Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124
Eliot spent his early adulthood studying philosophy and literature at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford; he was an intellectual and an unapologetic elitist. One result of his high-mindedness is that his poetry contains abundant allusions, many of them obscure. However, “Prufrock” is challenging—and rewarding—enough without examining every obscure reference.
With that said, there are certain cultural and literary allusions that are central to understanding the poem.
Allusions to Art and Literature: Prufrock makes allusions to art and literature that show him to be a cultured man. Though the poem has some “buried” allusions—passing references that are likely to be lost on most readers—the more explicit ones are less daunting than they may seem at first. You don’t need an in-depth understanding of the references to grasp the broader themes of the poem. Each allusion is ultimately a tool Prufrock uses in his struggle to define his own identity and his place in the world.
- Michelangelo: The first such reference comes in the two-line second stanza: “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” The mention of a Renaissance artist in this couplet isn’t laden with deep meaning, but it serves as an indication of the type of women who interest, and intimidate, Prufrock. It sets up Michelangelo as a foil for Prufrock: the fact that the women are contemplating one of the world’s boldest and most accomplished artists may make the timid, indecisive narrator feel even more self-conscious about his own shortcomings.
- “To His Coy Mistress”: The continued repetition of the phrase “there will be time” is a response to Andrew Marvell’s 1681 poem “To His Coy Mistress.” Marvell’s speaker is assertive, leveraging the swiftness of time’s passage to convince his lover that they should “sport while [they] may.” “Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball,” he commands, “And tear our pleasures with rough strife / Through the iron gates of life.” By contrast, Prufrock is timid and uncertain, and sees time as an interminable stretch in which he can examine and reexamine his chosen action and inaction. Though he understands that Marvell’s forward approach is a course open to him, Prufrock instead wonders, “Would it have been worth while. . . . To have squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question” given the potential for rejection by the target of his affection.
- John the Baptist: In the twelfth stanza, Prufrock says, “I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter.” This is an allusion to John the Baptist, the biblical prophet who was beheaded on the command of Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod. First and foremost, the allusion serves as a metaphor for Prufrock’s extreme self-consciousness, because John’s severed head is an object to be judged and a trophy for his executioners. A key element of the allusion is that John was killed on the orders of women—Salome, following the directive of her mother, demanded the execution. Women are the cause of John’s downfall, and Prufrock may believe he shares the same fate. It is also worth noting how Eliot turns the allusion into something both grandiose and self-deprecating. Prufrock obviously has not been beheaded, and drawing the comparison to John is an almost laughable exaggeration. Ever self-conscious, Prufrock recognizes this fact. By inserting the parenthetical comment about his bald spot, Prufrock laughs at the melodramatic self-image he has created. In the following line he retreats further into self-effacement, saying, “I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter.” In keeping with his contorted thinking, what he calls “no great matter” is actually a central theme of the poem: that he’s paralyzed by fear of rejection.
- Lazarus: The next stanza delivers another significant biblical allusion. Prufrock imagines himself as “Lazarus, come from the dead, / come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.” He then imagines this comment being dismissed by the woman he addresses, who replies, “That is not what I meant at all.” In the Bible, Lazarus dies of an illness before Jesus Christ brings him back to life. This makes Lazarus doubly privileged—he has returned from the dead, and through this miracle he has received affirmation of Jesus’s divinity. Prufrock feels that he possesses a similar wisdom, but his predicament is that he cannot find the words to express it. As he declares in the next stanza, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!”
- Hamlet: In stanza fifteen, Prufrock makes an explicit allusion to Hamlet. It is a crucial moment in the poem. After agonizing about an “overwhelming question” that he struggles to articulate and is certain will be misunderstood, he resigns himself to his shortcomings. In Prufrock’s words, “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” Prufrock, in his ongoing search for his own identity, casts himself as minor player in life’s drama. For many readers, this self-definition is likely to sound convincing. He sees himself as, “Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; at times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.”
Allusions to Contemporary Life: Along with literary allusions, Eliot makes reference to aspects of day-to-day life that are likely to require some clarification for students.
- In line three, Prufrock sets the mood by describing the evening sky as being “Like a patient etherised on a table.” Some students may not know that ether is an anesthetic that was commonly used in Eliot’s time. “Etherised” means “anesthetized.” The simile is worth dwelling on. Its starkness was considered shocking when “Prufrock” was first published, and it remains striking today. The image immediately announces that the poem is not a typical “love song.”
- A few lines later in the opening stanza, Prufrock refers to “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells.” In Eliot’s time, rough-hewn, working-class restaurants would often spread sawdust on their floors to sop up spills. In seaside towns, oysters were quick, easy sustenance. With this line and the ones that come before it, Eliot is describing a seedy neighborhood.
- The rest of the poem is peppered with allusions to conventional daily practices, most of which come across as a bit stuffy and old-fashioned—taking toast and tea, wearing a high collar and a tie pin. At one point Prufrock expresses shock at noticing hair beneath the bracelets on women’s arms. All of these habits and concerns mark “Prufrock” as a poem from a bygone era, but the point of Eliot’s harping on such things still comes through: Prufrock finds solace in habits and conventions.