character or bit-part in his own life story), so even the women of his fantasies look the other way when he’s around. The Sirens, in other words, have no interest in luring him anywhere.