The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Summary
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot is a modernist poem narrated by a middle-aged man who grapples with mortality and inexpressibility.
- J. Alfred Prufrock guides the reader through the smoggy, lurid streets of twentieth-century London as he ponders an “overwhelming question” and worries that he is running out of time “for a hundred indecisions.”
- Prufrock visits a party of sophisticated women who “come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” but he feels self-conscious of his slender, balding appearance.
- Prufrock becomes lost in thought and feels unable to express the nature of his crisis and his question.
Last Updated on August 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 985
T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” begins with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno that sets a tone of both despair and candor. The condemned, corrupt statesman Guido da Montefeltro tells Dante that he will divulge his sinful story, for he doubts Dante will ever return to the mortal world. With the opening line, “Let us go then, you and I,” Prufrock invites readers to hear his story, laced as it is with doubt, failure, and ruin. The “you” Prufrock addresses is both an unnamed companion as well as readers of the poem.
Prufrock moves through a London landscape where “the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” As the journey passes through “half-deserted streets,” “one-night cheap hotels,” and “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells,” the bleak atmosphere thickens as Prufrock paints a portrait of a dissolute city. Here Prufrock engages in a mode of projection, using the physical city to reveal aspects of his own psychology. When Prufrock describes
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
he sees echoes of his own mental processes in his urban surroundings. The “overwhelming question” figures as a recurring obsession, one which so lurks over his thoughts that Prufrock imagines that the streets he walks down lead to that very question. The mystery of the question—“‘What is it?’”—gives the poem an added propulsion. Prufrock refuses to tell, diverting with the line “Let us go and make our visit.”
Prufrock briefly brings us to a festive parlor, where “women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” This location seems to be the “visit,” but it proves fleeting, for his attention returns to an outdoor scene in which a yellow, cat-like smog “rubs its back upon the window-panes.”
Prufrock falls into a meditation, reminding himself that “indeed there will be time,” but he does not say why he desires such consolation. Nor is it clear what he desires to do with time, for Prufrock’s aims are scattered and abstract: “time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” “time to murder and create,” and “time yet for a hundred indecisions.” He has limited time to act, but he desires more time to dither and revise.
The scene suddenly shifts back to the parlor of sophisticated women “talking of Michelangelo.” By this point, the narrative structure of the poem is more a series of fragments, connected only by the order in which they pass through Prufrock’s consciousness. Prufrock, ascending the stair (perhaps to the same parlor), deliberates and considers descending, but he fears that “they will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’” Prufrock is unsure, both about his appearance and about the question of whether he “dare[s] / Disturb the universe.”
Prufrock then shifts into a mode of world-weariness, reflecting that he has “known them all.” It is a weariness of the social world, for he has “known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,” “the voices,” “the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,” “the arms[…] that are braceleted and white and bare” and the “perfume from a dress.” He believes he has experienced all that society can offer and that it has left him unsatisfied. His mind drifts towards images of isolated figures: “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows” and “a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” whom he feels that he “should have been.”
Prufrock descends into a deeper mode of reflection. Though he struggles to articulate the topics troubling his mind, he tries, asking, “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” As with his “overwhelming question,” Prufrock does not, or cannot, name his crisis. However, he approaches it using religious language, saying “though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed[… ] I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter.” One point of clarity is that death is central to his dilemma, for he has “seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, / And in short, I was afraid.”
There is a distinct sense that, in the face of death, Prufrock wishes to know what it is all about. He expresses a desire “To have squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question.” His wish is for a universe-spanning answer. However, Prufrock feels hampered by his inability to name the question or to express his dilemma to others; as he exclaims, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” Prufrock connects this miscommunication back to the parlor scenes, imagining a woman “throwing off a shawl, / And turning toward the window [to] say: / ‘That is not it at all.’”
Prufrock shifts into a personal reflection, comparing himself to Prince Hamlet, whom he is not “meant to be.” Rather, he is “an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two.” It is an unflattering but accurate self-portrait. Prufrock embodies the self-revealing spirit of the epigraph, admitting that he is “obtuse,” “ridiculous,” and “the Fool.”
As the poem moves towards its conclusion, Prufrock chants “I grow old… I grow old…” and imagines himself walking along the beach, trousers rolled. The final moment is an echo of the ancient Greek myth of the sirens; Prufrock hears the alluring song of “mermaids singing, each to each.” As Prufrock solemnly reflects, “I do not think that they will sing to me.” Nonetheless, he imagines descending to those “chambers of the sea[…] Till human voices wake us and we drown.” The final image is notable in the way it brings about the death Prufrock has so feared. It also involves “we,” presumably the readers who have joined Prufrock on his journey and who also “drown” upon awakening from the poem as it ends.
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