And now, the "Gradesaver Prufrock"!

 

What Happens When an Unreconstructed SHEC

Gets Hold of a Poem That Matters to You?

 

One of my English 219 students alerted me to the existence of an online "editing service" that will help you write an essay for an English course.

They will also help you with your college application essay, a term paper for a college course, or an honors thesis.

The name of the operation is GradeSaver. In addition to "helping" you with your essay or term paper, they provide you with notes to works commonly taught in literature courses.

These are called ClassicNotes.

They advertise ClassicNotes as "the ultimate study guide collection, written exclusively by Harvard students."

This presumably serves to authenticate their editing service, which they tell you is staffed by "skilled Harvard-educated editors."

If you are really in a hurry, GradeSaver will sell you their "Deluxe Editing Service," which will turn around the paper they "edit" for you within 24 hours, at the low low price of $30 a page.

Who are these "skilled Harvard-educated editors"?

What sort of work do they do?

Well, an idea can be gotten from the online ClassicNotes discussion of a poem we read in English 219, T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

The ClassicNotes consist of "summary" sections and "analysis" sections.

The "analysis" sections are quite amazing -- there is not only a mistake, but usually a howler, in virtually every sentence -- and even the summary sections get things seriously wrong most of the time.

I will give some examples of the ClassicNotes howlers below, but I cannot resist starting with the skilled Harvard-educated commentator's analysis of the ending of the poem, and in particular Prufrock's famous question to himself: "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

At this point in the poem, you may recall, Prufrock has faced the fact that he is never going to declare his passion to his lady-love. He imagines himself as an old man, walking along the beach, frail and dried up and never having really experienced life before descending into the grave.

Part of the way he imagines himself as being old has to do with the loosening of his teeth. In Prufrock's time, before there was modern dentistry, most people lost some or most of their teeth as they got older. Like stiffness of the limbs or shortening of sight, it was thought to be one of the inevitable consequences of aging.

Even older people who didn't lose their teeth almost invariably had some loosening of their teeth in the sockets -- like when you were a kid losing your first set of teeth and felt them going wobbly before you actually lost them.

That's what Prufrock is imagining. The reason he imagines a peach as something he might not "dare" to eat when old is that peaches contain pits -- if your teeth are loose, and if you bite into a peach thoughtlessly or unwarily, biting down on the pit of the peach can cost you a tooth.

Here we have, in a word, the meaning of Prufrock's "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

But that is not what the skilled Harvard-educated commentator of ClassicNotes makes of the line.

Far from it.

What the skilled Harvard-educated commentator of ClassicNotes thinks the peach is about is "female genitalia."

I am not making this up. Here's what he says: "The peach, through shape and texture, has long been a symbol for female genitalia." He then helpfully adds that "Prufrock's anxiety about eating a peach has much to do with his feelings of sexual inadequacy."

While we are right here at the end of the poem, let me note another howler perpetrated by our skilled Harvard-educated commentator.

In this part of the poem, Prufrock also thinks back to the recent time -- already half-mythical in his own memory -- when he thought he might have the courage to declare his love to his lady. The way he describes his imagined success is to say that he has seen himself "wreathed with seaweed, red and brown."

It would take too long to explain everything that's going on here -- i.e., why Prufrock, in thinking about his own past hopes and aspirations, sees himself as having been, figuratively, among mermaids (he is thinking about a Donne poem in which the speaker says, in a moment of bitter irony, "teach me to hear mermaids singing") -- but the essential point is that he is imagining himself (Prufrock) as being "wreathed with seaweed."

Our skilled Harvard-educated commentator does not, however, see things this way. What he gets out of the line is that the mermaids are wreathing themselves with seaweed. He thinks, in a word, that the seaweed is artificial hair used by the mermaids to piece out their own inadequate hairdos. Again, I am not making this up. He actually says this. It is about mermaids having a bad hair day.

Enough. Here is a tiny sampling of the howlers committed by our skilled Harvard-educated commentator as he blunders his myopic way through one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century:

1) Our skilled Harvard-educated commentator (hereinafter, SHEC) thinks that Prufrock is middle aged. (He is not middle aged. The whole meaning of the poem depends on his not being middle aged.)

2) When Prufrock sees the fog as a cat at the beginning of the poem, SHEC notes that "Prufrock's effeminacy emerges through the cat, as felines generally have feminine associations." (Ah. Q: is that why their genitalia are so often symbolized by peaches, one wonders?)

3) SHEC shares with us in one of his helpful summary sections the insight that "Prufrock walks through the streets and watches lonely men leaning out their windows." (Wrong. Prufrock is inside during the entire time of the poem. It is true that he thinks back to previous evenings when he walked through half-deserted streets, but that is not what SHEC is seeing here. SHEC is imagining that the Prufrock who exists right now is out there in those lonely streets.)

4) SHEC makes a sartorial comment about Prufrock's "plain, middle-aged clothing." (Wrong. Prufrock's dress is about as patrician as you can get. His clothing is the only thing about himself he has any confidence in. To cite Polonius, whom Prufrock echoes, it is apparel that is rich, though not gaudy. It is true that Prufrock inhabits a world where quiet good taste prohibits excessive ornamentation, but not to know that he's J. Press all the way (so to speak) is seriously to misunderstand the poem. Also, his clothing isn't middle-aged.)

5) Back to the ending. Poor SHEC imagines that Prufrock's vision of himself walking by the beach in rolled trousers is "a popular bohemian style at the time," and therefore "a pathetic attempt to ward off death." This is, SHEC elsewhere confides, an insight he picked up from a footnote in a Norton anthology. (It is wrong. Prufrock is imagining himself as an old man, and older people actually shrink due to spinal compression as they get on in years. But males of Prufrock's social class bought very good clothes, meant to last a lifetime, so Prufrock imagines himself as having to roll his trousers up to keep from tripping himself as he gets shorter and shorter with old age.)

There's more, lots more, but you've seen enough to suggest what kind of service you'd be getting -- at $30 a page -- from the skilled Harvard-educated staff there at GradeSavers.

Nonetheless, P.T. Barnum was clearly right when he said that no one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the American college student. (He actually said "American public," but he died before outfits like GradeSavers were advertising their services.)

The GradeSaver site is full of quotes from satisfied customers -- e.g., "This is the best service or commodity I have ever purchased for the price" -- who were apparently just thrilled to pay $30 a page for essays maintaining that, e.g., peaches are a symbol of female genitalia that symbolize Prufrock's sexual inadequacy.

Enough. I trust that Rutgers students would never think of using a "service" like GradeSaver in the first place -- the thinly-disguised appeal to academic and intellectual dishonesty glimmers forth from their site as from a rotting corpse -- but if we do have a few such wretched souls among us, mere self-interest should encourage them to keep looking until they find a service that isn't staffed by utter imbeciles, especially (on the evidence) ones educated at Harvard.

Meanwhile, far from Harvard, at humble Georgetown College in Kentucky, close reading lives on. Another of my students alerted me to a splendid page on Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," another poem we read in English 219, that was put up by Professor Rosemary Allen for her students.

Professor Allen got her Ph.D from Vanderbilt, which is where great literary critics like Cleanth Brooks and Randall Jarrell went to school, so it is perhaps not surprising that she knows how to read Donne. Perhaps Harvard could work out an exchange program where it sent its English majors down to Vanderbilt for a semester, to learn how to read poems, and then they could come back up to Harvard to learn about peaches and female genitalia.