A Close Reading of T.s. Eliot’s the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a modern journey into and dissection of the mind of a society man, J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is pushed in two opposite directions by his desires: his desire to have the favor of the woman he admires from afar, and his desire to protect himself from rejection. This theme of division and opposites is seen throughout the poem, and even its protagonist’s name can be seen as an example of this– his last name, “Prufrock,” can be read two ways. Read as “Pru-frock,” the name is suggestive of a certain weakness; the two words that come to mind are “prudish/prudence” and “frock,” which suggest a womanly, restricted character. Read another way, “Pruf-rock,” the name suggests a manly, solid character. The poem builds inexorably to the “overwhelming question”, whether or not Prufrock will be able to conquer his fear and act, to win the favor of the lady in question.
The opening phrase, in italics, is from “The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri,” and it says, to paraphrase, “If I knew these words would or could be repeated, I would not say them.” This serves to perhaps put the reader into the frame of mind of an explorer, one who observes unseen; the last thing it seems Prufrock would want would be for anyone to know his true feelings, though as we see later it is himself who is doing the exploring. This theme is carried over into the opening lines of the first verse paragraph, when the speaker describes the evening as being “…[S]pread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table;” at first glance, this does not seem to make much sense, but consider—for what purpose is one anesthetized? One is “etherised” for surgery, for dissection, for exploration of the interior. If we take the poem to be an exploration of a
Divided mind, the meaning seems clear. Prufrock’s dilemma seems to have come to a head, on an evening among society—and perhaps in the company of his admiree, so I read the two as being synonymous—the evening, and Prufrock’s dilemma. Eliot goes on, in the first verse paragraph, to tell us that the message of the poem will not be told to us outright, but will be revealed to us through our observation and study of Prufrock’s interior stream-of-consciousness, when he says “Oh do not ask ‘What is it?’” The poet/speaker himself bows out of the scene at the end of the first verse paragraph, with the sentence “Let us go and make our visit….,” and we move into the mind of Prufrock.
Next we have the sentence “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” This singsong cadence and rhyme suggests a certain inconsequentiality, a triviality, which one would imagine is typical of drawing-room conversations of any era, and the conversation of Victorian-era women in particular. Immediately we have a sense of place and of setting.
The next verse paragraph, about “yellow fog,” seems less clear in meaning. It is given some of the attributes of a cat, which when considered in light of the rest of the poem makes sense; a cat is reserved and delicate in demeanor and appearance. The smoke, because of its yellow color may be meant also to represent cowardice, which is certainly appropriate—what the significance of combining these two images is, I do not quite understand. Finally, fog is an ephemeral barrier, blocking only sight; perhaps, to reach a little, the fog represents boundaries that aren’t really there, but are perceived as being impenetrable; Prufrock, certainly, could penetrate the boundaries, which he has set upon himself, if he so desired. This goes well with a reading of the color as an indication of cowardice, as Prufrock’s boundaries or inhibitions may be seen as being the products of fear. This image is carried over into the next verse paragraph, concerning Prufrock’s sense of time.
Time plays a large role in the poem. Prufrock insists on repeating the phrase “There will be time” over and over, as a sort of mantra. This too can have a double meaning: on the one hand, he sees that there will be time enough to perhaps discover his courage. From a more negative point of view, in which his failure to act is a foregone and immutable fact, time exists as an instrument of his torture. The “Michelangelo” phrase is repeated again after the third verse paragraph, as if to remind us that time indeed is passing, and Prufrock, after this intrusion from the outside world, goes on with his meditation on time, which then segues into further characterization of the man.
It is telling that Prufrock’s perception of himself as a physical being is seen first through his own eyes—he simply declares that he has a “bald spot in the middle of [his] hair’” and goes on to describe his clothing, which seems to be more than acceptable—and then, immediately, through the eyes of society. This duality shows us that he is unable even to form a definitive picture of himself for himself. He lacks confidence, so much so that he obsessively projects his own misgivings about himself into the private conversations of others, conversations that of course he can never know the truth of. This suggests that any negative vision of Prufrock from outside himself may be simply of his own creation. If they are in fact founded somehow upon his own experience, however, it remains indicative of his nature that, when thinking of himself, these negative comments are the first things that come to mind. This illustrates the power of Eliot’s stream-of-consciousness technique, in that we see the associations in Prufrock’s mind as they come; the associations give us a deeper understanding of Prufrock’s mind than we might get from other, more traditional forms of narrative.
In the next verse paragraph, we move on into this mind, and we begin to get more of an idea of what holds him back from what he desires. He says, “I have known then all already, known them all: Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee-spoons;” He seems to be indicating a sense of inevitability, if we take the meaning to be that he feels that he has known the mornings, evenings etc. of the future as well as the past; here we begin to get into the real meat of Prufrock’s psyche, the heart of his dilemma, his sense of fatalism — does he see his failure as a foregone conclusion? Or is it, perhaps, the threat of failure alone that is sufficient to hold him back? In this verse paragraph, as well as the next two, in which Prufrock considers the eyes of society, and the arms of the ladies, we see another facet of Prufrock’s dilemma which we have already seen, his hyper-awareness of and concern with his appearance in the eyes of others, emerge yet again. I would suggest that Prufrock’s hyper-awareness of others is what in turn makes him especially sensitive to other peoples’ awareness of him, “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase;” the word “formulated” itself has two meanings: the metaphysical sense, following a rigid formula, and the physical sense, infused with formalin, the active component of the chemical formaldehyde, a preservative or “fixative”.
Next Eliot uses an interesting device, the row of dots across the page. This is important! Up until this point, Prufrock has been asking questions, specifically “Do I dare?” “How should I begin?” and “How should I presume?” Eliot next creates a space, separate from the rest of the poem through the use of these dots (the technical name for which, if there is one, I am ignorant), in which Prufrock seems to attempt to answer these questions in a parenthetical aside to himself. This device seems to suggest an even deeper level of thought in Prufrock’s mind, perhaps not immediately available to the consciousness “above;” this would be a Freudian reading, of course, that this separate section represents a subconscious that operates independently of the ordinary stream-of-consciousness. Or, perhaps, Eliot separates these thoughts from the others to show that Prufrock may be seriously considering the questions that he wrestles with in the poem, but does not take seriously the possibility of arriving at an answer. Indeed, after the mere consideration of an answer, in a segregated section of his consciousness even, he takes an enormously negative turn within his thoughts, when he says “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” This image suggests a purely utilitarian form of life, removed from all consciousness and from most sensory input. It is very nearly a wish for death. All over the barest suggestion of an answer!
The next verse paragraph is back in the ordinary, established style of Prufrock’s stream-of-consciousness. It is interesting to note here that the paragraph begins with the word “And;” many of the previous paragraphs have begun with this word, and it seems that the use of this word may be meant to show that the “upper level” of Prufrock’s consciousness has remained undisturbed by his brief foray into darker territory; in a sense, the rows of dots, whatever they represent, seem to have done the trick.
Prufrock goes on in the next three verse paragraphs to discuss more fully the situation in which he finds himself, to clarify more fully what it is that he is facing. He describes the evening as sleeping peacefully, “Stretched on the floor,” relaxed and undisturbed; his life, as it is, is not so bad2E He has all the comforts of his position, “Tea and cakes and ices.” He goes back and forth, the tension building, as he remarks on how he has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed;” obviously, Prufrock has given the matter a lot of thought to say the least, as anyone who has wept and fasted and prayed over such a matter well knows. He envisions his failure as seeing his head brought on a platter a la John the Baptist, and seems to nearly be able to accept this outcome, when he says “I am no great prophet—and here’s no great matter;” he sees his own mortality, “the eternal Footman” which I read as being Death—the clue is the capitalization of the word “Footman—” and sums it up with the simple phrase “and in short, I was afraid.” He goes on in the next verse paragraph to further envision his attempt and the possibility of failure more explicitly. He mentions again the trivialities of his life, which it seems have come to represent his sense of security—these things have always and will always be as they are, unchanged, “The cups, the marmalade, the tea;” and here he finally gets to the actual heart of the question itself, “To squeeze the universe into a ball/to roll it toward some overwhelming question.” This phrase suggests to me that his entire existence, his universe, would be encompassed in the question, and this is true; for a man whose existence as we see it is defined by his indecision, his fear, and his uncertainty, to ask—to discover the truth for certain—this existence, or mode of existence, would come to an end with the answer, and this I believe is the most powerful message of the poem: were Prufrock, the Prufrock whom we are exploring in the poem, dissecting layer by layer, were he to discover the answer to his question, he would cease to exist. His whole being is centered on this question, and if it were taken away, he would become fixed, formulated—his uncertainty is the one thing that no one knows about him, and all that separates him from the trivial nature of those around him, the singsong people, coming and going, talking of Michelangelo. “Would it be worth it?” he asks, to ask, to be answered, to be rejected finally? But, Eliot shows us finally, the truth of the matter is that it is not the external question of the lady upon which Prufrock’s nature rests after all! It is the question of whether or not he can ask the external question at all. Up until this point it has seemed that the resolution of the poem will center on the answer to the external question—in his acceptance of his inability to ask the external question, he has answered the internal question, and the answer is, most simply, “NO!” The final clue is in the structure of the poem on the page.
The dots again…we have seen that the dots seem to symbolize a break from the established pattern of Prufrock’s mind, and the poem in general. Prufrock has answered the true question, the question of his nature, and having done so, ceases to exist in the form in which we have come to know him through the course of the poem. The dots earlier signaled a break from Prufrock’s normalcy; when the dots came again, it seemed to signal a return to that normalcy. But now, at the end of the poem, there is only one row of dots—Prufrock, perhaps against his will, has been changed, and things will no longer be the way that they were. He has come to an acceptance of himself as an incidental person, useful perhaps “To swell a progress, start a scene or two, advise the prince….[to be] Almost, at times, the Fool.” Perhaps Eliot’s message here is that no one can avoid the questions of his or her nature forever, and in fact the very attempt to do so will be itself defining in the end. Prufrock, after facing the question, returns to and embraces triviality—this is expressed brilliantly in the conflation of his original question, “Do I dare?” with the triviality of eating a peach—“Do I dare to eat a peach?” This is what his questions have become, all the fire and desperation is gone, he grows old and walks along the beach, with only his memories of beauty in the final lines—he sees himself forever separated from that beauty. At the end, the poet/narrator returns for the final three lines, and suggests that the “You and I” of the opening line are Prufrock himself; the journey into his mind and the question of his nature are symbolized as “[lingering] in the chambers of the sea;” and the final, most moving line—“Till human voices wake us, and we drown” suggest that Prufrock’s attention has finally become rooted in the trivial present drawing rooms of his life, and his questioning of himself has drowned—has come to an end.
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