‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep… tired… or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
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,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

I became obsessed with T.S. Eliot during the year after I left school, and my fascination for his work has continued to grow since then. I remember the first time I read this poem. I was utterly enthralled, though it confused me. I read it over and over, and I’m sure I still don’t understand it entirely. It is a poem about procrastination, fear, the angst-ridden mentality of the modern man, and probably many other things too. Here I’m just going to express some of my thoughts about a poem that I really, really love.

Eliot’s poems are littered with literary references (in the same way that Prufrock begins with an extract from Dante’s Inferno, and goes on to reference Shakespeare, Marvell, and probably others which I’m not well-read enough to pick up on!) These references serve to amplify and support the notions expressed in his poems, though I think they also reflect the often fragmented nature of the modern mind (which Eliot reveals to us here through the voice of Prufrock in his monologue). In The Wasteland, Eliot’s most famous and enduring poem (which contains an enormous amount of untranslated literary references), he states that the modern man “know[s] only a heap of broken images”. I think this statement describes Prufrock perfectly, as his language is made up of reflections and repetitions of things he has heard or read before.

This poem is called a “Love Song”, and yet, from the very beginning, you notice that it is not quite conventional… Prufrock starts conventionally, by asking someone (who I presume is a woman) to go for a walk with him, but then he kills the romance by describing the evening as being “spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table”. This is not exactly a romantic description, and, for me, it sets us up for the feeling that runs through the poem that Prufrock is trapped; later on in the poem he describes himself as being like an insect “sprawling on a pin”, waiting to be inspected or dissected. Prufrock seems afraid, nervous and paranoid.

There is no romance in this ‘Love Song’; Prufrock takes his ‘date’ through “half-deserted streets”, past seedy “one-night cheap hotels”. He tells us that he has an “overwhelming question” to ask, but he keeps putting it off throughout the poem. He keeps procrastinating, but never dares to “force the moment to its crisis”. We never find out what his question is, though I think it’s a question he wants to ask the woman to whom the poem is addressed. Prufrock is so paranoid and fearful and self-conscious that he fears that the woman will reply, “That is not what I meant, at all./ That is not it, at all”. He is afraid that he has misinterpreted or misread the woman’s intentions or feelings or words, and so is afraid to ‘make a move’, as we say.

I love that way that Prufrock keeps telling himself, “There will be time”. He keeps repeating it to himself: “time yet for a hundred indecisions,/ For a hundred visions and revisions,/ Before the taking of toast and tea”. Prufrock is in denial about the passing of time, and he is wasting it on procrastination. As the mention of “the taking of toast and tea” suggests, Prufrock is very much caught up with the trivialities, conventions and material aspects of modern life. Through all his indecisions about asking the woman his “overwhelming question”, and all his wondering “Do I dare?” and turning back to “descend the stair”, he is concerned about his appearance and his clothes. He is worried about his “bald spot”, and the fact that people might notice how his “hair” and “arms and legs are thin.” He is painfully aware and afraid of the consequences that his decisions could provoke.

There seems to be a (falsely) world-weary attitude to his dilemma with the woman, as Prufrock says “I have known the eyes already, known them all”, and “I have known the arms already, known them all”. He is fixated on the individual body parts of women, like a shy person who won’t look at you directly, and he inspects them (in the way he does not want to be inspected, sprawled on a pin), noticing the “light brown hair” on their arms… In this part of the poem it seems to me that Prufrock is, very childishly, convincing himself not to ask the woman his “overwhelming question” because he knows exactly how it will go, and he has ‘seen it all before’. It’s like he’s trying to make us think that he’s been with hundreds of women, and that this woman will be just like the others (which is clearly not true, seeing how he is so afraid, and making such a fuss about asking her a question.)

Prufrock is so afraid to “force the moment to its crisis”, and ask the woman his question, because he is afraid that he has misread her, and that she will “turn toward the window” and say “That is not it, at all./ That is not what I meant, at all”. He has no self-confidence: he wonders what he could possibly say to her — what can he say about his life wandering through “narrow streets”, watching the “smoke that rises from the pipes/ Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves”? His life is so trivial, he feels, and “it is impossible to say just what I mean!”

Prufrock tells us that he is “not Prince Hamlet” — not the protagonist of a story — “nor was meant to be”. He is rather an “attendant lord”. He has only a minor part to play on the world’s stage. He will do to “swell a progress, start a scene or two”, but that’s all. He’s “an easy tool”, and “almost ridiculous –/ Almost, at times, the Fool.” Here we can see Prufrock’s poor opinion of himself, his lack of conviction.

As the poem draws to a close, it becomes clear that Prufrock has not, and will never, ask the woman his “overwhelming question”. Time has passed him by, through all his procrastination: “I grow old… I grow old…” And still, infuriatingly, he is only concerned with trivialities and his appearance: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?/ I will wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach”.

There is a real sense of loss at the end of the poem, as Prufrock states that he has “heard the mermaids singing, each to each”, but adds, “I do not think they will sing to me”. He acknowledges here that there is magic in the world — he has caught glimpses of it in the past — but it it is too late for him now; he is old, and there is no longer any hope that the mermaids will sing to him. There is no hope for the love he once wished to share with the woman he was afraid to ask his “overwhelming question”. Prufrock seems to acknowledge at the end of the poem that he has been living in denial, in a dream — “in the chambers of the sea,/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown”. He was living in a constant dream of an imagined, hypothetical tomorrow, but was never brave enough to take action, to “force the moment to its crisis”. This is what happens if we are forever putting off decisions, deluding ourselves that there will always “be time” for our hesitations and procrastinations. This kind of behaviour leads to a life lived in an imaginary dream world, until reality breaks though — until “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh