T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Motikala Subba Dewan
Abstract-This piece of writing is for the bachelor level students of English in Nepal. It tries to give brief glimpse about T.S. Eliot and his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, which is one of the prescribed poems in Major English BA course. This is only a commentary on the poem and does not cover each and every detail about T. S. Eliot’s works and life. It is purely academic research based on works citation from the websites and books. It will be useful for the students or any individual to gain basic knowledge on elements of poetry and its figure of speeches. And it is also very helpful for the English teachers to get the idea about the poem for classroom teaching. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” often called “the first Modernist poem. The poem centers on the feelings and thoughts of the persona. The poem is composed of Prufrock’s own neurotic and lyrical associations. Indeed, over the course of the poem, he sets up analogies between himself and various familiar cultural figures, among them Hamlet. This establishes a connection with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (“To be or not to be?—That is the question”). Prufrock’s doubt that he deserves the answer he desires from the woman transforms the poem into a kind of interior monologue or soliloquy in which “To be or not to be?” is for Prufrock “To be what?” and “What or who am I to ask this woman to marry me?”
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is commonly known as Prufrock. The poem is described as a “drama of literary anguish,” presents a stream of consciousness in the form of a dramatic interior monologue. With its weariness, regret, embarrassment, longing, emasculation, sexual frustration, sense of decay, and awareness of mortality, Prufrock has become one of the most recognized voices in modern literature. This poem is inner monologue, which means that everything in the poem is spoken from inside of Prufrock’s mind. It presents a moment in which a narrator/speaker discusses a topic and, in so doing, reveals his personal feelings to a listener. Only the narrator talks and intentionally and unintentionally reveals information about him. The speaker expresses his thoughts about the dull, uneventful, mediocre life he leads as a result of his feelings of inadequacy and his fear of making decisions. Unable to seize opportunities or take risks (especially with women), he lives in a world that is the same today as it was yesterday and will be the same tomorrow as it is today. He does try to make progress, but his timidity and fear of failure inhibit him from taking action.
The setting of the poem is in the evening in a bleak section of a smoky city. This city is probably St. Louis, where Eliot grew up or also could be London, to which Eliot moved in 1914. However, Eliot probably intended the setting to be any city anywhere.
J. Alfred Prufrock: The speaker/narrator, a timid, overcautious middle-aged man who escorts his silent listener through streets in a shabby part of a city, past cheap hotels and restaurants, to a social gathering where women he would like to meet are conversing. However, he is hesitant to take part in the activity for fear of making a fool of himself.
The Listener: An unidentified companion of Prufrock, could also be Prufrock’s inner self, one that prods him but fails to move him to action.
The Women: Women at a social gathering whom Prufrock would like to meet one of them but worries that she will look down on him.
The Lonely Men in Shirtsleeves: Leaning out of their windows, they smoke pipes. They are like Prufrock in that they look upon a scene but do not become part of it. The smoke from their pipes helps form the haze over the city, the haze that serves as a metaphor for a timid cat, which is Prufrock.
Loneliness and alienation (Prufrock is a pathetic man whose anxieties and obsessions have isolated him),
Indecision (Prufrock resists making decisions for fear that their outcomes will turn out wrong), Inadequacy (Prufrock continually worries that he will make a fool of himself and that people will ridicule him for his clothes, his bald spot, and his overall physical appearance) and
Pessimism (Prufrock sees only the negative side of his own life and the lives of others).
It presents a bizarre personification/simile with end rhyme (lines 2 and 3), comparing the evening to an anesthetized hospital patient. There are odd simile of lines 1-2: Let us go then you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table. How can the dusk look like a patient on a surgeon’s table about ready for the scalpel? In lines (8-9), streets become persons because they follow an argument becomes a person because it has insidious intent (personification) and use of like to compare streets to an argument (simile). Lines 11-12 suggest Pruforck’s destination, his intent in the poem, Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit. In the context of the poem, where is Prufrock walking? Where may he be going? Like the first three lines, lines 13 -14 always throw students In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo. Why are these two lines here, in the middle, suddenly? What do they have to do with Prufrock’s thoughts? It might be easier to consider oppositions. How do the two lines suggest a very different environment from the preceding lines?
In lines (15-23), yellow fog and yellow smoke are both compared to a timid cat, which represents the timidity of Prufrock (metaphor). This passage is an example of imagism, when a poet uses “pictures,” visual “images” of usually natural aspects of the world to convey mood, impressions, meaning. Eliot was very influenced by “imagist’ poetry at the time, poets who would write very short poems that often would focus on just one image. In many ways, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a long series of imagist poems, linked together like a collage, in this case a sort of imagist-tapestry of Prufrock’s thoughts. Why fog is yellow? What does the yellow fog resemble in Eliot’s description? When it rubs its muzzle and licked its tongue and Curled once about the house and fell asleep. Why does Eliot compare the yellow fog to such resemblance? In lines 24- 34, Prufrock repeats There will be time, six times. What type of mentality does Prufrock exhibit by repeating this line? What kind of anxiety is he expressing? Why might he be expressing this particular type of anxiety? When does a person, prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet? What does he mean by, time yet for a hundred indecisions /And for a hundred visions and revisions? In lines 37-49, Prufrock offers the first real details about the place /event he is possibly walking to. As he imagines what might happen if he goes. What is Prufrock self-conscious of? even paranoid about? What does his anxiety say about his supposed “crisis”?
In line (51), life is compared to coffee (metaphor). Most of the lines in the poem have followed alliteration such as in lines (20-21), Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, And seeing that it was soft October night, in line (34), Before the taking of a toast and tea, in line (56) fix you in a formulated phrase, in line (58), When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall. In this line, Prufrock compares himself to an insect preserved for display in a collection (metaphor). In line (75), And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! here, the evening is a sleeping person ( personification) and the evening is compared to a person (metaphor). In lines (91-94), poet has used anaphora; To have bitten off the matter with a smile, To have squeezed the universe into a ball To roll it toward some overwhelming question, To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead. There are use of hyperbole and metaphor in lines (92-93); To have squeezed the universe into a ball, To roll it toward some overwhelming question, these lines show the universe becomes a ball that is rolled.
Up until lines 110, what type of scenario does he imagine as possibly might have happened in the future? What situation does he imagine could have happened? What does it say about Prufrock’s anxiety? What clue does it give us as to why Prufrock is old and alone? Lines 111-119 are famous, beginning with No! I am not Prince Hamlet and the Fool. Notice the movement–from Hamlet to the Fool. This is a kind of movement that happens a lot in the poem. Notice the shift in mood, tone and rhythm in the final stanzas of the poem, lines 120 – 131. How does the mood, tone and rhythm of the poem change? How might it reflect a change in Prufrock’s frame of mind? How does the setting of seashore contribute to the change in tone? Why does Prufrock bring up mermaids? What do mermaids symbolize (they have to be symbols, since mermaids don’t exist)? Why does he shift from mermaids in the very end to “sea-girls”? The last two stanzas of this poem are the most beautiful in any poetry. When Eliot says, We have lingered in the chambers of the sea, and Till human voices wake us, and we drown? Why do we linger Why do we drown? Why is it human voices? What other kinds of voices can there be?
Eliot repeats certain words and phrases several times, apparently to suggest the repetition and monotony in Prufrock’s life. For example, how often he begins a line with And-20 times. He also repeats other words as well as phrases and clauses-Let us go, In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo, There will be time, Do I dare, Should I presume, I have known, would it have been worth it.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a modernistic poem that expresses the thoughts of the title character via the following:
- Conversational Language Combined With the Stylized Language of Poetry: For example, the poem opens straightforwardly with Let us go then, you and I.
- Variations in Line Length and Meter: Some lines contain only three words. Others contain as many as fourteen. The meter also varies.
- Shifts in the Train of Thought: The train of thought sometimes shifts abruptly, without transition, apparently in imitation of the way the human mind works when it dreams or day dreams or reacts to an external stimulus.
- Shifts in Topics Under Discussion: The subject under discussion sometimes shifts abruptly, from trifling matters one moment. For example, one time Prufrock talks about the bald spot or the length of his trousers another time he talks about the time and universe.
- Shifts From Abstract to Concrete (and Universal to Particular): The poem frequently toggles between (1) the abstract or universal and (2) the concrete or specific. Examples of abstract language are muttering retreats (line 5) and tedious argument of insidious intent (lines 8-9). Examples of phrases or clauses with universal nouns are the muttering retreats and the women come and go. Examples of concrete language are oyster-shells (line 7) and soot (line 19). Examples of particular (specific) language are Michelangelo (line 14) and October (line 21).
- Shifts From Obvious Allusions or References to Oblique Allusions or References: Prufrock quotes, paraphrases, or cites historical or fictional persons, places, things, or ideas. Some of his references are easy to fathom. For example, everyone with a modicum of education knows who Michelangelo was (line 14). Other references are difficult to fathom. In his use of allusions, Eliot apparently wanted to show that Prufrock was well read and retained bits and pieces of what he read in his memory, like all of us.
Therefore, try to understand the poem as an assembly or collage of images that all somehow reflect Prufrock’s state of mind. By the end of the poem, he is on the seashore, admitting his failure to reach his destination. Seen as simply the romantic agonizing of a young man (Eliot was eighteen when he began the poem) over a woman he loves, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock would have a distinctly limited appeal. However, the poem moves from this specific situation to explore the peculiarly modernist alienation of the individual in society to a point where internal emotional alienation occurs in loneliness.
Bush, Ronald. T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. 1984.
Datta, DA. Teaching The Waste Land. Hyderabad: Sravya Grafics, 2001.
Scholes, Robert et.al. Elements of Literature. 4th Edition. Oxford UP, 1991.
Forster, E. M. Essay on T. S. Eliot, in Life and Letters. 1929.
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. 1984.
< www.enotes.com >› Literature. 15 June 2011.
<http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Guides3/Prufrock.html> 10 May 2011