As is so often true in literary analysis, the themes, characters, and allusions of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” shine through the particular passages of the poem. By analyzing a few of the poem’s key quotes, readers can better understand the poem as a whole:
"When the evening is spread out against the sky..."
The poem begins with Prufrock and his unnamed addressee walking through London’s red-light district. The seedy underbelly of the city stands in stark contrast to the social gathering that appears later in the poem. The setting of the opening lines introduces some of the most important ideas Prufrock goes on to express: his own helplessness and inability to take agency and his struggles finding romantic love. The image of the “evening spread out against the sky” is an early indicator of Prufrock’s conflict. The sky is helpless against evening’s advance, and Prufrock is helpless against his own flaws, which hinder him from making any active impact on the world. Prufrock and the sky are both “like a patient etherized upon a table.” Prufrock’s chronic indecision and self-consciousness render him powerless to make any change to his life. Thus the simile “Like a patient etherized upon a table” introduces the motif of powerlessness and sets the bleak tone for the rest of the poem.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized 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. . . .
"In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo"
This passage begins with unnamed women coming and going throughout the reception, discussing the Italian sculptor Michelangelo. Prufrock is bored of this party and perhaps disillusioned with the ephemeral nature of the guests’ conversation. He begins to wonder if he can find it in himself to leave the reception. However, Prufrock is conscious of himself, especially of his perceived flaws. If he were to leave the party, all eyes would be on him, on his balding head and skinny arms. And so all he does is wonder, never taking agency to leave the situation which causes him such dread.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair. . . .
"But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed..."
In this stanza, Prufrock addresses the spiritual concerns that haunt him in his sojourn through London. For the first time, Prufrock frames these concerns in religious terms. He claims to have “wept and fasted, wept and prayed,” practices associated with the Catholic and Anglican churches. Fasting and praying are intended to bring Christian practitioners into a closer union with Christ and God. As with many of Prufrock’s endeavors, these religious actions fall short of the goal, for he reflects that “I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter.” It is clear in the ensuing lines that Prufrock desires some form of belief to hold up against the inevitability of death, figured as the...
(The entire section is 867 words.)