The masterpiece of his poetic apprenticeship, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” remains one of Eliot’s most intriguing and challenging poems; it may be usefully examined by listening to the voices it embodies. Like much of the poetry of Robert Browning, it is a dramatic monologue. Like the poetry of Jules Laforgue, it is a Symbolist poem that explores the narrator’s stream of consciousness as he relates, in fragmented fashion, his seemingly random thoughts that are unified by the structure of the poem.
One key to this song of misprized, reluctant, hesitant love is in the epigraph from Dante’s Inferno (XXVII) in which the speaker, Guido, reluctantly reveals the reason he is in Hell. While Prufrock finds it difficult to say what he means, he relates his thought as Guido had to Dante, without fear that his secret will be revealed to the living. The Dantean clue places the reader among the dead: This is one of the several suggestive possibilities for reading the poem and viewing its world as one of the circles that hold dead souls. The reader immediately enters what the critic Hugh Kenner has called a “zone of consciousness,” not a realistic setting, and listens to a story that is not sequential: One is invited to share a dream with disturbing overtones.
The often perplexed reader needs to make numerous decisions about the teller and the tale. Is Prufrock actually addressing the reader, as Guido did Dante, or is he talking to himself? Is he any or all of the self-caricatures he contemplates—ragged claws, John the Baptist, Lazarus, Polonius? Is he bound on an erotic mission, a visit of social obligation, or merely an imaginary prowl through half-deserted streets; does he move at all from the spot where he begins his narrative, or is all animation suspended and all action only contemplated or remembered? Readers must negotiate these and similar questions, open to a variety of answers, to determine the speaker’s identity and judge the situation in which they find themselves with Prufrock.
Similarly important are the sensory images that the voice projects, from the etherized patient to the ragged claws to the mermaids and one’s own death by drowning, which involves all the senses until consciousness is extinguished. As the voices—Prufrock’s, the women’s, the woman’s, the mermaids’, Lazarus’s, John’s—must be heard, so the images must be seen, the yellow fog and the seawater smelled and tasted, the motion of walking and the pressure of reclining felt along the nerves. Like many of Eliot’s dramatic poems, this drama calls for total sensory involvement as the reader observes with the mind’s eye the many scenes to which Prufrock refers.
Apart from its intrinsic significance, this poem foreshadows many of the concerns and techniques Eliot would explore and use in the remainder of his poetry. It stands, then, as a prelude to other work and, as Eliot would have it, is modified by that work.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a psychological profile of a white, middle-aged, middle-class, late Victorian man suffering from an acute spiritual malaise as a result of his boring, unimaginative, routine, repressed bourgeois existence. The poem, T. S. Eliot’s first major publication, immediately established his reputation as an important poet. It also announced one of the themes that Eliot explored throughout his career: the emptiness of modern life, made tedious by habit, sterilized by convention, in which self-awareness does not lead to self-knowledge but only to existential paralysis.
Prufrock epitomizes a frustrated man hopelessly alienated from his imagination and yet desperate for imaginative salvation. His life is filled with meaningless gestures and predictable encounters; his seamy world is agonizingly uninspiring. Prufrock is an effigy representing the cultural decadence and moral degeneration that Eliot equates with the society of his time. He is the product of a world suffering from a break with its past cultural heritage, a loss of tradition, a failure of institutional authority, and an unhealthy emphasis on individualism.
Eliot incorporates hallucinatory imagery to create a lethargic world where “the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table.” The women who “come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” suggest the transience and shallowness of contemporary relationships while ironically reducing the work of an Italian Renaissance master. Prufrock is afraid to “force the moment to its crisis.” The people in his world mask their emotions and “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” The streets are “insidious” and “half-deserted”; people spend “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.” Deadened by routine, he complains that he has “measured out my life in coffee spoons.” The portrait of Prufrock is particularly unflattering, but more pathetic because he realizes the nature of his dilemma but is still incapable of rectifying it. His vision at the end of the poem is one of possible redemption, of “mermaids singing,” but his resignation is complete; he does not think that they will sing to him.
His identity crisis is exacerbated by the historical, social, and political upheavals that ripped Europe apart in the early twentieth century. His passivity, his lack of self-confidence, and the cultural squalor created by mediocrity constitute a searing indictment of a man bewildered by a world seemingly beyond his control, who lacks the moral courage to confront the situation, to assert himself and to change it. Prufrock mirrors the hostility and contempt Eliot felt toward modern twentieth century culture; he also depicts the type of individual Eliot felt the modern culture would create. Prufrock is an ineffectual boor whose singular identity is being eroded by the instability of his society; he is a face prepared for other faces.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” marks the beginning of the modernist movement in Anglo-American poetry. It is the first English-language poem in the twentieth century to employ free verse, startling juxtapositions of allusion and situation, an intensely self-conscious speaker (or “persona”), and a truly urban setting. The initial quotation is from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the great fourteenth century epic describing the author’s descent into the Inferno and eventual ascent into Paradise. The lines (in Italian) are spoken by one of the damned souls to Dante as he journeys through Hell. Like souls in the Inferno, Prufrock exists in a kind of living death.
In the poem’s opening lines, Prufrock invites the reader to accompany him as he walks through a modern city making his social rounds. Perhaps he assumes that they share his comfortable wealth and socially active lifestyle. As his proper, even prissy, name implies, Prufrock is neurotic, fearful, sensitive, and bored. His upper-class friends—the women who “come and go”—apparently lead arid and pointless lives. At any rate, what is evident right from the outset of the poem is that Prufrock is unhappy with his life. His unhappiness, he suspects, has something to do with the society in which he lives: There is, for example, the jarring clash between the grim cityscape through which he walks and the mindless tea-party conversation of his friends.
One important way in which this poem is different from the poetry of the century before it is the way in which the speaker describes nature. In the nineteenth century, poets described the natural world as the real home of God, as the fountain at which weary human beings could refresh themselves. A nineteenth century poet, such as William Wordsworth, might have described the coming of evening as being “gentle, like a nun.” In contrast, Prufrock’s evening is like a very sick person awaiting an operation; the dusk over the city is anesthetized and spread-eagled on an operating table. The urban images that follow this one are just as grim: Prufrock’s city, which is perhaps Eliot’s London, is a town of cheap hotels and bad restaurants. The streets appear sinister; they seem to threaten the people walking in them, bullying them with pointed questions. The urban landscape is made even more ominous by a “yellow fog” that, catlike, “rubs” against windows and “licks” the “corners of the evening.”
As night falls and the fog settles in, Prufrock describes another landscape—this time, a temporal one where time stretches to infinity. He knows, however, that he will not be able to use this time to advantage; as usual, he will be indecisive. “There will be time” enough, he says, but only for “a hundred indecisions.”
Like the limitless streets outside his window, infinite time also threatens Prufrock. The more life he has left to live, the more he is left to wonder and to question. Wondering and questioning frighten him because the answers that they provoke might challenge the perfect, unchanging regularity of his tidy existence. He knows that time is dangerous, that “In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Nothing, in other words, is as settled as it seems. Nothing that has happened to Prufrock in his life is particularly comforting: He would like his life to change, but at the same time he fears change and the unexpected events that change might bring. He feels as though he already knows everything that is bound to happen to him. He especially knows the kinds of people whom he is likely to continue meeting—socialites who pin him down with their critical scrutiny.
Yet something besides these general, abstract worries bothers Prufrock. His chronic indecision blocks him from some important action. The reader never learns specifically what this thwarted act might be, but Prufrock seems to address a woman, perhaps one he loves. Their friends appear to gossip about them “among the porcelain” teacups. Prufrock implies, however, that the woman would reject him if he could ever gather his courage and tell her how he feels. He pictures her sitting in her genteel drawing room, explaining that she had not meant to encourage him: “That is not what I meant at all,” she tells him.
Prufrock knows, in any case, that he cannot be the hero of anyone’s story; he cannot be Hamlet (despite Hamlet’s similar bouts of indecision)—instead, he is only a bit player, even a Fool. He imagines himself growing old, unchanged, worrying about his health and the “risks” of eating a peach. Still, he faintly hears the mermaids of romance singing in his imagination, even though they are not singing to him. In a final imagined vision, he sees these nymphs of the sea, free and beautiful, calling him. Reality, however, intrudes in the form of “human voices,” perhaps those of the art-chattering women, and he is “drowned” in his empty life.