The epigraph alluded to from Dante's Inferno is a response to the question, "Who are you?" This question is a major theme of the poem. Guido da Montefeltro, a corrupt Franciscan, identifies himself to Dante, basing his self-revelation on confidence that no one else will discover his identity. Montefeltro will conditionally answer the question, "Who are you?," but to this "overwhelming question," Prufrock will only snap, "do not ask, 'What is it?'" (11-12).
Prufrock's characterization explains his fear that his true self will be revealed to the ladies at the tea party he is about to attend. No master of small talk, he repeatedly wonders how-and why-he should begin to talk about his unexciting life (54, 60, 61, 68, 69). He wants to sound important, but what will he say if a lady expects him to talk about himself? Any revelation about him could bring indifferent rejection. He is certain that the ladies will not care about "the butt-ends of my days and ways," fearing that when he shares part of himself with another, she will be uninterested in his life (60).
The introspective Prufrock is afraid of being exposed at the tea party because he does not see himself as a worthwhile individual. He fears that the ladies will mock his thin hair (symbolizing an unimpressive mind) and his thin arms and legs (symbolizing an unimpressive body). His self-focus is pathetically ironic because he is mostly unnoticed by the ladies at the tea party. He wonders if he will dare "disturb the universe" and show his true self, but twice a brisk couplet slices his monologues (47). The women "come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo" (13-14; 35-36), and miss Prufrock's moment of greatness, which was, sadly, only a "flicker" (84). As he describes how he sees himself-and how he thinks others see him-he succinctly sums up his feelings towards self-revelation, "[a]nd in short, I was afraid" (86).
Admittedly, Eliot's vivid imagery reveals that Prufrock's life is not a heroic epic. He recognizes that his "days and ways" are only "butt-ends," like wasted cigarettes (60). Prufrock admits that he has "measured out my life with coffee spoons," implying that in his small world, tea parties are his only sort of entertainment (53). He has "seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker." A footman is a servant, but because of the word "eternal," as well as the capitalization of "Footman," Prufrock implies that even Jesus, the Servant of man, finds his petty life without meaning (85). He choppily describes his life, revealing that he is an unimportant man, someone small. He will "[a]dvise the prince" because he is "an easy tool" to be used by others (115). He confesses that he is, "[a]lmost, at times, the Fool" (119).
Eliot also utilizes different character allusions to contrast meaningful lives with the insignificant life of J. Alfred Prufrock. The women in the poem talk of Michelangelo, a genius whose varied masterpieces have earned him immortality. Ironically, these women do not notice Prufrock, although he is alive and present. Eliot alludes to John the Baptist when Prufrock mentions that "I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter/ I am no prophet" (82-83). John the Baptist was murdered because he had the courage to tell a king that he was living corruptly. He died because he spoke the truth. But Prufrock imagines that revealing his true self to others would kill him, so he will not. He is "no prophet" because he has not the courage (83). Prufrock also snaps, at the end of the poem, that "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." Prufrock is a tragedy of sorts, but he is no one great.
Prufrock's characterization shows that he is a shallow person, which is why he has developed a method to keep his true personality hidden from those around him. He shields himself within a protective shell that seems harmless to the casual reader and himself. His nervous response to the "overwhelming question" at the start of the poem is contrasted by the peaceful yellow smoke that in the next stanza acts like a cat in the "soft October night," surrounding the "house" (symbolizing Prufrock) and resting there (21-22). The tone of these twelve lines is rhythmic and peaceful, with soft sounds repeating. This smooth smoke seems out of place compared to the nervous, introspective tone of Prufrock's monologues. However, the yellow smoke is not harmless as it appears. Symbolizing how Prufrock engulfs his true self with a shell of pretense, his protective façade is deadly. It seems calm, but is more like a cloud of mustard gas that chokes life.
This mustard gas clarifies Prufrock's panicked arrangements for the tea party. He readies his mask, repeating again and again, that there is time to prepare. His preparation, however, is not physical, but psychological. His small life, revealed throughout the poem, will not be exposed. There is time for the "yellow smoke" to arrive and shield him (25). There is time to "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet" (27). This face, this persona, is not the true Prufrock. The real person (or the previous persona) has been "murder[ed]," and this new face is something that he must "create" (28). Prufrock will make hundreds of "indecisions" and "revisions" before this "taking of a toast and tea" (32-34). He will firmly implement his protective shield, making him safe, secure, and invulnerable.
Ironically, Prufrock's protective shield that hides his flaws prevents any realization of his emotional needs, especially the need for love. His shell means that he cannot find love and acceptance at this tea party or anywhere else. In the past, he has unsuccessfully attempted to meet desires for intimacy by sexual excursions. He mentions "restless nights in one-night cheap hotels," implying time spent with prostitutes (7). His tone is fearful as he describes the women's eyes that pin him to the wall like a collector's butterfly, but his tone is dreamy as he desirously describes their arms. This shift in tone is because he has "known the arms already" (62) and has seen them "in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair" (65). "Knowing" their arms, and his sensual description of them, implies a sexual experience.
His mostly fearful fantasies, however, show that impersonal sex has not met his emotional needs. He needs to be able to share his true self with someone who will accept him as he is, but is afraid to do so, fearing that physical intimacy with a lady at the tea party will not bring emotional intimacy, and wondering if she will, as she is "settling a pillow by her head," causally reject him (96). He anticipates her turning towards the window, away from him. Prufrock regretfully states, "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" (73-74). This imagery shows Prufrock admitting that he should have been a lobster or a crab. Like a crustacean, he is trapped in a protective shell, and lives in a "silent," lonely world. But a crab does not recognize its loneliness. Prufrock does.
Prufrock's unmet desires for emotional acceptance are tied to the beginning and ending of the poem. The title claims to be a love song, yet Prufrock does not seem to be singing to anyone but himself, except at the end. This "love song," shares his life desire, emotional satisfaction derived from love that he cannot achieve because of his frightened aloofness towards others. At the end of the poem, Prufrock says that he has "heard the mermaids singing, each to each" (123-124). After a pause, he wistfully states, in the only isolated line of the poem, "I do not think that they will sing to me," again explaining his legitimate fear that no one will notice him or care for him (125). Prufrock is an island to himself, and this isolation is the greatest factor making him an insignificant person.
Throughout "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," T. S. Eliot uncovers a man who will not embrace his greatest need. The irony of Prufrock refusing to share himself, stunting emotional growth, is especially bitter at the ending of the poem. Prufrock abruptly states his vision of himself and shows the reader the ultimate results of life in a shell. He wearily states, "I grow old. I grow old." (120) and asks himself ludicrous, irrelevant questions, "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" (123). He has become so concerned with anyone seeing a glimpse of the self behind his prepared face that he worries about trivialities.
The last three lines, in particular, show the reader the dangerous results of living in a safe fantasy world without ever sharing one's true person with others. Prufrock states that "[w]e have lingered in the chambers of the sea/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown," implying that we, as humans, often live in fantasy worlds, in environments where we cannot properly exist (129-130). Eliot's diction in using "we" implies that the reader is being equated with Prufrock. Just as a human cannot live in the sea, we cannot truly live without revealing ourselves to others, even though it means others notice our faults and flaws. The "chambers of the sea" are no place for real people. When "human voices wake us" and shatter our fantasies, "we drown" (131). When a life spent in a sterile fantasy world crashes into solid reality, only a shriveled carcass remains.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a dirge, wherein T. S. Eliot exposes Prufrock's protected, pathetic life to show readers that they should embrace openness and vulnerability to meet their intimate emotional needs. An obsessive concern over appearances, and not reality, leads to a shrunken self. The character of J. Alfred Prufrock warns readers against the protection of a stifling shell holding no possibility of growth. Possible pains of open vulnerability far outweigh the cramped confines of a wasted life.© Brandon Colas, October 2006
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a psychological profile of a white, middle-aged, middle-class, late Victorian man suffering from an acute spiritual malaise as a result of his boring, unimaginative, routine, repressed bourgeois existence. The poem, T. S. Eliot’s first major publication, immediately established his reputation as an important poet. It also announced one of the themes that Eliot explored throughout his career: the emptiness of modern life, made tedious by habit, sterilized by convention, in which self-awareness does not lead to self-knowledge but only to existential paralysis.
Prufrock epitomizes a frustrated man hopelessly alienated from his imagination and yet desperate for imaginative salvation. His life is filled with meaningless gestures and predictable encounters; his seamy world is agonizingly uninspiring. Prufrock is an effigy representing the cultural decadence and moral degeneration that Eliot equates with the society of his time. He is the product of a world suffering from a break with its past cultural heritage, a loss of tradition, a failure of institutional authority, and an unhealthy emphasis on individualism.
Eliot incorporates hallucinatory imagery to create a lethargic world where ‘the evening is spread out against the sky, Like a patient etherised upon a table.’ The women who ‘come and go Talking of Michelangelo’ suggest the transience and shallowness of contemporary relationships while ironically reducing the work of an Italian Renaissance master. Prufrock is afraid to ‘force the moment to its crisis.’ The people in his world mask their emotions and ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.’ The streets are ‘insidious’ and ‘half-deserted’; people spend ‘restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.’ Deadened by routine, he complains that he has ‘measured out my life in coffee spoons.’ The portrait of Prufrock is particularly unflattering, but more pathetic because he realizes the nature of his dilemma but is still incapable of rectifying it. His vision at the end of the poem is one of possible redemption, of ‘mermaids singing,’ but his resignation is complete; he does not think that they will sing to him.
Eliot, perhaps the most significant of the new wave of Symbolists of the 1920’s, startled the world of poetry and spoke for a lost generation in The Waste Land, engaged literary critics with his landmark book of criticism, The Sacred Wood, and wrote the most successful verse play of the twentieth century, The Cocktail Party.
Although Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in and lived his early life in St. Louis, his family was so New England in its outlook that it can hardly be identified as Midwestern. Eliot’s grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, was a Unitarian clergyman whose religious zeal brought him to St. Louis in 1834, shortly after graduation from Harvard’s Divinity School. He founded a Unitarian church in St. Louis and then went on to establish three schools, a poor fund, and a sanitary commission in the city. His crowning triumph, however, was in founding Washington University in 1872.
At thirty, Eliot had two books in print: Prufrock and Other Observations and Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry (1917). By his fortieth birthday, he had twenty-three more books in print, including collections of his poetry, several books of criticism that dislocated many entrenched ideas about literature, and three dramatic works, Sweeney Agonistes (1932; verse play), The Rock (1934), and Murder in the Cathedral (1935).
Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, the same year in which he received the Order of Merit from King George VI. By that time, Eliot was generally considered the most important poet writing in English. He heard of his selection for the Nobel Prize while he was in Princeton as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies. There, he worked on The Cocktail Party (1949), which he had begun before he left England.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was T.S. Eliot’s first important publication and it has often been called the first masterpiece of modernism in English. It represented a break with the immediate past as radical as that of the English romantic poets. The title of the poem is a clear ironic contrast between the romantic suggestions of ‘love song’ and the rather prosaic name ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’. The name comes from Prufrock-Littau, a furniture company which advertised in St. Louis, Missouri, where T.S. Eliot was born. The poet combined this name with a fatuous ‘J. Alfred ,’ which somehow suggests the qualities this person later shows. There is also irony in the title because it says the poem is a ‘love song,’ but then we read something completely different. It is true that there are some elements often used in ballads and songs, such as rhyme, refrain, anaphora, parallelism and incantatory tone; but the poem is not a ‘love song’. Prufrock never gives utterance to tender or loving feelings in his song. He is unable to love.
In the first line the poet introduces two persons, ‘you and I’. The reader immediately wonders who these people are and where they are going. It is obvious that the ‘I’ is the speaker, and according to the title his name is Prufrock; and ‘you’ could be a lady. It can also be the reader and Prufrock. We do not know yet. We only know that it is evening and that they are walking through streets of a sordid section of a certain city. We do not know its name but it seems representative of other great cities of modern western civilization. Then the speaker mentions a question, an overwhelming question, but he does not want to talk about it. And since the question is never asked in the poem, the answer is never given.
We also learn that they are going to pay a visit to a place in which women talk of Michelangelo. After thinking of the women to be visited, the speaker returns to a vision of the streets, the fog, beautifully described as a cat that falls asleep. It seems that Prufrock is putting to sleep the vision he had of the city and also he is gaining time from the society that is waiting for him in the room where women are talking of Michelangelo. The somnolent image suggests Prufrock’s mental state, his desire for inactivity, his indecision, his passivity and his reluctance to ask the overwhelming question. Prufrock tries to put off the decision and says that “there will be time” (line 23), though we do not really know for what there will be time.
The next section increases the tension by raising the question “Do I dar”?” (line 38). This also shows Prufrock’s fear of his society and the people In It. Eventually he enters the room and remembers In three rhyming stanzas the times he has heard the same voices, seen the same people. He knows that society very well and he does not like it. He finds it trivial and boring; he says: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (line51). Then he starts to rehearse what he dares not to say, and he does not say it. He fails. He never asks the question, his only excuse being that he is no prophet, that he does not have the strength of John the Baptist.
After that mock-heroic tone and after that self-justification, Prufrock looks back upon the event and thinks about his failure. He asks: “Would it have been worth it, after all” (Line 87). But his fear of being misunderstood makes him accept his failure.
In the last part of the poem there is a great change: from a tone of self-mockery showing Prufrock as the Fool in an Elizabethan play to the language of romantic longing. Prufrock at the end tries to escape from the real world where he was defeated and he dreams of mermaids. Yet he cannot avoid the realty and he drowns. The poem is a song of desire and failure. It seems to be the story of what is taking place inside a man called Prufrock. Therefore we can say that the poem Is a dramatic monologue, a dialogue between “you” and “I,” both being the same person.
Prufrock talks to himself. The “you” is the passionate self who insists on going to make the visit. The “I” is the one who consents and says “Let US go then…” (line 1); he is the timid self who does not dare, who does not ask the overwhelming question. If in the epigraph we had Guido’s answer to Dante, somebody who, he believed, would never return to the world to report Guido’s words, now in the poem we have the words of the condemned “I” who, like Guido, speaks freely only because he is sure that the “you” will not tell anybody about him.
Now that we have thrown light on the mystery of the identity of the different people addressed in the poem, we still have to tackle the enigma of the “overwhelming question,” which is never formulated in the poem. Is Prufrock trying to issue a marriage proposal? Is he trying to ask the lady called “one” in the poem to marry him or is he just asking about the meaning of this life? The answer may be different for different readers. But it seems to be irrelevant. We simply do not need to know what the question, “the overwhelming question,” is. It is enough to know that Prufrock never asks the question; that he is unable to ask it. We should not look for a concealed narrative in the poem. T.S. Eliot is not presenting a story, but a personality. The poem is built around the timid person called Prufrock. This character needs to be analysed.
After reading the poem we think of Prufrock as an unattractive middle-aged man who grows old and talks about his bald spot in his hair. He is aware of his weakness and disabilities:
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.” (lines 84-85)
Prufrock is conscious of being inferior. He knows he is not Prince Hamlet and he does not think the mermaids will sing to him. He knows that he cannot make a decision. Therefore he takes refuge in self mockery. He is resigned to his failure. However, he is sensitive to criticism. He knows that people around him remark that his arms and legs are growing thin (line 44) and have him sprawling on a pin (line 57).
J. Alfred Prufrock is an unhappy frustrated man. He is involved in a routine of social life and he does not feel comfortable in the society in which he is condemned to live. He sees boredom and monotony. Though he is conditioned by that fashionable society, he seems to be tired of the superficial and miserable existance he is leading. Besides, he is isolated in that alien world. He has a range of more or less obscure feelings that he cannot communicate due to his inhibitions and timidity. He then talks to himself and he suffers. Prufrock is a mask, a person through whom the tribulations of the modern city life are spoken.
One of the themes this poem develops is the tedium and dryness of modern life. It is an expression of the futility of life. The reader gets an intense personal view of the society, the city and the world in which Prufrock lives. The poem also conveys a sense of frustration which leads us into the main issue: the problem of communication. This theme, present throughout much of Eliot’s work, is incorporated in the poem by means of the question which is never asked. The speaker cannot get his message across. It does not matter whether the recipient of that message is a lady or not. The fact is that communication fails. And the failure of communication is related to the theme of the individuals isolation, loneliness, and estrangement from other people. Prufrock is alienated from this world, like Guido and like the “patient etherized upon a table” (line 3). He should have been a crab “scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (line 74).
The theme of lack of communication and understanding that Prufrock voices in his monologue has a close relationship with the way the poem is written, its style and structure. According to Leonard Unger ‘, there is a statement in the poem which suggests this connection between the problem of articulation Prufrock suffers and the mode of composition T.S. Eliot chose for his poem: “It is impossible to say just what I mean But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen” (lines 104-105). T.S. Eliot, like Prufrock, does not clearly say what he means; instead, like the magic lantern, the poem throws different pictures of Prufrock’s mind on a screen. In order to express his feelings, the poet shows different corners of Prufrock’s psyche in no particular order (the streets, the room, the fog, the room again, etc.). And all these images put together give the meaning of the poem.
Therefore we cannot see a logical structure in the poem, despite the fact that it is divided into several sections. There is only the structure of the flow of thoughts in Prufrock’s mind. The poem is based on the free association of ideas and images without connective and transitional passages. It renders the flow of impressions visual, auditory, physical, and subliminal’that impinges on the consciousness of Prufrock, a technique similar to the stream of consciousness used by James Joyce a few years later.
Eliot’s technique In this poem Is like that of a collage, composed of juxtaposed Images. “Prufrock” is made out of different elements: Images, literary references, remarks, the squalor, the beautiful, lyricism, brutality, etc. The whole sum of the elements builds up the meaning of the poem while the reader is delighted in trying to rationalize the association of elements.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is certainly modern in tone and diction. T.S. Eliot wrote a new kind of poetry, with irregular rhyming verse paragraphs, free verse, new themes, and attitudes.