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The “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” launched the career of one of the greatest twentieth century poet, T.S. Eliot. First published in 1915, the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“Prufork” for short) is not a love song at all, but musings of a lonely middle-aged man, filled with self doubt and social paralysis. The poem is a monologue of a fictional character, Prufrock, who is overly concerned with what people might think about him and filled with indecision, so much that he is unable to even express himself.
Perhaps he himself is unaware of what he really wants from life and feels that life is passing him by and there is not much time to do the things he would like to do, that is, once he finally decides after much “visions and revisions”, what it is that he really wants to do. Also, he thinks of himself as an inconsequential character in the story of life, as can been seen in the stanza where he claims that he is not Hamlet but just an “attendant lord”.
Finally he sees himself as an old man, still filled with self-doubt, walking on a beach, where he can hear the mermaids sing, but he does not “think they will sing to me”, once again reflecting Prufrock’s total lack of self confidence which perhaps prevented him from proposing to his lady love when he was younger. This lack of self confidence is despite Prufrock being a fairly rich man as evidenced from the line “My necktie rich and modest…” Throughout the poem, Prufrock comes across as a shallow man, obsessed by his looks, much to his own detriment.
Eliot’s writing style is fragmented filled with shocking and unexpected imagery. Prufrock is dramatic monologue, a writing style which was perfected by Robert Browning. The rhyming is irregular. At some places there are several lines which rhyme perfectly, and then there are passages where the rhyme and meter are totally ignored. According to www.sparknotes.com, although “Prufrock” resembles free verse, it is in fact “a carefully structured amalgamation of poetic form”.
While analyzing the poem, the first thing that strikes a reader is the title. The name J. Alfred Prufrock in the title has been interpreted in many ways. Evans (2006) and many other commentators before him find the name Prufrock “prissy, pompous, slightly ridiculous and somewhat bourgeois”. That Prufrock is a prude, who likes to dress in a frock coat, is a widely accepted interpretation of the name. However, Cervo (1999) feels that the name signifies several things. According to him, the J stands for John the Baptizer to allude to the speakers prophetic impulses, Alfred is the vulgarization of the royal name while Prufrock actually is an allusion to a court jester from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and a metaphor for a “quality of the highest value, such as wit or sagacity”.
The poem starts with the epigraph, an Italian verse from Dante’s “Inferno”. Several commentators, including Bloom (1999) and Cervo (1999) feel that the epigraph sets the tone of the poem, giving the sense that the speaker is trapped or wondering in some kind of hell.
Coming to the actual poem, the first two lines carry on the illusion of a love song, but this illusion is broken by the third line “Like a patient etherized upon a table”. If Prufrock is indeed asking his lady love to accompany him on a romantic walk, his idea of a lover’s paradise is extremely bleak and consists of “half-deserted streets” populated with “cheap hotels” and “sawdust restaurants”. That these streets are like “tedious arguments” with “insidious intent” is another allusion to the hardships of life.
Perhaps Prufrock is inviting his lover not for a walk but for a lifetime of togetherness, which includes all the hardships of life. Perhaps the “evening” in the second line refers to the evening of life, considering that Prufrock is a middle aged man. However, a couple lines later, he suggests that the visit is to “the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michael Angelo”. According to Bloom, this line suggests the idle talk among women which tends to trivialize great works of art.
The “overwhelming question” mentioned in the first stanza is open to interpretation. Prufrock immediately refuses to answer what this question might be. However, there are several different theories what this question might be. According to Hindus, Prufrock has in fact asked this question in line 45 of the poem when he mentions “Do I dare disturb the universe”. This line itself though is open to interpretation. Many other commentators feel that the overwhelming question is in fact the marriage proposal made by Prufrock to the lady in question. In my opinion, Eliot has intentionally left the question unanswered to allow every reader to interpret it for themselves.
At this point, the narrative suddenly changes track and starts talking about “yellow fog” and “yellow smoke”. It is generally agreed that the “yellow” refers to the industrial pollution. Also, Eliot’s mastery over the poetic form is obvious in this stanza as the smoke is described as if it were an animal. However, the significance of introducing this fog at this stage not clear.
The narrative then moves on to the discussion of time. Here the repetition of the line “And indeed there will be time” perhaps reflects that Prufrock is trying to convince himself, mostly unsuccessfully, that there is still time in his life, which is fast slipping away from him. But towards the end of the stanza, he says “And time yet for a hundred indecisions/And for a hundred visions and revisions”.
This showcases Prufrock as an indecisive man who has perhaps wasted away most of his life unable to make even simple decisions. Evans (2006) too feels that Prufrock is running out of time “the time he has already used has been wasted and meaningless, and that the time that lies ahead of him promises only more of the same hypocrisies, vacillations, and middle-class trivialities with which he is so obviously disgusted.” However, according to Bloom, the repetition of the word time suggests boredom and that Prufrock has too much time on hand.
From lines 39 to 44, Prufrock muses if he can still do all the things he did not do in his youth. However, he is worried that his balding head, his attire and his looks would make people talk behind his back. Here for the first time his obsession with his looks comes out. Prufrock is afraid to “disturb the universe”. As I stated earlier, this line is open to several interpretation. According to Hindus, this is the “overwhelming question’ referred to in the first stanza.
Hindus also feels that Prufrock could perhaps be contemplating suicide rather than face the criticism of society. Bloom feels that his hesitancy is yet another example of his “impotent flailing”. In lines 92 and 93, Eliot once again refers to this overwhelming question and wonders if it would be worthwhile “To have squeezed the universe into a ball/ To roll it toward some overwhelming question”. It may asked that how can a man who presumably cannot muster enough courage to propose to a lady would be able to “disturb the universe” and squeeze it “into a ball”.
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Once again it seems to be the idle musings of a failed man. He is perhaps afraid that a simple act of proposing could somehow disturb the universe and yet later wonders if it would have been worthwhile to take that chance after all.
Moving on, Prufrock is once again terrified of what people think about him. He feels he know what it is and feels uncomfortable to be in the spotlight. He feels like a fly pinned down for inspection. Here the use of the word “pin” has been much deliberated by Trevisan (2004). According to her, the two uses of the word “pin” in two different contexts, once in the sense of a “brooch” and the second time as a “nail” which pins Prufrock’s entire persona to the wall. She is of the opinion that Prufrock feels that the same pin which was supposed to assert his necktie and give him a sophisticated look has now actually pinned him down for the world to carefully dissect him and his failings.
In the next stanza, he describes women with whom he may have had tea and toast, perhaps under lamplight. He notices their bare arms covered with fine brown hair but the dress and perfume distract him and do not allow him to propose. He wonders if he can presume if the woman in question likes him or him he would be overstepping by popping the question. His indecision, which he attributes to being distracted by the perfume, stops him from proposing.
Thus having not been able to act on his impulses, he now wonders lonely on “narrow streets”. In line 73-74, Prufrock desires to be “a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the doors of silent seas.” The lines are open to several interpretations. According to Hal & Sweet (1994), “the line expresses the culmination of Prufrock’s frustration in trying to establish a relationship with a woman.” They are of the opinion that Prufrock’s poor self-image and his inability to talk to women makes him wish that he were a shellfish and he desires the relative simplicity of the creature’s nonverbal mating habits.
In the next stanza, Prufrock’s once again wonders if he should voice his feelings for the lady in question when he wonders if he should “force the moment to its crisis” after leisurely afternoon. Unable to voice his feelings, he compares himself to John the Baptist and imagines his head “brought in upon a platter” even though he claims that he is not a prophet. Even though the reference here is clearly to John the Baptist, Sherfick (1987) is of the view that the line “I am no prophet” has double allusion. Besides referring to John the Baptist, the line could also refer to Amos who “belittles himself and his ability to reach the people of Israel” just as Prufrock does.
In the next stanza, he continues in the same vain, wondering if he should have finally mentioned the difficult topic after an evening tea and light chat. He wishes that he could have declared his feelings like Lazarus but he knows that just as he is not a prophet he is also no Lazarus. Ledbetter (1992) feels that the reason why Prufrock does not say anything is because he feels that just as no one would have believed Lazarus even if he had returned from death, so also he would be wasting his breath in voicing his feelings. The next line, “This is not what I meant at all”, shows Prufrock’s total lack of self confidence when he says that even if he were to profess his love he would have to later retract it.
Moving on, he compares himself to a character in Hamlet, saying that he is not the hero but just a minor character in the play of life. He says that his role in the scheme of things is very small in the larger context of the life. This perhaps is the reason for his extremely low self-worth. McCormick (2004), who has carried out a detailed analysis of the importance of Hamlet in “Prufrock”, feels that the subtext of Hamlet was present in the song from the very beginning, in fact right from the epigraph and till the very end.
Though discussing his entire thesis is beyond the scope of this paper, nevertheless it would be worthwhile to explore McCormick’s interpretation of Hamlet in “Prufrock”. According to McCormick, Prufrock’s love song is as ineffectual as ‘Hamlet’s efforts to communicate with the women in his life”. This despite Prufrock being a much smaller person when compared with Hamlet. Perhaps what Prufrock is trying to say is that if a powerful prince like Hamlet could be so unsuccessful in expressing himself than is it any wonder that Prufrock, a mere “attendant lord” should find it so difficult to voice his feelings.
Finally, he laments that is growing old and soon he will walking on the beach with nothing to do but watch the white surf which he imagines to be singing mermaids. But even in his old age, his lack of self esteem persists as he says that “I do not think they will sing to me”.
He ends the song in what, according to Bloom, is “a paradoxical image of spiritual death” drowning in the reality of “human voices.”
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“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Eliot’s Poetry. Sparknotes. 2006. Web.
Trevisan, Sara. “Eliot’s THE LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK.” Explicator 62.4 (2004): 221-223. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web.