Dear Tribal Hack:
We're in the midst of a hot debate in our university seminar course about which of T. S. Eliot's masterpieces was the better, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or "The Rum Tum Tugger". Any thoughts?
-- Anal Isis
Tough call. This conjures up all the old arguments about the supposed inferiority of light verse vs more respected poetry. Ralph Gustafson stated that "some believe light verse is not serious, but they are mistaken". Slightness can be more apparent in "serious" verse than what is on display in Edward Lear and .... well, Eliot's "Prufrock".
Let us turn to the great modernist's light verse caper. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" begins with the immortal lines, "Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky". It's a jaunty mood, no doubt, and the breezy tone dominates. There may not be much contrast and counterpoint, but amongst the bourgeois teacup-and-marmalade fest are profound existential conundrums. "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?". The poem, even after many reads, may happily affirm the banker's (the one reading, that is) experience, but a few nagging questions as to breakfast choices and hairstyles are voiced. This is light verse non pareil.
Eliot's "The Rum Tum Tugger", on the other hand, is all sturm und drang. "If you offer him cream then he sniffs and sneers,/For he only likes what he finds for himself;/So you'll catch him in it right up to the ears,/If you put it away on the larder shelf." This is, of course, savage, an unalterable playing out of natural encoding. And "sniffs and sneers" , in a brilliant twinning, condemns human capriciousness and cruelty, as well. Yet for all its weight, this entry from Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats effects a light rhythm to balance its terrifying content.
It's a close call, but I'll give the nod to "The Rum Tum Tugger". I guess I'm still a sucker for great themes and timeless conclusions no matter how charming and clever are worthy poems such as "Prufrock".