illustration of a woman holding a glass of wine and a man, Prufrock, standing opposite her

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by T. S. Eliot

Start Free Trial

In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," what does "Do I dare disturb the universe" mean?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Prufrock, the protagonist of this poem, has convinced himself that he is not a person meant to play the main role even in his own life — he is not "Prince Hamlet," but instead an "attendant lord," someone who can suffice to serve other, more popular and important people, but not somebody who might ever be remembered. The women in the poem "come and go," and Prufrock is an outsider looking in on their conversations; seemingly, there is one woman in particular with whom Prufrock is particularly taken, but he feels that approaching her would be disturbing the natural order of the universe, in which Prufrock is a man unfit even to be sung to by sirens. The end of the poem alludes to Classical mythology, in which the female sirens captivated passing sailors and lured them to their deaths; this happened to all male sailors, but Prufrock feels that he is so unimportant and uninteresting, even the sirens would not sing to him. Therefore he worries that it would be completely contrary to what the universe wants for him if he were to "presume" to be, or to have, more than he has ever been or had. He has never been important to somebody and he feels that this is the only way things can ever really be.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this poem, Prufrock is trying to gather the courage to ask a woman a very serious question (many believe it is a marriage proposal, though Eliot doesn't state exactly what it is in the poem).  He really wants to ask her something; however, he feels like the question would be too serious, drastic, earth-shattering, and out of place in the social gatherings that he has spent his life in.  In the poem he describes the tea parties, the shallow discussions of women, the polite surface-level interactions that everyone has.  He feels he has "measured out [his] life with coffee spoons" and not done or said anything of significance or importance.  He has played a background role in every social setting.  He has been the person to blend in, be polite, "cautious, meticulous" and concerned about pleasing everyone else.  He is also very insecure and terrified of women's scrutiny and analysis.

So, given his insecurity, fear of rejection, and the boring, monotonous setting his life has been lived in up to this point, he feels that asking a woman this question will "disturb the universe".  It will change everything.  It is too serious, to life-changing, and the potential rejection might change the safe place he has in the world forever.  Life has been flowing along in a lackadaisical and easy-going way for so long that dropping a serious bomb like a marriage-proposal might be too much, and change too many things.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial