“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is written in the form of a dramatic monologue and expresses Prufrock’s longing, alienation, and despair. Addressed to an unknown companion that at times seems to be a love interest and at times seems to be himself, he begins by inviting said person to join him on a walk through the lonely, poorer parts of the city—the red-light district with its brothels and “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells.” A question is poised to be asked, but Prufrock evades it, asking instead that they continue their journey.
A rhyming couplet is introduced at this point, to be repeated once more later in the poem:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
From this the reader learns that Prufrock is not, as expected, wandering through the city with his companion, but is rather attending a gathering at which the other guests speak unrelentingly of only a single sophisticated topic, even as they “come and go.” The contrast is striking with the squalor of the red-light district that Prufrock had wound through in his mind.
In the next stanza, the fog is anthropomorphized:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
The fog, ostensibly emulating a cat, is a yellowish color that speaks of illness.
Prufrock speaks next of time and indecision. “There will be time,” as he states, for nearly everything—murder and creation and, most of all, hesitation:
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
The line about the women who come and go is repeated once more, to emphasize its importance and ground the reader in Prufrock’s actual surroundings, and then the imagined setting morphs into the gathering. Prufrock worries about his physical appearance and manner of dress, his bald spot and thin limbs and “necktie rich and modest,” and imagines that the women will gossip about him as he turns away in fear and descends the stairs. His indecision is pronounced in this stanza. He asks himself:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will
In the next three stanzas, the phrases “known them all” and “should I presume” are repeated three times, as though to emphasize that he has no right to propose anything of a woman. When he wonders how indeed he may presume, he thinks of how to start:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of
His loneliness and isolation are clear in this passage, as is the depth of his self-loathing: Prufrock believes himself no better than a lowly crustacean scuttling across the ocean depths.
He then contemplates just how he can “force the moment to its crisis.” Prufrock compares himself to John the Baptist:
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald]
brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter
Greatness eludes him, as he knows well; Prufrock succumbs once more to fear. He questions if it even would have been worth it, had he worked up the strength to ask:
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"—
But he cannot imagine that she should say yes to his advances, and finishes the fantasy with her rejection:
"That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."
He dwells upon the train of thought in the next stanza, repeating her refusal once more, before claiming that he is not Hamlet—also known for his indecision, but who is a main character at heart. Prufrock believes himself to be a bit player, an “attendant lord” rather than a prince. He describes himself:
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Prufrock dwells on the fact that he is aging and likely to spend his life alone, without ever changing his hesitating habits. Romanticising the concept, he imagines mermaids along the beach he walks upon. They sing “each to each” but not to him, symbolizing the siren call of romance. In the end of the poem, he groups himself with the mermaids—when human voices wake him, both he and the mermaids drown.