In T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," where does the speaker want to take his companion/where does he want them to go?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am not one to believe that a poem has only one meaning. In fact, despite the author's intentions, any piece of art takes on a deeper significance based upon the personal experiences of the person interacting with his/her art. Analyzing a poem is subjective. With that said, this response is based upon what I think.

The speaker in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" uses personification, allusion and marvelous imagery, among other literary devices, to describe the places he has been, the people he has seen and spent time with, how people see him, and what he expects from his future.

The first thing the speaker asks of the woman to go out on the town with him.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised 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.

The question the reader is left with is what is the question he tells her not to ask? He wants to go out without worrying about the question, perhaps because it could alter their joy of the night or their relationship, or both. The places he suggests visiting do not sound extremely enticing. He speaks of "sawdust restaurants" (not very fancy) and "one-night cheap hotels." Perhaps the question he fears is the one she will ask him: Do you love me? Will you marry me? Will you respect me in the morning?

On the other hand, however, especially in referring to the segment below, I believe there may be enough to argue that the speaker begins to think about establishing a commitment between them, perhaps marriage, so that there time together will not end here, but continue. The speaker might simply desire that whatever it is that is special between them at the moment should not be disturbed.

As the speaker continues, he realizes that he is getting older—that the hair on his head is growing thinner. He recognizes that he will become thin in his arms and legs (and people will talk of it) and that as he ages, he will have to roll up the bottoms of his pants as he begins to diminish in stature. The paragraph below, along with comments throughout the poem, prompt me to believe that the speaker wants to use his time wisely, recognizing the limited period one has here on earth.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so
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
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.

In personifying the afternoon and evening, he points out that both sleep along side of the man and woman. It could be interpreted that the afternoon and evening sleep on the floor beside the furniture on which the couple sits, or that the man and woman are also stretched out on the floor. This second idea doesn't make sense because having "tea and cakes and ices" sounds like a polite afternoon refreshment rather than food a couple would share after making love.

With this in mind, I would suggest that while the speaker first thought they could just go out for a night of fun on the town, as the afternoon progresses into evening and the time for refreshment arrives, he wonders if he should not "force the moment to its crisis?"

What he may now be struggling with is whether or not he should ask her the question that is on his heart? Perhaps he has come to realize that having one night out (perhaps a practice of younger days) is not what he really wants. If he has spent so much time running around on his own, he may have come to the conclusion that he needs to rethink things. Perhaps he wants her to stay with him, to marry him. (A woman at that time would have found it nearly impossible to live with a man outside of wedlock in that it would destroy her reputation within society, so marriage would be more likely.) 

The speaker has been preoccupied about what to do: he has prayed and fasted, usually something one does in looking for Divine direction—for God to guide him about what to do. He admits that he is frightened. He is not a prophet, he notes (alluding to John the Baptist...who literally lost his head at the whim of a woman collecting a promise from a king), and he does not know exactly what the future hold. He does, however, know that time is passing quickly. He writes:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,  
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat,      
and snicker...

This means that he will soon be passing the prime of his life, that his greatness (perhaps meaning his popularity or his male prowess) has begun to flicker indicating a time in the future when it will be diminished permanently. He also alludes to death when writing of the "eternal Footman" who waits patiently to gather the speaker and take him from this world. The fact that death snickers indicates its knowledge that in the end, he will take the speaker away. Perhaps he snickers also because the man's fear makes him hesitate and death knows how foolish this is. 

Throughout the poem, the speaker notes that he has spent lots of time with countless people, such as women with long and lovely arms, "Talking of Michelangelo." Suddenly he has asked himself:

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

Should he mess with the good life he has had until now? My sense is that if he decides to make his move (perhaps to settle down with a wife), it will certainly not go unnoticed by those members of society with whom he spends so much of his time. He feels safe living in what he knows of life at the moment. However, I believe he is also beginning to understand that it matters not what others think as much as seizing an opportunity when it presents itself, for it may never occur again. Time is slipping away.

Read the study guide:
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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