T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” may be the most discussed and interpreted American poem of the twentieth century. Like all of Eliot’s poetry, it is complicated, brimful of allusions, packed with sensory impressions, and presented in language that ranges from the trivial banality of everyday conversation to rich rhetoric.
“Prufrock” is a dramatic monologue in which a character bearing that name is talking to himself. The poem lacks traditional unity since we are eavesdropping on the speaker’s stream of consciousness, which flows forward, backward, and sideways as musings trigger other associations not logically but psychologically..
The title is ironic since the title character is isolated, timid, and anti-heroic. A natural tendency is to assume that Prufrock is T. S. Eliot, even though Eliot was 27 years old when the poem was first published and his narrator appears at least middle-aged. We expect love songs to be directed at persons with whom the singer is enamored, but Prufrock’s song is sung to no one.
The “you and I” of the first line is sometimes interpreted as two different parts of Prufrock’s personality: one that urges him to take action and participate in events; the other a feckless dilettante who fears involvement and rejection. Or perhaps the “you” is we, the generalized reader.
Images of involvement and action oppose images of paralysis and fear and such is the conflict that defines the thinker whose musings we share. An educated and highly intelligent man, he begins with a quotation from Dante’s Inferno. Dante, while journeying through hell, encounters Guido da Montefeltro, who is wrapped in flame and suffering eternal torment for sins he committed on earth. He confesses his sins on the assumption that Dante, a fellow prisoner of hell, cannot return to earth with the damning information he is being given and besmirch Guido’s reputation.
Prufrock’s “song” is a similar confession of a soul in torment, though Prufrock’s sins are errors of omission and inaction rather than of commission. If hesitation, inadequacy, and a lack of self-assertiveness are mortal sins, Prufrock deserves a spot in Ante Hell among
those who fail to do either good evil; or maybe Eliot considers him a purveyor of false counsel (In Prufrock’s case, self-counsel) and deserving of a spot in the 7th ring next to Guido.
The time is evening, and the “you is invited to make a visit involving traverse of a slum area. In a conceit worthy of metaphysical poet John Donne, the evening is compared to “a patient etherized upon a table.” The idea of sickness is imported along with a suggestion that the world is twilit due not merely to time of day but to a realm between the brightness of life and the darkness of death. The etherized patient is both modern man and the modern world.
The surgery will be diagnostic and will attempt to answer the “overwhelming question.”
(And we continue to wonder just what IS that question.) Eventually we enter a room of some elegance where “women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” Their subject is a person as unlike Prufrock as man could be: a man of outspoken opinions, an artist of epic scale, a Renaissance man.
To sum up the plot of the meandering poem, Prufrock has paid a visit to a woman whom he loves but was incapable of asserting his emotions and desire. He reviews his life prior to the crucial meeting, a life that can be epitomized by “a hundred indecisions.” His "hundred visions” – the noun connoting the epiphanic magic of mystics, saints and artists – is deflated by the noun “revisions,” which return us to the indecisive man who worries so about getting things just right that he never asserts himself, never asks the overwhelming question.
Self –doubt and hesitation color this milquetoast’s interrogation of himself. “Do I dare?” “How should I presume?” “How should I begin?” “Shall I part my hair behind? “Do I dare to eat a peach?” We want to shout, “DO it man! Make a move on that woman even
if she turns you down. Take off that rich and tasteful necktie and get naked!” We hear him ruefully wishing he could satisfy his appetites when he says, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
A series of historic and literary allusion deserve scrutiny. In his procrastination Prufrock drops the phrase “works and days,” the title of a poem by Hesiod that is a call for action and toil issued by the goddess Strife to stir the shiftless. The “dying fall” of overheard music echoes the opening of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night where Duke Orsino, the man who is in love with love, asks for more music, the food of love, because he craves satiety. An obvious foil to Prufrock.
Prufrock’s mention of his “head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter is a reference to St. John the Baptist, “who wept and fasted, wept and prayed,” who rejected the amorous enticements of Salome. Again, Prufrock is no prophet burning with faith and duty but an object of scorn and derision whose flicker of accomplishment will be snickered at by Death, the eternal Footman.
When Prufrock questions whether it would have been worth it to “have squeezed the universe into a ball,” he echoes the famous carpe diem poem of Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress,” in which the male persona suggests defying the onset of age and death.
“Let us roll all our strength and sweetness into one ball,/And tear our pleasures with rough strife/ Through the iron gates of life.”
The he compares himself to Lazarus, the name of two biblical characters involved with rising from the dead. But there will be no return for Prufrock from the spiritual grave that is his meaningless existence. He is not Prince Hamlet, who also hesitated and temporized but final took heroic action. He is more of a Polonius, a bumbling, sententious fool; he is educated but lacks accomplishment and will never be more than a minor character in the world’s drama.
Our final image of this archetype of anti-heroism is Prufrock walking along the seashore, trousers rolled to prevent their being splashed. His hair is carefully combed over his bald spot. The thinness of his legs and arms cannot be concealed by morning coat and trousers.Michelangelo, Hamlet, Lazarus, Orsino, the speaker of “To His Coy Mistress” would have plunged into the waves to hear the song of the mermaids and to drown in the pleasures that comes with life’s embraces. Prufrock is awakened from his dreams only to drown in the dry sterility of a wasted existence.