Comic Elements in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
It is a mistake to approach T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with the same seriousness as for The Waste Land. To enjoy this poem and get the most out of the verse, readers should have a wry sense of humor. Prufrock is an anxiety-filled, insecure, middle-aged bachelor who fears that his expressions of love will be rebuffed. First published in Poetry in 1915, and then collected in Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, Eliot used the traditional form of the dramatic monologue for the speaker, Prufrock, to express his romantic dilemma. The dramatic monologue is generally associated with nineteenth-century poets such as Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and is characterized by the voice of a single speaker who reveals something personal to the reader.
The memorable title of this poem may have been derived from an advertisement in Eliot's hometown. In The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, Hugh Kenner revealed that the "name of Prufrock-Littau, furniture wholesalers, appeared in advertisements in St. Louis, Missouri" at the beginning of this century. Although Eliot claimed that any approbation of the "now-famous German surname must have been 'quite unconscious,'" Kenner suggested that this is an early example of the "rich mischief" of Eliot's mind. By adding "J. Alfred" to the name, Eliot combines a sense of mysterious dignity to the ridiculousness of "Prufrock." Compound this with the title's claim that the work is a love song, and readers are on their way to appreciate the dry humor underlying this very famous work.
The poem opens with an epigram from Dante's Inferno in which Guido de Montefeltro, who is consumed in flames as punishment for giving false counsel, confesses his shame because he believes that it cannot be reported back on earth. In context, this excerpt is essentially Prufrock's assurance that he can confide in his reader without fear of shame for what he is about to disclose. And so the poem opens: "Let us go then, you and I," which is to say, "come along and hear my story because I can trust you." The speaker then entreats his reader to join him on an evening stroll, presumably through Boston (where there are "sawdust restaurants with oyster shells"), but not to ask "What is it?" just yet. Instead of just laying bare his quandary, the "overwhelming question," Prufrock says, "Let us go and make our visit"; he takes his reader along on a social call to reveal his inadequacies. As the poem progresses, however, it becomes apparent that the "you-and-I" format begins to collapse and Prufrock is merely talking to himself.
Prufrock first travels through the grunge of the city, filled with yellow fog and smoke (not unlike the industrial waste of Eliot's native St. Louis). Eliot imbues the scene with catlike characteristics, giving the evening a somewhat seductive feline tone: "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes"; "Licked its tongue"; "Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap" "Curled once about the house, and fell asleep." Prufrock next enters into a world of butlers and tea. Here, in an arena of vacuous social chatter, "the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo." This is the world of writer Henry James, in which proper etiquette and social grace must prevail. By opening the fourth stanza with "And indeed there will be time," Eliot echoes the memorable line "Had we but world enough and time," from Andrew Marvell's seduction poem, "To His Coy Mistress." Ironically, Prufrock does not feel compelled to seize the day. There is plenty of time for indecision as Prufrock pictures his mind racing through "a hundred visions and revisions" in the short span of time between the serving and "the taking of a toast and tea."
Prufrock repeats his conviction that "indeed there will be time" to wonder "'Do I dare?' and 'Do I dare?'"—that is, first, does he dare to make a declaration of love, and, if not, does he then dare to flee down the stairs after he rang the doorbell, knowing that the subject of his affections may spot the "bald spot in the middle" of his hair. Prufrock makes a desperate attempt to attire himself accordingly and not to overdo it with his "necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin." Yet, in his mind, Prufrock envisions his contemporaries commenting on his deteriorating appearance, imagining the remarks, "How his hair is growing thin!" and "But how his arms and legs are thin!" Balding and scrawny, the self-deprecating Prufrock again wonders, "Do I dare / disturb the universe?" In other words, does he dare to shake up the stasis...
(The entire section is 1870 words.)