The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Framed as a late-night stroll through a nocturnal cityscape, The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock actually offers an examination of the eponymous persona’s psyche, as he struggles to locate a stable sense of certainty amid his changing and increasingly unfamiliar world.
Though the exact meaning of the opening epigraph is a matter of interpretation, that it is taken from Dante’s Inferno reflects Eliot’s intention for the poem: Inferno follows its composer’s descent through the circles of Hell. By including it at the start of his poem, Eliot is establishing that his protagonist will similarly travel through a tortured existence. The famous opening line, ‘Let us go then, you and I,’ begins that journey, and while the imagery ‘When the evening is spread out against the sky’ is Romantic in its beauty, the use of simile in ‘Like a patient etherised against a table’ adds injects that beauty with an element of the disturbing, conveying Eliot’s distaste for modernity. The next stanza, from ‘The muttering retreats’ to ‘Let us go and make our visit,’ is underpinned by a tone of shame and agitation; the persona describes scenes that are unwelcoming and unappealing but urges us to follow him anyway as he guides us through his psyche. With ‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,’ Prufrock reveals his carnal desires, as well as his insecurities, in that the Renaissance artist works as a standard by which Prufrock measures his own intellect and masculinity. Indeed, this scene works to highlight the extent to which Prufrock feels alienated from society.
While the metaphor of the fog that follows is obviously a reference to the pollution created by modernity, the colour symbolism of it being yellow emphasises its toxicity, and may in turn be more of a statement on Prufrock’s character, in light of his aforementioned insecurity. The fog is presented as being seductive and alluring through Eliot’s use of cat-like imagery. Taken with Prufrock’s established anxiety, it is then clear that he is somewhat drawn to the sense of comfort his indecision provides him with, which is affirmed through the repetition of the phrase ‘And indeed there will be time / There will be time, there will be time.’ The imagery ‘To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’ then highlights the superficiality of modern life, which can be assumed to contribute to Prufrock’s anxiety. The metaphysical imagery that follows further reflects his procrastination, as he attempts to identify the seemingly limitless opportunities he will have to assert himself.
‘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.’
reflects the paralysing, frantic energy that has consumed Prufrock by this point, as the high intensity rhyming scheme in ‘indecisions, / … visions and revisions’ is resolved by the trivial imagery ‘Before the taking of a toast and tea,’ by which Prufrock attempts to shy away from the looming sense of confrontation and return to the allure of social isolation. The repeated rhetorical question, ‘Do I date?’ and ‘Do I dare?’ encapsulates that internal conflict.
The reasons for Prufrock’s insecurity are alluded to in his self-description ‘With a bald spot in the middle of my hair’ and the following line ‘(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’). Essentially, Prufrock reveals that he fears being judged by others. That fear is further explored throughout the rest of that stanza. The way in which Prufrock internalises his worries and catastrophises them is demonstrated in the metaphysical imagery ‘Do I dare / Disturb the universe?’ The repetition of the line ‘For I have known them all already, known them all’ infers the persona’s desperation to regain some sense of stability. Such is continued in ‘Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons.’ However, the reduction of the years of his life into the symbol of ‘coffee spoons’ speaks to his enduring tendency to shy away from the challenge social interaction presents to him.
As such, the repetition of the line ‘voices dying with a dying fall’ reflects Prufrock’s fear that others may be talking about him when he is out of earshot – that their judgement is inescapable. That sense of paranoia and judgement is furthered through the symbol of ‘the eyes.’ ‘When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall’ adds to the image of Prufrock being placed under observation by society, just as an insect would be by a scientist.
The next stanza, beginning with ‘And I have known the arms already, known them all – / Arms that are braceleted and white and bare’ offers a description of the women Prufrock lusts after. His objectification of the women, reflected through his disembodied descriptions of features of their bodies, reflects his aversion to social interaction, and in turn his attempt to compartmentalise it to make the whole experience more tolerable for himself. The repetition of the rhetorical questions ‘And how should I then presume? / And how should I begin?’ thus crystallises the paralysing sense of fear and insecurity Prufrock experiences at this point.
The return to images reminiscent of the poem’s opening, if not a little more inviting and friendlier, represent Prufrock’s attempts to find shelter in memories that provide him with comfort. While he does describe his insecurity, evident in ‘I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,’ and the imagery ‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,’ it is this moment of pause that allows him to confront the truth: ‘in short, I was afraid.’
There is then a slow-build up as Prufrock readies himself to confront the woman. But, perhaps inevitably, there is no resolution to the climax. Instead, the persona, through the metaphor ‘But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen’ affirms his greatest fear to himself: that his insecurity would be exposed for all to see – that he would be rejected.
As such, the next few stanzas that form the conclusion of the poem serve as an opportunity for Prufrock to reflect on his life, now that he has essentially admitted to himself that he is destined to be restrained by his inescapable fear of rejection. He draws on literary allusions to emphasise his contrasting lack of greatness and utilises images of ageing and wasting away to stress that he is away and that he is not taking full advantage of the time afforded to him. Accordingly, the poem’s final line, ‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’ Affirms the extent to which this is Prufrock’s inescapable destiny.
‘Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, / I have measured out my life in coffee spoons’
individual’s negotiation with the world
‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’
‘To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’
visual imagery, repetition