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The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

Page history last edited by Alexandra Howard 15 years, 9 months ago


T.S. Eliot (1888–1965).  Prufrock and Other Observations.  1917.
 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
         S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
  A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
  Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
  Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
  Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
  Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats         5
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent[1]
To lead you to an overwhelming question …         10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,         15
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,         20
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.[2]
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;         25
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;         30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea[3].
In the room the women come and go         35
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”[4]
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—         40
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare         45
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,         50
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;[5]
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
  So how should I presume?
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—         55
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?         60
  And how should I presume?
And I have known the arms already, known them all— [6]
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress         65
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
  And should I then presume?
  And how should I begin?
      .      .      .      .      .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets         70
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.[7]
      .      .      .      .      .
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!         75
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?         80
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet[8]—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,         85
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it[9], after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,         90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,[10]
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—         95
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
  Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
  That is not it, at all.”[11]
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,         100
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:         105
Would it have been worth while[12]
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
  “That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all.”
      .      .      .      .      .
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,         115
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …[13]         120
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.[14]         125
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea[15]
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown         130
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.


  1. The poet uses a simile here to compare the arrangement of the streets in the city with the format of a tedious argument. The image that is created makes the reader think of winding streets that have no order or conclusion. This comparison follows several images of the city, such as the cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants. By using a simile, the author allows the reader to picture the setting of the poem from a different perspective.
  2. In this stanza the pollution is given characteristics of an animal. It "rubs its back" and "rubs its muzzle on the window-panes", and it circles before going to sleep much like a dog or another animal would. This makes the already unnaturally colored air seem even more dangerous, as if it were a creature trying to get at people inside their houses.
  3. This stanza really accentuates the paradox of time that exists for Prufrock. Here we see a repetition of "time" and the idea that there is time for everything and anything. Prufrock brings us through so many things that can be done with time but then shoves it into the finite box of "Before the taking of toast and tea." Suddenly "time" is not a linear, chronological thing, it is an abstract and expansive entity, almost anachronous in its own existence. Time IS space, and the space around Prufrock is endless and closing in on him simultaneously as he takes his "toast and tea".
  4. Alfred Prufrock appears to be a a fairly timid man when it comes to pursuing women. The question "Do I dare" alerts us to the fact that Alfred has played with the idea of speaking to a woman, yet he is hesitant to do so. In addition, the phrase "there will be time" is repeated continuously, which reminds us once again that Alfred is apprehensive in many aspects of his middle-aged life.
  5. This line expresses very clearly the distress in the narrator. Throughout the poem he is caught between being hopeful and hopeless and at this moment, his hopelessness is explicit. He feels his life is meaningless and can be measured, not by his accomplishments or relationships, but by the simple object of a coffee spoon.
  6. In this stanza, he randomnly starts commenting about how many "arms" of women he has seen and observed. He himself says afterwards that he's "digressing" from his thoughts (of how to approach women or a woman) due to his insecurity around them. However, following the acknowledgement of his digression, he makes yet another comment about women's arms in line 67. I feel at this point he is trivially delaying himself on purpose from doing whatever it is that he wants to do.
  7. Here, we can clearly see that the speaker feels hopeless and discouraged. After questioning "how should I begin" (line 69), he can only come up with how he has wandered through the streets only to watch "lonely men" (line 71) like himself. He then concludes to say that instead of being human, he should have been "a pair of ragged claws" (line 73). Contrary to being only sad, the speaker seems bitter and angry towards himself for being cowardly. The alliterations in line 74 also gives the sentence a harsh tone.
  8. The speaker of the poem exclaims that he is no prophet and shows indecision throughout the poem. He makes references to "a hundred visions and revisions" and "decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse." At the conclusion of the poem, he makes an allusion to Hamlet, a character who is constantly indecisive about how to avenge his father's murder. It seems like he has a lot to share with the reader but affirms that he is no prophet, almost as if he is hesitant to a conclusion.
  9. Alfred Prufrock contantly presents himself as an indecisive person throughout this poem. He considers and realizes that there are times for numerous opportunities(4th stanza) and changes. Yet, he is torn between thoughts("To wonder") and action("to turn back and descend the stair"). Here, he questions the meaningfulness of consequences of changes that could have been made, perhaps to make his miserable timidity seem reasonable.
  10. Alfred Prufrock heavily utilizes anaphoras in this certain poem. In lines 91 to 94, the poet uses an anaphora of to+verb, which give the lines a sense of unity as well an emphasis. Anaphoras are also seen in lines 26 to 28 by using "there will be time..." as well as lines 100 to 102 by using "after the..."
  11. The speaker employs a combination of lyrical language typical of a dramatic monologue with superfluous social flourishes, including the "pillow by her head," the "cup, the marmalade, the tea." This counterintuitive juxtaposition helps illustrate the internal conflicts within the speaker. He compares the gutsy progression of social interaction with the superhuman feat of squeezing "the universe into a ball." This hyperbolic image, which is directed toward "an overwhelming question" exaggerates and almost satirizes Prufrock's uncertainty and insecurity. The "question" which plagues him, of whether or not such a minute action among a pseudoculture would be of any value, takes on the epic nature of holding the world and letting it roll into uncertainty.
  12. Prufrock repeats the line "would it have been worthwhile." Often times a poet will repeat lines in order to emphasize the importance of what the poet is trying to convey in his theme. In this case it seems as though Prufrock is repeating the line not for us but for himself. It is as if he is trying to convince himself that "it" would not have been worthwhile by asking whether "it" would have, it meaning becoming more outgoing and acting upon his passions. He is asking himself this because he might be afraid to acknowledge the fact that he was wrong in his actions and should have pursued his life in a different more worthwhile way.
  13. The repetition and punctuation in these lines indicate the author's preoccupation with the passage of time. Throughout the poem, there are many reference of time. The fourth and fifth stanzas begin by repeating the line "And indeed there will be time" (ln. 23, 37). The repetition of the word time is constant, especially in the fourth stanza. There are numerous indications of the passage/preoccupation with time including: "With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-" (ln. 40); "In a minute there is time/ For decisions..." (ln. 47-48); and "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons" (ln. 51).
  14. In the stanza prior and this line in particular, the reader notices the insecurity in the voice of the speaker. He consistently questions himself throughout the poem in relation to women, looks, and personality. The mermaidshere may act as a symbol for the women in the speaker's life who have ignored him. When he states, "I do not think they will sing to me," one understands the disappointment in the tone of the speaker. These particular lines stood out among the rest because not only do they show metaphor but additionally tone and emotion.
  15. Within this line, the speaker actually consumes the reader by using the subject “We.” It tends to wrap up the whole poem, as the stream of consciousness takes the reader though so many events in middle aged life that by the end, the reader is now part of the journey. The speaker here forces the reader to join them, and creates a somber mood and tone while ending the poem as “we drown.”

Comments (1)

nomeaku@... said

at 12:46 am on Sep 12, 2008

Based on the name the author chose to use in the title, it gives the poem a pompous and sophisticated aura. In addition, many of the ideas and statements made seem to be juxtaposed together. They seem related yet unrelated, in a weird way. Even the random manner of rhyme scheme he chooses to use adds to the unorthodox and unusual structure of the poem.

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