The initial reception to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, can be summed up in a contemporary review published in The Times Literary Supplement, on the 21st of June 1917. The anonymous reviewer wrote: “The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry.” There appears to be a trend among the literary elite of bashing poetry that will later become to be renowned as innovative in its field, or heralding change within the realm of poetry. ‘Prufrock’, as it is more commonly known, is definitely one of the latter: although initially hated, as can be evidenced by the above comment, it has since gone one to be considered by scholars as the onset of Modernist poetry, replacing the Romantic and the Georgian rhymes that had dominated Europe, and perhaps one of the most exclusively American methods of writing.
T.S. Eliot started writing ‘Prufrock’ in 1910. It was published in the 1915 issue of ‘Poetry: A Magazine of Verse’, one of the leading monthly poetry journals in the English-speaking world, which was founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, and remains in circulation today.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Summary
It isn’t easy to decide what Prufrock is about; the fragmented poetic landscape of T.S. Eliot’s writing make it difficult to pin down one exact feeling within The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. However, at its most simplistic, ‘Prufrock’ is the inner monologue of a city gentleman who is stricken by feelings of isolation and inadequacy, and an incapability of taking decisive action. It is considered one of the most visceral, emotional poems, and remains relevant today, particularly with millennials who are more than a little bit used to these feelings.
It is a variation on the dramatic monologue, a type of writing which was very popular from around 1757 to 1922. Examples of dramatic monologue include Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time), Henry James (Portrait of a Lady), Robert Browning (Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister), and the most infamous of all, James Joyce (Ulysses), for which the term ‘stream of consciousness’ writing was invented. ‘Prufrock’ is an early prototype of the ‘stream of consciousness’ writing, although it leans far more towards Browning than Joyce.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
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.
Although it might seem ludicrous to apply the label to a 140-line poem, Eliot’s careful word-usage and his economization of language means that every flicker of symbolism is important. The opening line ‘Let us go then, you and I’ provides the reader with a hint that the poem needs to be read as an internalized monologue – it gives us the idea that the narrator is speaking to another person, and thus what is being said is a reflection of his own personality. In this case, the personality of Alfred J. Prufrock is one that’s pedantic, slightly miserable (‘like a patient etherized upon a table’), and focused mainly on the negatives (‘restless nights in one-night cheap hotels’). Note the emptiness of the world: ‘oyster-shells’, ‘sawdust restaurants’; everything is impermanent, everything is about to dissolve into nothing. The world is transitory, half-broken, unpopulated, and about to collapse.
The setting that Eliot paints, in his economic language, gives us a half-second glance at a world that seems largely unpopulated. Note that he does not mention anyone else in the poem, lending it an air of post-apocalyptic silence, though it is left ambiguous whether it is the world that is actually this way, or Prufrock’s miserable nature that is painting it in such a manner.
To that point, please note the use of the name ‘Prufrock’ – the very name implies a pedantic character.
Scholars, however, have been undecided on the true nature of what the first line means. Perrine believes that ‘you and I’ shows the division between Prufrock’s own nature; Mutlu Konuk Blasing suggests that it is the relationship between Prufrock and Eliot that is represented in the poem. Similarly, the name of ‘Prufrock’ has been taken to symbolize both everything – Prufrock as an intelligent, farcical character, emasculated by the literary world and its bluestockings – and nothing at all – Prufrock as part of Prufrock-Litton, a furniture store in Missouri, where T.S. Eliot grew up.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Finally there is a presence in the poem besides the voice of J. Prufrock – the women talking of Michelangelo. Though they are a living presence, the focus on ‘Michelangelo’ actually serves to deaden them; they exist in the poem as a series of conversations, which Prufrock lumps into one category by calling them ‘the women’. It sets the scene at a party, and simultaneously sets Prufrock on his own: an island in the sea of academia, floating along on light sophistication and empty conversations. Prufrock is removed from the world of people, seeming almost a spirit, so acute is his distance from the rest of society.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
Critics are divided as to the symbolism of the yellow smog. Michael North wrote, “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes” appears clearly to every reader as a cat, but the cat itself is absent, represented explicitly only in parts — back, muzzle, tongue — and by its actions — licking, slipping, leaping, curling. The metaphor has in a sense been hollowed out to be replaced by a series of metonyms, and thus it stands as a rhetorical introduction to what follows.” Metonym, according to Terry Eagleton, is the sum of parts – in this poem, the ‘cat’ that is made by the yellow fog is fragmented and ghostly. It is never explicitly stated to be a cat, but hinted at.
The fragmentation of the cat could also symbolize the fragmentation of Prufrock’s psyche; the very schism that is leading him to have this conversation, his hope of risking, and his terror of risking, his interest in women, and his terror of them. Much like the cat, Prufrock is on the outside looking in at a world that has not been prepared for him.
This fragmentation can also be applied to the earlier reference to ‘the women’, which are not really described in any way, but are instead considered by the sum of their parts in conversation – they only exist because they are ‘talking of Michelangelo’.
Furthermore, fragmentation is a Modernist technique, which had not since been seen before in literature, and was probably not very well received by the high circle of literary elite. Modernist poets and writers believed that their artistry should mirror the chaotic world that they lived in; seldom is meaning, in the real world, parcelled up and handed over in whole parts. But in pieces. This is why the poem is so significantly argued over: the very fragmentation that Eliot wrote for it is the wealth of a seemingly inexhaustible source of reasonings. One can take almost any approach, any assignation of meaning, to J. Prufrock and his world. One can make their own meaning from the clues that are provided by Eliot’s writing.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
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.
Note again the very same process of fragmentation providing a broken-in society, a patchwork view of humanity that only serves to populate the poem with more emptiness. Prufrock’s distance from contemporary society reflects itself in this fragmentation; he reduces people to the sum of their parts, and thus by doing so, empties the world of others.
Prufrock’s indecisiveness, and his stating thereof, does not quite stop the poem, but rather, increases its pace. By focusing on ‘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 our plate; time for you and time for me, / and time yet for a hundred indecisions’ he actually creates a nervous, hasty, skittering feeling to the poem. The overuse of the word ‘time’ both renders it meaningless, and lends the reader a state of anxiety, that no matter how much Prufrock focuses on time, he can never quite have enough to achieve his goals. The sense of time, time, time, presses upon the reader, and the repetition of the world in fact makes the reader more conscious of the passing of the minutes, rather than less. It can be therefore read as the hasty rush of daily life, that no matter how much time there is, no matter how one thinks about it, there is always going to be enough.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
And in the next stanza, time slows down again: ‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’. While it also serves to remind the reader of the setting, this phrase stops the poem in mire. Despite the fact that time is rushing in the last stanza, here time has slowed down; nothing has changed, nothing is quick. Therefore, can it be considered that time is only quickening in Prufrock’s head, that his worries are accelerating time in his own head, but not temporally? It could certainly be seen as another idea to the you-I schism.
This line also serves to enforce the idea of keeping conversation light, airy, and without feeling. Thus, Prufrock alone seems to have feelings, thoughts; Michelangelo, here, is used as a placeholder for meaningless things. It could have been replaced with a hundred other things, and the effect would have still been the same: Prufrock is external to the conversation, external to the world, and the conversation therefore is reduced to nothing more than a word.
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 —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Prufrock’s overwhelming emotions come to full appearance in this stanza: we can take his insistence that ‘there is time’ as an attempt to convince himself that there is no need to rush into action (even though, as stated before, the repetition of the word ‘time’ renders it almost the opposite). Here, we are also shown what Prufrock is doing: he is outside looking in (again, the pervasive symbolism of the fog-cat), and trying to decide whether or not to enter this party where other people are concerned with conversations that do not apply to him (‘in the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo’). This is the crux of Prufrock’s emotions: emasculation, terror of the unknown, and an indecisiveness to whether or not he should dare. ‘Do I dare / Disturb the universe?’ asks Prufrock, and then reassures himself again that ‘in a minute, there is time’, once more giving his decision a sense of heightened anxiety.
It is interesting to know that Prufrock himself is fragmented: we do not have a complete image of him, but a half-image of his morning coat, and the collar buttoned to his chin, a modest necktie, and thin arms and legs. The bald patch implies that he’s middle aged, but it is more given as a symbolic measure of his embarrassment and nerves than it is as a physical descriptor.
J. Hillis Miller had an interesting point to make about the temporality of Prufrock, and whether or not Prufrock actually manages to make himself go somewhere. He wrote: “In another sense Prufrock would be unable to go anywhere, however hard he tried. If all space has been assimilated into his mind, then spatial movement would really be movement in the same place, like a man running in a dream. There is no way to distinguish between actual movement and imaginary movement.” We can see his point in this poem: there is no indication that Prufrock ever leaves whatever view he has of the party. He could be anywhere, we are not told where he is. We are told only that there is ‘time’.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
Once more, evidence of the passing of time gives us the idea that Prufrock is one of those men who drinks about sixteen coffees a day. ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’, implies a solitary, workaholic existence, implies that there is no other marker in his life with which to measure, that he is routine and fastidious and not prone to making decisions outside of his comfort zone.
Also, the line ‘for I have known them all already, known them all’ helps us again to understand the Prufrock is perhaps the most insecure man to ever walk the planet. He convinces himself not to act on what he wants – which, presumably, is to go to the party – but to remain steadfast and distant, looking into a world that he is not part of.
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
Mutlu Konuk Blasing wrote: “Prufrock does not know how to presume to begin to speak, both because he knows “all already”—this is the burden of his lament—and because he is already known, formulated.”
The phrase ‘sprawling on a pin / when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,’ shows the inactivity that currently thwarts Prufrock, shows the way he is suspended in animation, and in time. Once more, there is the fragmentation of people, the idea that everyone but Prufrock is a ghostly reimagining, the only thing that he allows himself to think of, the only important thing to Prufrock.
And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
Prufrock’s agony over addressing the woman at the centre of the poem is evident here: he knows that she exists, he knows who she is, he thinks of her in terms of arms and eyes and bracelets, but he cannot approach her. ‘Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?’ Prufrock is self-aware enough to know that his attempt of keeping back will not make him happy, but he has no idea where to begin articulating what he means to the woman at the centre of his thoughts.
He is terrified to speak to the women he sees because he feels he will not be able to articulate his feelings well enough, he does not think that they will be interested in him, and his crippling shyness and insecurity therefore keeps him back.
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
‘Lonely men’ could very well symbolize, in a very overt way, Prufrock’s own situation.
Also, the description provided of the world is characteristically bleak, existing only in dusk and smoke.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
Prufrock reduces himself to an animal, lived-in and alone, sheltered at the bottom of the dark ocean. An astute reader might point out that his existence, as it is expressed in the poem, is not much different, but for one thing: Prufrock’s awareness of his own loneliness is what is causing him torment. An animal at the bottom of the ocean – an inanimate object like a ‘pair of ragged claws’ would not be aware, and therefore would not be insecure, and would not be shy.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
Prufrock’s skill with language is perhaps brought best to the forefront here. We can see that he knows very well how to speak – in his own mind. It is just the trauma of voicing aloud these thoughts that is stopping him.
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,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
Paired back to one of the earlier stanzas, here is another set of words that are almost violent: ‘to have bitten off the matter with a smile / to have squeezed the universe into a ball’. Here, Prufrock fantasises that he has had a change of heart, and gone to speak to the woman at the centre of the poem, picturing himself as Lazarus (thus showing both academic and biblical learning) come back from the dead, i.e. Prufrock overcoming his crippling shyness.
David Spurr wrote, on these lines in particular: “To have “bitten off” the matter, in addition to its hint of blunt force, would constitute a positive reaction against endlessly idle talk; squeezing the universe into a ball would counteract the world’s tendency to fall apart and to spread itself out like yellow fog; finally, the act of rolling it toward some overwhelming question at least imparts direction to the movement of the universe, even if the actual destination, like the question, remains unclear. The idea of proclaiming oneself a prophet “come back to tell you all” implies a power of linguistic discourse equal in magnitude to the physical act of squeezing the universe into a ball. Once more the idea of language joins with images of purpose, only this time in such hyperbolic fashion that the ultimate failure of discourse strikes one as inevitable: “That is not what I meant at all.””
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!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
There is such a romantic overtone to this imagery that it seems almost impossible for Prufrock not to know how to approach the woman at the centre of the poem; however, we know very well that there is still no sense of movement within the poem itself. At this point, Prufrock almost seems to have raised his spirits enough to attempt to speak to the women at the centre of the pome.
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
And then he loses the urge, once more, reduces himself again to the part of the fool, shrinking himself down from the heroic stature that he has built up in the previous two stanzas – that of Lazarus, and Prince Hamlet, romantic and wordy and good at speaking his mind – to a fraction of his former self.
From the same David Spurr: “The speaker’s failure to master language–“It is impossible to say just what I mean!”–leads in this case not to a statement on the inadequacy of words themselves, but rather reflects upon the speaker’s own impotence. In a poem so obsessed with problems of speech and definition, to have failed with words is to have lost the war on the inarticulate: the speaker as heroic Lazarus or Prince Hamlet is suddenly reduced to the stature of an attendant lord.”
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Prufrock’s fire and fury and rage, the most ardent emotions that were present in the last few stanzas, are reduced now to nothing. Once more, he shrinks away from the challenge of speaking his mind, of speaking to the woman, and continues to destroy his own fledgling self-confidence by creating an imagery in the reader’s mind so absurd that we perhaps start to share in his own view of himself. Once more, there’s the presence of women – unattainable women, in this case symbolized by the mermaids, with the power to ruin Prufrock’s entire world (‘till human voices wake us, and we drown’), and there is the imagery of Prufrock viewing himself, now miserable and old, white-flannel trousers, reduced to the inactivity that is rendered throughout the poem in such a way that he wonders ‘do I dare to eat a peach?’
Eliot’s poem can be sourced from his book Collected Poems 1909-1962 and also viewed in full here. Roger Mitchell wrote, on this poem: “J. Alfred Prufrock is not just the speaker of one of Eliot’s poems. He is the Representative Man of early Modernism. Shy, cultivated, oversensitive, sexually retarded (many have said impotent), ruminative, isolated, self-aware to the point of solipsism, as he says, “Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two.” Nothing revealed the Victorian upper classes in Western society more accurately, unless it was a novel by Henry James, and nothing better exposed the dreamy, insubstantial center of that consciousness than a half-dozen poems in Eliot’s first book. The speakers of all these early poems are trapped inside their own excessive alertness. They look out on the world from deep inside some private cave of feeling, and though they see the world and themselves with unflattering exactness, they cannot or will not do anything about their dilemma and finally fall back on self-serving explanation. They quake before the world, and their only revenge is to be alert. After Prufrock and Other Observations, poetry started coming from the city and from the intellect. It could no longer stand comfortably on its old post-Romantic ground, ecstatic before the natural world.”
This poem was set to music, and became a six-movement act. It has since been immortalized in popular culture in everything from books to Simpsons episodes.