” ‘I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’ What does that mean, Mr. Marlowe?”
“Not a bloody thing. It just sounds good.”
He smiled. “That is from the ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ Here’s another one. ‘In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michael Angelo.’ Does that suggest anything to you, sir?”
“Yeah- it suggests to me that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”
“My sentiments exactly, sir. Nonetheless I admire T. S. Eliot very much.”
“Did you say ‘nonetheless’ ?” (Chandler 356-7)
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century (Williams 49). It is certainly not a love song like any that had been written before. The second and third lines shock the reader because of their unusual imagery that would be out of place in a traditional love poem, describing the setting sunlit sky as looking “like a patient etherised upon a table” (Eliot 3). This “etherised” outside world is the key to understanding all of Prufrock’s views. He is afraid of the increasingly industrialized and impersonal city surrounding him, and he is unsure of what to do and afraid to commit to any particular choice of action (Mays 112). Paralysis is the main theme of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Eliot composed “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” during a period beginning in 1909, and ending with the culmination of his first published book, Prufrock and Other Observations, which was published in 1917 (Scofield 46). The changes he made over several years may account for the fragmentation of the poem, but the main theme of paralysis was ever present, and would continue to be a major theme of Eliot’s for much of his career (Scofield 46). Originally, the poem was titled “Prufrock Among The Women”, which was later adapted and used in “Sweeny Among The Nightingales”, and of course parodied E. B. Browning’s “Bianca Among the Nightingales” (Loucks 1). Eliot chose to use the more ironic title, of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” instead, echoing the form of his name that Eliot himself was using at the time, that of T. Stearns Eliot (Southam 1).
In 1909, Eliot completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard, and wrote what would be relatively unchanged in its final edition, the beginning of “Prufrock”, lines 1-14. The following year, Eliot traveled abroad to attend lectures at the Sorbonne, hearing Bergson at the Collège de France, and taking private lessons with Alain-Fournier. When he returned home a year later to read for his doctorate, he continued taking classes in Indic Philology, Sanskrit and Indian Philosophy, as well as Greek and Latin. He completed “Prufrock” as well as “Portrait of a Lady”, “Preludes”, and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” (Moody xv).
After completing his doctorate, Eliot traveled to Great Britain to study at Oxford and met Ezra Pound. In June of 1915, at the suggestion of Pound, Eliot published “Prufrock” in Poetry magazine (Eliot Facsimile ix).
In 1917, Prufrock and Other Observations was published in Britain. Pound persuaded Alfred Knopf to publish it in America, which Knopf did after Pound’s agreement to have someone write a paper about his poetry. Pound chose Eliot to write this paper about him, which he did, but removed Eliot’s name from the draft, saying, “I want to boom Eliot and one cant [sic] have too obvious a ping-pong match at that sort of thing” (Eliot Facsimile xii).
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a dramatic poem by genre, because obviously Eliot himself was neither growing bald nor old when he began writing the poem at the age of twenty-one (Scofield vii). The Prufrock character is perhaps a middle-aged man, going through his mid-life crisis and examining the choices he’s made in his life. Most of all, he takes a look at his regrets, and his failure with women. The main tone of the poem is that of weary, ironic self-deprecation (Mays 110). Prufrock makes innumerable references to his growing bald, one of the more clever is the image of the grim reaper holding his coat for him so he can leave this world, and snickering at his bald spot (Rosenthal 79). He attempts to make himself feel young again, by rolling his trousers and parting his hair in a style that young people wear, but he knows that it is no use; he is growing old (Hammond 1). Prufrock’s fear of growing old contributed to his paralysis.
As evidenced by the title of the book in which it was first collected, Prufrock wasn’t as much a persona of the poet but an “observation.” The poem begins with an invitation by Prufrock to join him in his travels through a city that is growing increasingly modern, while Prufrock himself is afraid, or unable, to change with it. His description of the way he sees his environment can elucidate much about the character himself. He describes “cheap hotels,” restaurants with sawdust on the floor, and frightening streets “that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent” (Eliot 3). The fog creeps up on the street as if it were a cat. The yellow lamplight obscures more than it illuminates. If he is afraid of the modern world that awaits him, why does he wish to enter it? To Prufrock, this world offers him “an overwhelming question” (Eliot 3). It is unclear whether or not he is physically traveling through the city, or whether he is describing the city so that the reader, his sole companion, may understand the environment that causes him such distress. The “you” that is mentioned in the opening line is most likely intended to be the reader. The epigraph preceding the poem, which is from Dante’s Inferno 27.61-66. suggests this. The lines are spoken by Guido da Montefeltro, who is a false counselor concealed within a flame, to Dante, who has entered Hell and is not expected to leave. The lines are translated:
‘If I thought my answer were given / to anyone who would ever return to the world, / this flame would stand still without moving any further. / But since never from this abyss / has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true, / without fear of infamy I answer you’ (Ferguson 1230)
In light of this, it is apparent that we are like Dante and Prufrock is Montefeltro, and that his confessions are meant to be heard by only us. Since we aren’t able to escape the industrialized impersonal world any more than Prufrock is, he is safe to expose himself to us as fully as he is able.
The fragmentation of the images in the poem also shed some light on Prufrock’s fears. He rarely says what he means, if he is even sure of it himself. Instead, like the magic lantern throwing “patterns on a screen,” the poem “Prufrock” is like a set of slides, showing us Prufrock’s failures and experiences he’s collected (Jeff 1). Prufrock moves from streets to woman talking to images of woman and mythological creatures. There is no congruity in the poem.
The name “Prufrock” never appears in the poem, and instead the character asks himself if he should perhaps say he is Lazarus, and makes sure to mention that he is not Prince Hamlet (Eliot 6-7).
Prufrock is different than Hamlet in several ways. Hamlet, unlike Prufrock, is a man of action. He doesn’t ask himself questions like “Do I Dare?” because the thought of whether he dare or not never occurs to him (Hammond 1). Hamlet is also very young and sure of himself, while Prufrock is neither of these. Hamlet and Prufrock do share, however, in attempting to express the “inexpressibly horrible” (Rosenthal 83).
Prufrock is a character obsessed with time, most likely because his is running out. He continually tells himself “there will be time” in order to rationalize his lack of action. To this point he has “measured out his life with coffee spoons” to make a futile attempt to hang on to every moment that passes, even if he doesn’t do anything with the moments that he’s been given (Eliot 4). Prufrock is most likely middle aged, and going through his mid-life crisis, which Prufrock alludes to in line 80 by asking himself if he has “the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” (Eliot 6).
Prufrock wants to act and at first asks himself grandiose questions such as whether he “dare disturb the universe.” By the end of the poem, he is unsure if he has the will to do something less spectacular, like daring to “eat a peach” (Eliot 4-7). He asks us if he dares, to which the answer is invariably no.
The poetic form of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an interesting one. As much as he breaks the traditions of the Romantic poets by introducing nightmarish imagery about the outside world, Eliot also breaks tradition in the unusual rhyme and meter of the poem. “Prufrock” is not written as free verse as is usually assumed, but:
tightly metrical blank verse with the five-stress lines frequently broken into two and three feet or one and four feet, these scattered about the poem, and with scattered rhyme throughout, and the standard blank verse resolving device (as in Shakespeare’s scenes) of a terminal rhymed couplet. (Williams 49)
By the end of the poem, Prufrock is imaging mermaids, or man’s ideal vision of women sitting on the beach, but even in his imagination they do not sing to him. When he is awakened from his daydream by a human voice, it is apparent that even in his fantasies Prufrock is paralyzed and non-active (Eliot 7). Paralysis is the key theme that runs through “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
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Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Collected Poems 1909-1962 . New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963. 3-7.
Eliot, Valerie. Introduction. The Waste Land: Facsimile and Transcript . New York: Harcourt Brace, 1971.
Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy. The Norton Anthology Of Poetry . 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1996.
Hammond, Hans Talbot. “The T. S. Eliot Cluster.” Available Internet. 21 Feb. 1997.
Jeff. “Of Afternoons and Coffeespoons.” Available Internet 21 Feb. 1997.
Loucks, James. “Prufrock Among the Women.” 20 Feb. 1997. Posting to TSE Listserv. INT:email@example.com.
Mays, J. C. C. “Early poems: from ‘Prufrock’ to ‘Gerontion’.” The Cambridge Companion To T. S. Eliot . Ed. David A. Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 108-120.
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