On Articulacy

What do you do when you feel the ground crumbling out from under your feet? I’ve felt this way quite a bit lately. T.S. Eliot has helped me. Please bear with this more literary and personal blog.

selections of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

“Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .

Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’

Let us go and make our visit.

. . . .

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

. . . .

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair––

. . .

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

. . . .

And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it towards some overwhelming question. . .

And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor––

And this, and so much more?––

It is impossible to say just what I mean!”

Prufrock wrestles with many things––the reader gets to feel these conflicting feelings and thoughts along with the narrator. There is an overwhelming question being led up to, an overwhelming question that he dearly wishes to avoid being asked. I think he does not want it because he cannot bear to answer it. Either that, or he does not want to be asked it because he knows he cannot answer it, or at least cannot answer it well.

Next his hesitation is expressed––and immediately his self-assurances that there will be time, time enough to prepare to meet other faces, time to make decisions and revise them, all the time in the world. Perhaps he thinks there is time enough to figure out how to say what he wants to say, or adequate time to say and re-say it enough to make it adequately express what he wants to express, perhaps to make himself able to answer the overwhelming question.

He starts asking himself if he dares, dares to go back the way he has come, dares to speak to the women in the room he refers to, dares to start a conversation. For him, this is like daring to disturb the universe. This wondering whether he dares such a feat is immediately followed by a self-assurance that there will be time, in a minute. But he recognizes that this self-assurance that there will be time will itself be undone, because the window of opportunity will close with time passing on.

The poem continues with a revelation from Prufrock: he was scared and missed his opportunity to speak, lost his chance to act. The rest is questioning whether it would have even been worthwhile after all. And one of the recurring reasons he keeps feeling burdened by is his own inability to express what he wants to. For him, it’s like squeezing the universe into a ball––how feasible is that? The reader is smacked directly with the feeling in Prufrock’s final frustrated exclamation: it’s impossible to say what he means. The expression of impossibility, however, does not mean resignation––on the contrary, Prufrock is frantic, perhaps even desperate, to get out of the wordlessness he finds he has sunk into. He can’t express himself and he can’t escape it but he wants to get out of it with all of his being. This feeling changes later for Eliot:

East Coker 


“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years––

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres––

Trying to learn how to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate––but there is not competition––

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Instead of wordlessness being an inescapable horror, some kind of prison in which we’re trapped, lacking speech is more peaceful—or at least not worth our desperation. Instead of kicking and screaming for his inarticulacy to be heard, like Prufrock does, the narrator of East Coker is reconciled to his inability to express. For him, there’s nothing frantic about it—no need to fight, no need to rage. This resignation exists in the midst of a sense of inadequacy: there are other men who have conquered in ways he does not aspire to, men who have already made the conquests that can be made. What is there left to discover? Nothing, it seems. What is there left to fight for? Well, there we have a goal: he strives to regain what has been lost. Is he hopeful about his inarticulacy? The narrator does not express strong hope, nor anything like a resolution. Rather, he questions whether there really was ever any competition at all, whether it was ever legitimate to compare himself to the men who conquered—maybe it wasn’t, maybe it isn’t. He starts to approach the struggle with neither hope nor desperation, instead asserting that the trying is all that really matters, all that we should be concerned with. The conquests of others, the feeling of inability to articulate words when we want to and how we want to—all of that is not our business. Our business is to try.

Why bother with all this close reading of difficult modern poetry? My one word answer would be this: articulacy. Over the past few years I’ve often been at a loss for words: I longed to be reunited with people I loved, I felt the pain of severed ties that once were strong, I buckled under fears and doubts and seemingly unanswerable questions. And it’s never been a contented loss for words—it’s been a longing, sometimes almost a rage for description, occasioned by my choking inability to put speech my feelings. I’m wracked with doubt and fear and grief and desire—there are things I just couldn’t go without saying if I wasn’t forced to leave them be. But I am forced to go without saying them—forced to go on without being able to put words to them by virtue of my own inarticulacy.

This sense of inability grows the closer I get to the end of this semester. This mainly hurts because I’m finishing the classics program I’ve been engrained in, raised in, nourished in since I set foot on my college campus. All of my classes and many of my responsibilities have changed drastically from semester to semester—but amidst the fluctuations I’ve been discussing books with the same group of people almost every week since two and half years ago. Next week I’ll have my last discussion with them ever. I’ll finish my credits for the program and leave behind the constancy I’ve enjoyed since day one of college. My summer plans are uncertain. My dear friends are graduating and leaving me in a matter of weeks. And my idea of what I’ll do after graduating in December is hazy at my best moments. I don’t know what will happen or what I should, can, or will do—and it often freaks me out. I don’t know how I ought to feel, or how I can best seize the time I have left. The pangs and cries my heart beats out are incoherent, imprecise—and how can I make them clear? And the questions reverberating around my mind about what comes next in my life seem unanswerable—how can I decide?

Thanks be to God for T.S. Eliot. He reminds me that he too struggled and strove to speak, often without success. He reminds me that that’s not the point—that it’s not a game to win or lose. He reminds me that the imprecision remains. And the main thing he reminds me is that I can try—try to speak, try to step, and see where the words and the roads lead. Each new effort is a new failure—but at least it’s one failure closer to articulacy.


2 thoughts on “On Articulacy

  1. Ian, great post. And great word–inarticulacy. I’m instantly reminded of the fearful verses in Matt. 12:36-37, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

    But you’re not talking about careless words, but a careful wordlessness–just the opposite! This is the resolve expressed in Billy Joel’s ‘And So it Goes’:

    If my silence made you leave
    Then that would be my worst mistake
    So I will share this room with you
    And you can have this heart to break

    It’s the resolve to speak. And Christian speech includes two powerful genres: prayer and confession. Regarding prayer, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26) Even inarticulate words suffice in prayer. Regarding confession, “confess your sins and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (Jas. 5:16) The words are mere means to healing. And healing comes from God, not from others. Confession, whether articulate or not, is a demonstration of humility.

    Thanks, Ian! I’m encouraged to “try.”


    1. Jack, I think what you’re saying about prayer––rather, what Paul says about it––may just be the answer to inarticulacy, or at least something that can help us endure / work through / deal with the inability to express ourselves. I cannot express myself and it often infuriates me, but ultimately I do not need to for God to understand me. I may want to understand myself, or understand others, but I think I’ve been learning that ultimately only God does that. What’s inside can be brought out up to God by the groans of the Spirit. Philippians 4:6-7 talks about this, I think.

      I think there are unsounded depths I haven’t yet fathomed in the bit you mentioned about confession. I want to spend more time thinking about how confession relates to articulacy.

      Glad you were encouraged. 🙂


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