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British poet T. S. Eliot initially published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915; he later used it as the title poem in his influential 1917 collection Prufrock and Other Observations. The poem is a dramatic monologue in which the gloomy speaker expresses his inner worries and obsessions as well as his hesitations and regrets in love relationships.
A literary movement that saw writers experimenting with form and delving into the alienation, loneliness, and uncertainty of life at the start of the 20th century, modernism is seen to have its roots in this novel, which is regarded as one of its defining works.
About the poet
Thomas Stearns Eliot was a poet, writer, publisher, dramatist, literary critic, and editor who lived from 26 September 1888 to 4 January 1965. He is regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century and a central figure in English-language Modernism poetry. He emigrated to England at the age of 25 from his Boston Brahmin family’s birthplace in St. Louis, Missouri.
His 1915 poetry “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which was seen as outrageous at the time of its publication, is what originally garnered him significant notoriety. Also, he was well-known for seven plays, including The Cocktail Party and Murder in the Cathedral (1935). (1949). He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 for his extraordinary, ground-breaking contributions to modern poetry.
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse A persona che mai tornasse al mondo, Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse. Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero, Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
This poem’s epigraph is a six-line passage by Dante Alighieri, an Italian Renaissance poet, from Inferno Canto 27. The phrase is said by a character in the eighth circle of hell, where some of the worst of the worst are imprisoned for all time. The remark implies that Dante is interested in learning how Guido came to be so far buried in Hell, while Guido is self-centered.
This remark implies that Dante is interested in learning how Guido came to be so far buried in Hell, yet Guido is self-centered. Eliot’s poem “Prufrock” features Guido as the main character. He is worried that the terrible things he did would be discovered by people back on Earth, but he feels it is okay to share his narrative because Dante is imprisoned in Hell.
His entire essence is only a “flame” that “moves” when he speaks because he doesn’t even have a physical body in Hell. Before committing his horrific acts of violence in battle, Guido asked forgiveness from others. Eliot uses this quotation as the poem’s epigraph to imply that Prufrock may not be a poem about decent people after all, but rather about evil people who appear to be good. Prufrock will tell us things because he believes we won’t get a chance to repeat them to others.
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.
The poetry “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” gives the reader an indication in its first line that it should be interpreted as an introspective, dramatic monologue. Also, it gives the reader the impression that the narrator is speaking to a different individual and that what he is saying is a mirror of himself.
With his use of economic terminology, Eliot creates a scene that provides us with a brief glimpse of a planet that appears to be mainly unpopulated. The exact significance of the first sentence, however, has puzzled scholars.
Although the relationship between Prufrock and Eliot is what is symbolized in the poem, “you and I” depict the separation between Prufrock’s own nature. In the same way, the word “Prufrock” has come to represent both everything and nothing at all—Prufrock is a clever, absurd guy who has been stifled by the literary community and its bluestockings.
In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.
J. Prufrock’s disconnection from society is shown in J. Prufrock and the Ladies’ Talking of Michelangelo. When Prufrock combines them into one group, the attention on Michelangelo works to make them seem lifeless.
With this, the scenario is established at a party, and Prufrock is left to fend for himself as an island in the sea of academics, surviving on a thin veneer of sophistication and pointless talks. Due to his extreme disconnection from society, Prufrock appears to be practically a ghostly figure.
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.
Despite the fact that the cat is missing, any reader can easily see the yellow fog as a cat. The cat’s disintegration may also represent Prufrock’s mental disintegration, fear of taking a chance, and hope of taking a chance on his interest in women.
Fragmentation is a Modernist literary device that had never previously been used and was probably not well appreciated by the high society of the literary elite. Eliot’s poem is debated for its fragmentation since it has a variety of arguments that seem to have no end. J. Alfred Prufrock and his environment are open to nearly any interpretation and perspective.
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.
A broken-in society is presented through Prufrock’s fragmentation process, which emphasizes the outside world. His hesitancy and expression of it quicken the poem’s speed and give it an anxious, hurried, skittering sensation. The term “time” is overused, which makes it meaningless and makes the reader uneasy.
Instead of lessening the reader’s awareness of the passing of time, the recurrence of the world increases it. The poem might be seen as the hurried pace of daily life, which assumes that there will always be enough time.
In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.
The reader is reminded of the location in the verse. This line brings the poem to a screeching halt and implies that time is only speeding up in Prufrock’s imagination and not physically.
Moreover, it reinforces the notion that the discourse should be light, airy, and emotionless because Prufrock is the only one who appears to have feelings and ideas, whereas Michelangelo is just used as a catch-all for pointless things. This implies that Prufrock is not a part of the conversation or the world and that the conversation is merely 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.
In this stanza, Prufrock’s feelings are fully expressed as he tries to persuade himself not to take immediate action. He is on the outside looking in, contemplating whether or not to attend the gathering where other guests are engaged in talks that do not concern him.
His morning coat, a collar that is buttoned to his chin, necktie, and slender arms and legs are just partially visible. Although his bald patch suggests that he is middle-aged, it serves more as a metaphor for his humiliation and anxiety than as a physical description. Prufrock may be anywhere; there is no sign that he ever leaves his perspective on the gathering.
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?
According to Prufrock’s remark, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” he leads a lonely, workaholic life that is predictable and exacting and is not prone to making choices that are outside of his comfort zone. Prufrock is possibly the most insecure guy to have ever lived, convincing himself not to do what he wants but to stay firm and distant, gazing into a world that he is not a part of. The statement “for I have known them all already, known them all” helps to explain this.
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?
Due to his awareness of “all already” and the fact that he is already well-known, Prufrock lacks the ability to talk with presumption. He is now prevented from doing anything by the words “sprawling on a pin/ when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,” and the fragmentation of people—the notion that everyone save Prufrock is a ghostly reimagining—is the only thing he permits himself to consider.
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?
It is clear that Prufrock struggled with how to approach the lady at the poem’s core. He is self-aware enough to see that trying to hold back would not make him happy, yet he is at a loss for words when it comes to expressing how much he matters to her.
He is afraid to talk to the ladies he sees because he believes he won’t be able to express his emotions well and believes they won’t be interested in him. He is held back by his terrible shyness and insecurity.
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’ may very well be a fairly overt allegory for Prufrock’s own predicament. The world is also described as being unusually desolate, living solely in the darkness and smoke.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
Prufrock is reduced to an animal at the bottom of the water, but what is tormenting him is his sense of his own loneliness. An animal at the bottom of the ocean wouldn’t be conscious, thus it wouldn’t feel timid or insecure. Prufrock is tormented by the knowledge of his own loneliness.
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.
Here, Prufrock’s command of the English language is arguably best highlighted. He clearly understands how to speak, at least in his own head, as can be seen. He is only being stopped by the anguish of expressing his feelings.
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.”
In his fantasy, Prufrock imagines himself as Lazarus who has risen from the grave and has changed his mind, and gone to speak to the woman who is the subject of the poem. According to David Spurr, claiming to be a prophet and saying that one has “come back to tell you all” suggests that one has the ability to condense the entire cosmos into a ball using language. When language and purpose are combined, they do so in such a bombastic way that the eventual breakdown of speech seems inevitable.
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.”
This imagery has such a romantic overtone that it appears nearly impossible for Prufrock to be unsure of how to approach the woman at the poem’s core, yet we are clearly aware that there is still no feeling of movement in the poem as a whole. At this time, Prufrock almost makes an attempt to talk to the two women who serve as the poem’s central focus.
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.
The speaker’s inability to grasp language is a reflection of their own helplessness. This lack of language proficiency results in a reflection on the speaker’s own impotence rather than a claim about the inadequateness of words in and of themselves.
Failure with words is losing the battle against the illiterate in poetry that is so preoccupied with speech and definition: the speaker, who was once heroic Lazarus or Prince Hamlet, is suddenly relegated to the status 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.
In the next few lines, Prufrock’s hatred and fury are completely destroyed. By building up a ridiculous image in the reader’s mind that we could begin to share in his own perception of himself, he avoids the difficulty of stating his views and continues to undermine his own confidence.
Women, represented by the mermaids, are also there and have the potential to destroy Prufrock’s civilization. Prufrock wonders if he has the courage to eat a peach since he sees himself as wretched and elderly, wearing white flannel trousers and being forced to idleness.