Field Notes


In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the young T.S. Eliot famously wrote: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." But do these claws belong to a lobster or a crab? Or neither?

This spring, a long overdue literary debate on this question finally took place. In his recent, heavily annotated edition of Eliot juvenilia, Inventions of the March Hare (Harcourt Brace), Boston University English professor Christopher Ricks opted for the crab reading. But Richard Poirier begged to differ. Reviewing Ricks's volume in The New Republic, the eminent literary critic (and New England native) noted that "crabs are endowed only with rudimentary claws, when they have them at all," and concluded that "these are most likely the claws specifically of a Maine lobster." He also took issue with the relevance and chronology of Ricks's annotations.

Ricks was not about to let Poirier's challenge go unanswered. "Like many other people," he replied in a letter to TNR, "I find 'scuttling' to be particularly evocative of a crab--lobsters don't much go in for scuttling." More pointedly, he accused Poirier of "willingly ignoring or distorting the plain evidence that plenty of readers before me here have seen a crab in their mind's eye."

Clearly, the matter needs further clarification. Accordingly, Lingua Franca asked a number of critics and scholars for their thoughts.

Louis Menand, professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center: "Definitely lobster. The correct association is with the following sentence in the chapter on Gérard de Nerval in Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), Eliot's introduction to the French poets: 'One day, he was found in the Palais-Royal, leading a lobster at the end of a blue ribbon (because, he said, it does not bark, and knows the secrets of the sea).' (This was too bizarre even for the French: Nerval was promptly institutionalized.)

"The famous black melancholy of Nerval was one of the moods Eliot clearly set out to reproduce in his poem, for he ends it with an extended riff on a line from Nerval's sonnet 'El Desdichado' (1854): 'J'ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage la sirène....' (Eliot appropriated another line outright from the same poem ten years later for the cadenza in The Waste Land: 'Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie.') The romantic identification in Symons's anecdote of the poet with the lobster--the creature from another element being paraded unhappily about on a leash--must have been too delicious for Eliot not to try to work into his poem.

"Crab claws are too prehensile anyway for the sexual misery 'Prufrock' means to evoke and not nearly funny enough. Lobster claws (and note that Eliot names only claws: do not synecdochize him too quickly!) are a witty variation on Tennyson's super-eroticized hands in In Memoriam: swollen with longing but clumsy and vaguely mutant, desiring but undesired. Why would we want to give all these associations up for an everyday trope like a crab?"

Claude Rawson, professor of English at Yale University: "I think it's almost certain that Eliot was thinking of a crab. After all, the poem invokes Prince Hamlet, who once spun a crab metaphor of his own: 'For you yourself, sir, should be as old as I am--if, like a crab, you could go backward.' Furthermore, the crab is so much a twentieth-century image of self-disgust: It's the animal in Sartre's La Nausée and a kind of emotional lingua franca for a certain sense of horror and self-abasement. If you look at the twentieth-century imagination, crabs are what comes to mind."

Marjorie Perloff, professor of English at Stanford University: "I've always thought it was a crab: I think there Ricks is right. This debate is a symptom of the fight over Eliot between the British and the Americans. I'm usually on the American side because the British have a strange way of neglecting the American. But lobsters don't scuttle across the floors of silent seas do they? I'm very bad on crustaceans."

Nicholas Jenkins, assistant professor of English at Harvard University: "It's always good to see poetry inspiring passion, even if the passion here seems as much for the academic equivalent of arm wrestling or distance spitting as literary hermeneutics. In other circumstances, I feel sure that these two wonderful and athletic readers would clasp hands and agree that poetic language doesn't really operate at this literalistic level and that the fascination of these lines by Eliot has to do with the linguistic energies contained in words like 'ragged' and 'scuttling,' with the question of why 'across' here is infinitely richer than 'on' or 'over' would have been, with the relation of 'claws' to Prufrock's evident sexual obsession with fingers, sleeves, and arms and to Eliot's own lifelong obsession with drowning and the unknowable nature of the undersea world. In some ways, it's extremely important for the reader to be capable, in Keats's phrase, of 'being in uncertainties...without reaching after fact,' of not getting distracted, of not bothering with what mysterious submarine creature it is exactly or even to think that one can, or ought, to say, Is it a crab? Or a lobster? I'd call that a red herring."

Helen Vendler, University Professor at Harvard University: "It isn't either. You're not supposed to envision an animal, you're supposed to envision a scuttle. Poets don't give you more than you need to use to understand the feeling they want to convey."

Copyright © 1997 Lingua Franca,Inc. All rights reserved.