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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ()


Nobel Prize Winners (1948)

I would not presume to claim that I understand all, maybe not even much, of what Eliot meant in his allusion-packed Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but what I comprehend of it I really like.  Moreover, rereading it just recently, I was struck by how frequently the words and phrases of the poem have been borrowed by subsequent authors, particularly how many titles are derived from the poem.  So, before I say a few words about the themes Eliot seems to be mining, here's the poem with hyperlinks to the works by others that I'm aware of, which derive at least their titles from this piece :
 

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)
 

                                                            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. [translation]

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
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
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,
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,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
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;
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.
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-
[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
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,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
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-
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?
And how should I presume?
And I have known the arms already, known them all-
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
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
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.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
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?
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-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,
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, 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,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
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"-
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
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:
Would it have been worth while
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,
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...
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.
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
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown

As you can see from that brief exercise, the language that Eliot uses here has certainly had at least a superficial impact on the culture.  Just as he alludes to many predecessors in his choices of phrases, his fellow artists allude back to him, knowing that his words will be remembered and recognized.  This is appropriate because somehow, stubbornly, even with the decline of formalism and structure in poetry, most of us still think that great poetry should at least utilize lyrical language, and phrases and images which remain with us.  Prufrock easily passes that test.

But pretty words and memorable mental pictures do not suffice to make a poem great; it should also convey ideas.  Here too Prufrock meets the mark.  You don't have to be religious yourself, or even approve of religion generally, to acknowledge that the most important idea of the modern era is that  God is dead.  Whatever else belief in God may have done, it gave Man a sense of value, of purpose, and of mission.  To the extent that we considered ourselves to be God's creation, considered ourselves to be animated by a divine spark, considered the Bible to contain the word of God, considered ourselves bound by God's commandments and later by Christ's teachings, and considered Heaven to be our eventual goal, Man had an external belief system, framed by certain absolute laws, which gave a certainty to life, and alleviated doubt.

This all began to unravel in the Rennaisance, the Reformation, and the Age of Reason, as Western Man placed increasing importance on men generally and on the self.  This process was greatly accelerated by scientific discoveries and theories which tended to discredit the Bible, explain away the need for God as the Creator, and suggest that Man might some day come to understand even the most fundamental processes of that Creation.  Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein each in their own way served to undermine the old certainties of the Judeo-Christian world.  But even as the crucial tenets which had provided the framework for Western Civilization were torn away, no structure of equal sturdiness was erected to take its place.

The Twentieth Century saw fundamental reconsiderations of Man's place in the cosmos, of the basis for and the validity of morality, of the existence of free will and of the soul, etc., etc., etc.  Darwinists proposed that we were merely a random, and temporary, mutation.  Marx proposed that we are merely pawns acted upon by the forces of history.  Freud opined that we are simply the product of the interplay between id, ego and superego.  Einstein, though it's not what his theory said, lent an official imprimatur to the idea that everything is relative.  Small wonder then that the defining feature of Modern culture is doubt.

Eliot seized upon this quintessential characteristic of modernity and crafted its singular love song, one that is hesitant, doubt-filled, angst-ridden, and neurotic to its core.  To begin with, we're not even sure to whim he's addressing himself.  The opening quotation is from Dante's Inferno and refers to a character telling Dante that he's only sharing his innermost thoughts because he's certain Dante will never make it out of Hell.  It seems fair to suggest that's how Eliot (Prufrock) felt about us, his readers.  The poem that follows then consists of Eliot/Prufrock studiously avoiding the "overwhelming question" which is presumably the whole point of the love song and repeatedly denigrating himself.  It raises procrastination ("time yet for a hundred indecisions,/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/Before the taking of a toast and tea") and abject humility (I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas) to the status of high art.

The stanza that, for me, really drives the point home is :

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

Hamlet is notorious for his hesitancy, which leads to tragedy.  Eliot/Prufrock is suggesting that he's not even the equal of the dithering Dane, perhaps not even an attendant, but a Fool.  If the defining flaw of our literature's greatest tragic figure is hesitation and self-doubt, then whither the culture which has become broadly afflicted with these same flaws ?

Fine, we'll assume God is dead; Man has no soul; right and wrong are relative; good and evil are mere terms of art; Man is simply one of the animals, perhaps not even one of the more valuable ones; and human life begins and ends whenever we decide it does.  Where does, where did, this path lead ? To Communism, Nazism, eugenics, genocide, abortion on demand, sodomy, pederasty, incest, Wicca, etc,, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

In this "love song," T.S. Eliot captures the spirit of the age, the sense of inadequacy and avoidance of conclusions which so characterize modern Man.  Even if many of the references and allusions go right over most our heads, the tone that he establishes, the tension he creates by continually backing away from the main question, and the unforgettable language and imagery make this a pivotal work of 20th Century Literature.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

T. S. Eliot (3 books reviewed)
Poetry
Nobel Prize Winners
T. S. Eliot Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Eliot, T. S.
    -Academy of American Poets: T. S. Eliot
    -Nobel Laureates: Thomas Stearns Eliot
    -Literature Online: Addison-Wesley's Literature Online--A site to support Kennedy & Gioia's Literature, 7th Edition.
    -T. S. Eliot Poems
     -Literary Research Guide: T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
    -T.S. Eliot (Most Web)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: NY Times Book Review
    -OBIT : T.S. Eliot, the Poet, is Dead in London at 76  (Tuesday, January 5, 1965, NY Times)
    -LINKS: American Modernism
    -ETEXT: The Hollow Men
    -ETEXT: Annotated
    -ESSAY: Eliot and the Follies of the Time (Russell Kirk, 08/01/08, First Principles)
    -LECTURE: The Politics of T.S. Eliot  (Russell Kirk, The Heritage Foundation)
    -ARTICLE : T.S. Eliot took pause when writing of cats (ARTHUR HIRSCH, Baltimore Sun)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot's Political 'Middle Way' (Michael R. Stevens, Religion & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: A craving for reality:  T. S. Eliot today (Roger Kimball, The New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: TS Eliot's Hollow Men (AMANDA J. WAGGONER)
    -ESSAY: What T.S. Eliot Almost Believed  (J. Bottum, First Things)
    -ESSAY : T. S. Eliot's Political "Middle Way" (Michael R. Stevens, Acton Institute)
    Nudge-Winking: a review of The 'Criterion': Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Interwar Britain by Jason Harding (Terry Eagleton, 19 September 2002, London Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Pun and Games:  A New Approach to Five Early Poems by T. S. Eliot (Professor Patricia Sloane, New York City Technical College of The City University of New York)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot: Poet and Critic as Historical Theorist (Scott Weidner)
    -ESSAY: Was T.S. Eliot a Scoundrel?  Although the poet's anti-Semitism is beyond dispute, its centrality to his work is open to question (John Gross, Commentary)
    -ESSAY : Shell Game: Clawing away at Eliot (Rick Perlstein, Lingua Franca, September 1997)
    -ESSAY : The Bones in Mr. Eliot's Closet : Rediscovering the patron saint of all the flawed and haunted seekers of modernity. (Michael R. Stevens, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY : The Two Eliots : "To all appearances," a biographer writes, "Eliot was conventional, mild, decorous, yet the hidden character was daring and savage." (Jewel Spears Brooker, Books & Culture)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Eliot's Poetry  by T. S. Eliot (Spark Note, Melissa Martin)
    -ESSAY : Words alone :  Denis Donoghue explains the genesis of his forthcoming book on T.S. Eliot (Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot. By Denis Donoghue (Frank Kermode, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of Words Alone : The Poetry of T. S. Eliot by Denis Donoghue (Adam Kirsch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of WORDS ALONE: THE POET T.S. ELIOT.  By Denis Donoghue (The Economist)
    -REVIEW:  Louis Menand: How Eliot Became Eliot, NY Review of Books
        Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 by T.S. Eliot and edited by Christopher Ricks
        The Waste Land, the 75th anniversary edition by T.S. Eliot
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT: A Study in Character and Style By Ronald Bush (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of ELIOT'S NEW LIFE By Lyndall Gordon (Denis Donoghue, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT. A Life By Peter Ackroyd (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT A Life By Peter Ackroyd (A. Walton Litz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: T. S. ELIOT, ANTI-SEMITISM AND LITERARY FORM By Anthony Julius (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of  Louis Menand: Eliot and the Jews, NY Review of Books
        T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form by Anthony Julius
    -REVIEW: The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (Hugh Kenner, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Eliot, T. S.
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: NY Times Book Review
    -Academy of American Poets: T. S. Eliot
    -Nobel Laureates: Thomas Stearns Eliot
    -ETEXTS : T.S. Eliot (Bartleby.com)
    -Literature Online: Addison-Wesley's Literature Online--A site to support Kennedy & Gioia's Literature, 7th Edition.
    -T. S. Eliot Poems
    -TSE: The Web Site and Listserv
     -Literary Research Guide: T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
    -T.S. Eliot (Most Web)
    -OBIT : T.S. Eliot, the Poet, is Dead in London at 76  (Tuesday, January 5, 1965, NY Times)
    -LINKS: American Modernism
    -ETEXT: The Hollow Men
    -ETEXT: Annotated
    -LECTURE: The Politics of T.S. Eliot  (Russell Kirk, The Heritage Foundation)
    -ARTICLE : T.S. Eliot took pause when writing of cats (ARTHUR HIRSCH, Baltimore Sun)
    -ESSAY: A craving for reality:  T. S. Eliot today (Roger Kimball, The New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: TS Eliot's Hollow Men (AMANDA J. WAGGONER)
    -ESSAY: What T.S. Eliot Almost Believed  (J. Bottum, First Things)
    -ESSAY : T. S. Eliot's Political "Middle Way" (Michael R. Stevens, Acton Institute)
    -ESSAY: Pun and Games:  A New Approach to Five Early Poems by T. S. Eliot (Professor Patricia Sloane, New York City Technical College of The City University of New York)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot: Poet and Critic as Historical Theorist (Scott Weidner)
    -ESSAY: Was T.S. Eliot a Scoundrel?  Although the poet's anti-Semitism is beyond dispute, its centrality to his work is open to question (John Gross, Commentary)
    -ESSAY : Shell Game: Clawing away at Eliot (Rick Perlstein, Lingua Franca, September 1997)
    -ESSAY : The Bones in Mr. Eliot's Closet : Rediscovering the patron saint of all the flawed and haunted seekers of modernity. (Michael R. Stevens, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY : The Two Eliots : "To all appearances," a biographer writes, "Eliot was conventional, mild, decorous, yet the hidden character was daring and savage." (Jewel Spears Brooker, Books & Culture)
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE : T.S. Eliot's Poetry (Spark Notes)
    -T. S. Eliot Prufrock Page
    -ESSAY :   "Prufrock, J. Alfred Prufrock" : Observations on Eliot's "love song"-and its unlikely  leading man (Christopher Ricks, Atlantic Unbound | April 11, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Alienation and Problems Finding Meaning in Life: A Comparison of the Victorian and Modernist Perceptions As Exemplified by Dover Beach and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Kim Rollins)
    -ESSAY : T.S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,  or, All at Sea with T.S.E.* (Robert Sward)
    -ESSAY : What, if anything, does T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" have to say about love? Is the poem's title anything more than a bleak joke? If it isn't about love, what is it about? ( Greg Hurrell, Wincent's Web Site)
    -ESSAY : Words alone :  Denis Donoghue explains the genesis of his forthcoming book on T.S. Eliot (Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot. By Denis Donoghue (Frank Kermode, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of Words Alone : The Poetry of T. S. Eliot by Denis Donoghue (Adam Kirsch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of WORDS ALONE: THE POET T.S. ELIOT.  By Denis Donoghue (The Economist)
    -REVIEW:  Louis Menand: How Eliot Became Eliot, NY Review of Books
        Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 by T.S. Eliot and edited by Christopher Ricks
        The Waste Land, the 75th anniversary edition by T.S. Eliot
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT: A Study in Character and Style By Ronald Bush (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of ELIOT'S NEW LIFE By Lyndall Gordon (Denis Donoghue, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT. A Life By Peter Ackroyd (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT A Life By Peter Ackroyd (A. Walton Litz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: T. S. ELIOT, ANTI-SEMITISM AND LITERARY FORM By Anthony Julius (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of  Louis Menand: Eliot and the Jews, NY Review of Books
        T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form by Anthony Julius
    -REVIEW: The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (Hugh Kenner, NY Times Book Review)

GENERAL:
    -REVIEW : of The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. By John Carey Hitler, Spam, and Modernism (Roger Kimball, First Things)

[translationfrom Dante's Inferno] If I thought my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy. [return to poem]

Comments:

I think he is a pretty good thinker but by being a student of English literature, he created a great mess for us to understand such thoughts in each word which belongs to somebody else(the poet)not to us.There must be notes to each word.

- Durre Seemeen.

- May-17-2006, 09:22

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Your insights are marvelous and incredible. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas with me. I am doing a paper on the poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and needed a source for some background information. The sources that you listed and your own explication of the poem was indeed beneficial. Thank you for all of your time and effort!

Sincerely,

Vanessa

- Vanessa Choffin

- Nov-26-2002, 11:21

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