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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. Eliot Review Essay

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It is the imagery in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock that makes this poem stand out, even from T.S. Eliot’s other work. The poem is all about imagery, being an image of the narrator’s mind. The poem is a monologue, probably interior, and the “you” is the reader, the audience, the world. The narrator is a made-up character who is breaking down. We hear the ramblings of his stream of consciousness and realize he is an intellectual without intellectual affectations. When this poem was written, the world was coming apart, people were seeking a savior in the form of a utopian dream called communism.

The imagery in the poem is Eliot’s way of communicating mind to mind. We see what he sees and hear what he thinks, so we are getting an almost instant understanding, as long as we don’t analyze too much. The narrator is what is called an unreliable narrator in some ways because he cannot analyze or understand what he thinks. Only someone outside his mind can identify the images for what they are. Eliot’s early poems are all in one way or another portraits of the mind of Europe. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” for example, takes the reader into that mind and reveals a patient etherized upon a table, a paralyzed intellectual whose mind is a prison, a Hell with no exit. (Brooker 14)

The beginning image in the poem is unforgettable for its uniqueness, yet it communicates a certain kind of evening, so relaxed and it seems to go on forever, like the spiraling down into unconsciousness of a recently etherized patient. “Eliot’s reputation as an elitist has obscured one of the most significant features of his thought. At the bottom of everything he wrote, including his greatest poems, is his search for common ground. The word “common” is repeated over and over in his essays.”(Brooker 65)

The next image is the fulfillment of part of this wish, if only for the time of the thought, the existence of the image of a place where most tourists do not go and few locals dare. He paints a picture of half-deserted streets, a poor section where one might find anything, from prostitution to drugs. Then he says to the audience not to ask him why just experience it with him. Briefly, he returns to the usual drawing-room surroundings, “In the room, the women come and go/talking of Michaelangelo.”(line 13-14) We wonder at the sudden jolt and know that one is memory and the other is real, but we don’t know which is which.

The next verse (lines 15-22) is another powerful, yet unique, image. He talks about the yellow smoke (smog?) but describes it as if it were a cat. We see it through his consciousness and watch it curl up and fall asleep. Perhaps it is the yellow smoke of industry, the inevitable cost of progress. Again we have an accessible image, just an ordinary yellow smoke with extraordinary power, but it is sleeping.

From lines 23-32 we see the smoke again, but now the images seem to mix. We follow the yellow smoke along the window panes, but the terrain changes once again as we are told, “There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” (lines 27-28) These are the faces you wear in the drawing rooms. He takes us back to the “society” he both coveted and adopted yet despised for the phoniness. He says there will be time to “Murder and create”(lines 29-30), tear down and build up, time for progress, and those who push for it, finance it and make money from it. (He would have loved to see speculators buying up all the beachfront in Sri Lanka after the tsunami hit and people who had lived on the property for generations were suddenly put off it, merely because they could not protect it.

The refrain image recurs: “IN the room the women come and go/talking of Michaelangelo.” (lines 35-36)

From lines 38 to 48, Eliot talks to us about the possibility to change things. He says there is time to remake his life, to leave the drawing rooms and enter the real world. He sees his future if he stays who and where he is, as people will talk about him as he grows old. The gossip is shallow and unkind. The image is bleak, but he asks us, “Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” (lines 45-46) We should not that in his “vision” Prufrock is alone, and has no woman on his arm. The narrator is caught between two worlds, just as Eliot was at the time of this writing. One world holds beauty, grace, and society, the good life, while the other holds reality. Democracy and capitalism were a rich man’s province. The rich man could make the most of this kind of world. The other world was reality, a new government for the people, probably socialism since communism was losing some of its charm from the excesses in the Soviet Union.

In the next verse (lines 49-53) Eliot returns Prufrock to his reality and tells us that he has known the social life of drawing rooms and tea, of shallow, not always kind, conversation. We see an image of the tiny balding man stuck to the wall with a pin and the ladies staring at him, examining him, asking him to explain his life. (lines 55-61) In lines 62 through 68 we see what draws him, the women, unapproachable women. Eliot knew that he would not have been so popular if he were not a famous poet. Even Wallace Stevens would never have given him the time of day out of her social class. Eliot shows us the braceleted bare arms and reminds us of perfumed dresses as if they are detached from the women who own them.

We move back to the common world in the next line, back to the narrow streets, seeing the smoke that rises from the pipes of factories, and lonely men leaning out of windows. He knows he cannot choose this world, no matter how real it is. It is then we see his real desire, to devolve, return to a more primitive state where he does not have to think, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”(lines 72-73)

“Specifically, Eliot refers not so much to learned background sources as to the mating habits of shellfish. Frustrated by his poor self-image, his inadequate physical appearance, and his inability to speak to women, Prufrock momentarily desires the simplicity, the primal mating habits of creatures at the opposite end of the evolutionary scale. Shellfish mating is nonverbal. Shellfish do not worry about time, overwhelming questions, or opening gambits. Instead, the male of the species grabs any shellfish it can get its claws on (presumably even “thin” claws) until it catches one that cooperates. Shellfish, then, are Prufrock’s role model because they neither think nor speak; they simply act, something he is unable to do. (Blythe, and Sweet 170)

Once again we are drawn by the narrator back to the beginning, relaxing after tea in an easy chair, and the evening is now relaxing and falling asleep on the floor. He wants to approach the woman with him, but he is terrified. He knows from having dreamed of his future alone, balding and the object of gossip, but he cannot overcome his fear. He knows that unless he pairs he will sacrifice his future, and “see his head brought in upon a platter,” (line 82) but he cannot speak up.

In lines 88-98 we see the evening wane and the drawing-room is emptying, and he wonders if he should have dared speak up. He could have tried taking his whole universe in his hand and squeezing it into a ball, then trying to get her to notice, but he knows it would probably shock her as if he were claiming to be “Lazarus, come from the dead.” (line 94) The last two lines of this and the next verse show us how insignificant Prufrock feels, as he suggests that were he to approach the lady she would quietly and politely rebuff him, saying she did not mean what he inferred. He gives up and resigns himself to being a fifth wheel, useful at times but never really accepted into society.

He sees himself growing old alone, walking on the beach and hearing the siren songs of mermaids but never calling to him. We can see his image of an old man with rolled trouser cuffs walking alone on the beach. And in the last lines, he refers again to the sea, the primordial place of origin, when life was simpler. This is the image we are left with. We exit the mind of Prufrock to the sound of the waves on the beach and the scuttling of claws on the sand. Mush of this poem is accessible but inexpressible. Sometimes it is impossible to express the meaning that we learn from something except by using the something from which we learned. I believe that Eliot was a man out of place and out of time. In this poem, we see just how much the walls between reality and vision overlap and intertwine. It is like a hall of mirrors and all the images are distorted.

References

Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Eliot’s the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Explicator 52.3 (1994): 170-170. Questia. 2008. Web.

Brooker, Jewel Spears. T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. Questia. 2008. Web.

Eliot, T. S. T. S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays (1909-1950). New York: Harcourt, 1958.

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