The ironic character of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” an early poem by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) in the form of a dramatic monologue, is introduced in its title. Eliot is talking, through his speaker, about the absence of love, and the poem, so far from being a “song,” is a meditation on the failure of romance.
The opening image of evening (traditionally the time of love making) is disquieting, rather than consoling or seductive, and the evening “becomes a patient” (Spender 160): “When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” (2-3). According to Berryman, with this line begins modern poetry (197). The urban location of the poem is confrontational instead of being alluring. Eliot, as a Modernist, sets his poem in a decayed cityscape, ” a drab neighborhood of cheap hotels and restaurants, where Prufrock lives in solitary gloom” (Harlan 265).
The experience of Prufrock is set against that of unnamed “women” (13), collectively representing womankind. Their unattainable status is represented by their constant movement- they “come and go”- and their “polite chitchat about Michelangelo, who was a man of great creative energy, unlike Prufrock” (Harlan 265). We cannot imagine that they would listen to any love song by Prufrock, any more than they would find his name or his person attractive. “A man named J. Alfred Prufrock could hardly be expected to sing a love song; he sounds too well dressed” (Berryman 197).”J. Alfred Prufrock” indicates his formality, and his surname, in particular, indicates prudery.
The powerful metaphor, a visual image of the “yellow fog” (15) in the fourth stanza, represents the jaundiced environment of the modern city, or Eliot’s “infernal version of the forest of Arden” (Cervo 227). The image is ambiguous, however, because Eliot also makes it curiously attractive in the precision he uses in comparing the fog’s motions to that of a cat who “licked its tongue into the corners of the evening” (17). We also hear the fog, disquietingly, in that image, in the onomatopoeia of “licked.”
Repetition of “time”, in the following stanza, shows how the world of Prufrock’s being is bound to temporality. “Prufrock speaks to his listeners as if they had come to visit him in some circle of unchanging hell where time has stopped and all action has become theoretical” (Miller 183). “Time” is repeated, several times, but it is not only its inescapable presence that Eliot is emphasizing, but also the triviality of the ways in which we use it; “the taking of a toast and tea” (34).
The melancholy of Prufrock’s situation begins to emerge when he speaks of his experience of failures in love and life. The initial vitality of his invitation to go out into the evening is now replaced by images of the many evenings he has known, with their same disappointing conclusions. This meditation expands to include “mornings, afternoons” (50) – all of his life, in other words – which, in a famous image, he has “measured out with coffee spoons” (51).
The emphasis on “I” in the poem, which we would expect in a dramatic monologue, is also typical of Romanticism, with its celebration of the ego. Again, in this poem, Eliot is pointedly unromantic, as the “I” that is revealed is fit not for celebration but for ridicule, especially when Prufrock shows that he has been repeatedly diminished, even reduced to a laboratory specimen, by others’ evaluation of him. It is little wonder that his self-confidence, the essential quality of a successful lover, has been shattered.
It is women, of course, who have delivered this judgement on Prufrock. He finds them powerfully attractive, with “arms that are braceleted and white and bare” (63), but we notice that this image – like the eyes, earlier, that “fix you in a formulated phrase” (56) – does not indicate a whole person, but rather a fragment of a human being, almost lifeless, like “arms that lie along the table” (67). We may be critical of Prufrock, but the objects of his desire are scarcely more desirable. The criticism broadens to encompass a society, even civilization, and Prufrock becomes a type of human being – modern urban man, perhaps – not merely himself.
The poem is haunted by the refrain referring to the women. Prufrock is taking himself and us on a quest in pursuit of them, “Let us go then, you and I” (1). It is a Romantic image, but Prufrock’s quest is frustrated by the modern setting and by his unheroic qualities. Prufrock’s shortcomings as a potential lover and the singer of a love song by which to woo his beloved are evident in his physical features, his clothes and his behavior. “From an account of his clothes, we realize that Prufrock is not, as he at first seemed, a rebel to his surroundings” (Spender 160). Unlike the typical Romantic, he is middle-aged “with a bald spot in the middle of my hair” (40), and his clothes indicate a personality that is inhibited rather than passionate; his necktie is “rich”, but “modest” (43). He is apprehensive, too, about what others – the woman in particular – will make of him. “They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin'” (44). After this description, there is the profound irony of his question: “Do I dare / Disturb the Universe” (45-46). The universe he is referring to is “his small social circle of middle-class acquaintances” (Harlan 265). We would not imagine that he was capable of disturbing anything.
He rehearses various conversational strategies in the hope that, at last, he will find the means to divert the women from their “talking of Michelangelo” (14). These include images from the earlier part of the poem, such as “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows” (72). However, even as he does so, Prufrock is aware of the inadequacy of his procedure and would become a crab, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (74). This is another image in the poem that is both disturbing and strangely appealing. It is an image of escape.
In the final stanzas of the poem, “Eliot brings to bear a Prufrock’s dilemma four figures out of the spiritual history of man; Michelangelo, John de Baptist, Lazarus and Hamlet,” as images of the disparity between what Prufrock is and what he would be – a Lazarus, or a Hamlet, for example, figures with insights into the ultimate question of immortality and the heroic tragedy of existence (Berryman 198). At the heart of this is Prufrock’s self-acknowledge: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” (111). Rather, “Prufrock sees himself as more like Polonius, the old fool from the same play” (Harlan 266). In Shakespeare, the Fool, although dealing in nonsense and absurdity, customarily sees the truth of a matter. The poem has been a journey into Prufrock’s psychology.
The closing image of the poem includes the principal theme of Prufrock’s relationship – or non-relationship – with women which, in itself, represents the modernist disenchantment with Romanticism. Prufrock would escape to a fantasy fulfillment with the mermaids. However, even they are disappointing: “I do not think that they will sing to me” (125). Moreover, banal and destructive reality must be resumed as the dream subsides: “Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (131).
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is typical in its presentation of “modern disillusionment”, a figure who has been thwarted by life, both in terms of his own psychology and the environment of the twentieth century wasteland world, which Eliot was to treat in detail in the famous poem of that name (Harlan 266).
Berryman, John. “Prufrock’s Dilemma” The Freedom of the Poet. Farrar: Strauss, 1976: 270-78. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski and Laurie Harris. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale, 1982. 197-98.
Cervo, Nathan A. “Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'”. Explicator. Vol. 57, Issue 4, Summer 1999: 227.
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Literature and the Writing Process. Elisabeth Mc Mahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 1999. 577-80.
Harlan, Judith, and Kathleen McCoy. English Literature from 1785. New York: Harper, 1992: 265-66.
Miller, Vincent. “Eliot’s Submission to Time.” Sewance Review (Summer 1976): 448-64. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski and Laurie Harris. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale, 1978. 183-86.
Spender, Stephan. “T.S. Eliot in His Poetry.” The Destructive Element. Cape, 1935. 132-52. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. Robyn V. Young, Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale 1992. 159-62.