The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock
The Character of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
There is a lot in the world that there is to question from love, the world, existence, and much more. Writers and artists dedicate what they do to show us what the world was like at a certain point through their eyes. Modernism was the movement after Romantic era where the emphasis was on imagination, emotions, the sublime, the transcendence, nature, and the natural. One of the characteristics of modernism is that the writers of that era questioned the self and their identity. T. S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” gives a sense of irony because the main character never talks about his feelings of love but instead questions the idea of love, and the world for it the emotion. Our main character isolated and isn’t able to accept the progressing world around him which detains him from finding true love. As a typical Modernist, T.S. Eliot’s character is portrayed to be trapped in a modern dilemma of alienation brought upon by the urban civilization.
Questioning the self and the world around was a big part of the modern movement which was most often used within the plot or the characters of the story. T.S. Elliot’s character J. Alfred Prufrock is a man who expresses no feelings at all, struggles with knowing himself and his true identity, and questions it. He says,
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!)” (38-41)
Here Prufrock is questioning himself and the bald spot in head. He feels judged by the word around him because they don’t see how he was or is. Time has passed and he can’t turn back time when Prufrock was in his prime with no bald spot and no insecurities. Prufrock makes scenarios by starting them with “they will say” the “they” is what is bothering him. The they is the urbanization of the world around him no longer appreciating the imperfections of nature, or in this case of aging. They aren’t letting him be himself and therefore questioning everything about him. His character questions if he dares go back and talk to whom he has fallen for and keeps questioning by saying
Do I dare
Disturb the Universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse (45-48)
He wishes to go back in time to be able to change what he knows is wrong with him, or so he thinks is wrong with him. Prufrock is unable to proceed in a world that is different to him. The world is constantly changing and there is nothing one can do about it not even go back in time and change the future.
The disconnection of Prufrock and the world around him is evident. Prufrock is unable to find true love in the society that he lives in which causes him to feel alienated. The poems first line begins by saying “Let us go then, you, and I” (1) as if was going to be romantic and an actual love song to someone. But then we get to the next couple lines that say, “When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” (2-3) which ends the romanticizing of the you and I in the beginning. There is a sort of awkwardness to Prufrock, which can’t be blamed on the society, he isn’t connected to love or better yet doesn’t know how to. He knows that it is a feeling between two people but can’t grasp the concept of it. But again, Prufrock starts questioning the relationship and time. He says, “Time for you and time for me, / And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions” (31-33). The idea of time is important to Prufrock because he feels like time has run out for him but isn’t actuall using it. Yet is using time for indecisions, visions, and revisions as he says. Prufrock is showing that he isn’t fulfilled with what life has to offer. Even though the society he lives in has a lot to with Prufrock alienating himself from everything and everyone he himself is at fault too. Questioning his every move and how he talks to the person who he is pursuing romantically. Being indecisive causes this man to become lonely and results in alienating himself from everything even love itself.
The setting in this poem seems to contemplate Prufrock because it isn’t romanticized as a love poem should be, hence the irony of the whole poem. Our writer gives us a great visual of how the society that Prufrock lived in wasn’t full of emotion just like him. The narrator describes it and says, “For the yellow smoke 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” (15-17). Here we get a feel of what the neighborhood like or at least how it does amongst the for. There is no beauty in how it is described just yellow fog. The way the fog is described is as if there is a cat is roaming as the smoke. The smoke timidly roams the neighborhood just going through the windows. It’s almost describing Prufrock due to his timidity and just lingering around to avoid being a part of the society and just watching. Prufrock also uses his own life and the lives of others to see only the negative side of the setting. Prufrock says, “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 the windows?” (70-72). The society as a whole is miserable even to Prufrock who is miserable himself. He watches the people around him and notices that he isn’t the only one that is lonely and watching their surroundings. He doesn’t allow himself physically to be a part of the place he inhabits but is through the window. By watching he is alienating himself to not be a part of a society that is changing.
Overall, J. Alfred Prufrock doesn’t seem to find his place in the society which results in him alienating himself. Prufrock is an outsider that is just watching everything around him but not allowing himself to be part of it. He questions the way he looks and how time has a lot to with his aging. Time is essential to the life of Prufrock because there isn’t enough time and he wishes to back in time to stop for him to be able to detain what is causing his insecurities. The people around him and the way they look at him cause him to question the universe and blame it for what is happening to him. All his insecurities cause an inability for him to find love and pursue anyone. The way that Prufrock tries to pursue love but fails to obtain it because of his awkwardness and inability to love. The setting gives a look into how miserable the society in which Prufrock lives in looks. The fog illustrates a neighborhood that lacks life just like Prufrock. He is constantly seeing the negative side of life by questioning the way he looks, time, and the way he views the setting which puts him in a dilemma of alienation from his society.
Disturbing the Universe: Mental Illness in Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Art is a subjective and diverse amalgamation of mediums. Despite the vast array of differences, there is a heavy overlap of thematic elements. One of these recurrent themes is mental illness, and specifically its negative representation. Since the Ancient Greeks, maladies of the psyche have faced terrible persecution and stigmatization. Hippocrates (the father of modern medicine) posited the notion of deficiency of the four humours. This theory proposed that mental instability was a result of the human body lacking various bodily fluids which altered the way a person understood and interacted with the world. Despite the fact that human understanding of psychological afflictions has grown significantly, the mysteries of such conditions is present within our society and our art. From the tragedies of Sophocles to the poetry of Sylvia Plath, mentally ill artists have assisted neurotypical people in their attempts to understand what it is like and how the world changes with mental illness. One of the best examples of this is Modernist poet T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The fragmented, off-putting narrative style and vivid yet alienating imagery help to establish the poem as both an excellent example of mental illness as a thematic element and a recreation of the thought processes of a tormented mind.
The tone of discomfort is put forth in the poem immediately; to open his piece, Eliot lead with an epigraph from Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original Italian, the translation of which reads as such: ‘If I but thought that my response were made to one perhaps returning to the world, this tongue of flame would cease to flicker. But since, up from these depths, no one has yet returned alive, if what I hear is true, I answer without fear of being shamed.’This initial excerpt of prose, both without context and in a different language than the rest of the poem, helps establish a feeling of inconsistency and confusion which is present through the rest of the work. Additionally, when considering the excerpt’s source, it could also be referential to a journey through Prufrock’s own personal hell. Despite this conscious literary choice to include this (for reasons unknown), the rest of the poem follows an unsettling stream of consciousness format, which seems invariably uncertain in nature. The reader enters the mind of a man, presumably J. Alfred Prufrock, who is rife with dissatisfaction and an evident inability to concentrate. Prufrock also presents an obvious anxiety within the sexually driven atmosphere he lives in through his constant questioning of his actions and motives (“do I dare?”), giving a perpetual feeling of imminent crisis among the debauchery and decadence. Eliot bobs and weaves through these thoughts, grazing each but never examining or fully explaining any. Because of this erratic narration and Vonnegut-esque temporal shiftings, it is difficult for the reader to place where, when, or even what exactly the piece is set. There is no linearity or discernable structure to the narrative; in both execution and style, the poem is meant to be confusing. Prufrock shows a marked disinterest and lack of enthusiasm for the world around him, a disillusionment for the high society life he lurks in. Confused thinking, social withdrawal, and delusions are all markers for mental illness. In addition, there is a sense of monotony and sameness through the shifting periods of his life, as if it is passing all at once but not at all. This loss of meaning, as it were, could be a nod at the pervasive emptiness which is associated with major depressive disorder specifically. Prufrock also shows a preoccupation with the concepts of death and loneliness, both of which are present in the observation of him having “seen the eternal Footman hold [his] coat, and snicker”; he is heavily aware of his mortality, and it frightens him. He is always afraid, and always feeling misunderstood. This perceived “Otherness” mirrors the internal struggles of individuals with mental illness, making “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” successful in its presentation of mental illness as a theme.
Imagery also plays a role in the alienation of the readers. Regardless of not having a concrete setting in the traditional sense, there is an array of vague atmospheres which flicker in and out of frame. As the poem opens, we are greeted with the description of a seedy, gritty somewhere, which reads:”Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,The muttering retreatsOf restless nights in one-night cheap hotelsAnd sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”There is a clear debauched and debased tone to this excerpt, which paints a bleak picture of the backstreet existence which Prufrock lives. It is clear contextually that this is not a neighbourhood which one would wish to find themselves in. Despite this bleakness, we are also presented with a recurrent theme of yellow fog, a deceptively cheerful colour outside of this context. However, this “yellow smoke” simply adds to the anxiety of the piece. Yellow in excess, due to its brightness and how easily it draws in the eye, can be both disorienting and nauseating. Eliot’s choice to emphasize the colour yellow, and to present it in an almost feline manner, brings attention to its silence and stealth. The colour yellow itself also further drives in the visualization of a sprawling industrial landscape, run down and polluted (metaphorically and literally). Prufrock’s world is dirty, from the air to the inhabitants.
Questioning the Self and Identity in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The world is constantly changing and there is nothing one can do about it. Literature changes along with the rest of the world. Writers and artists dedicate what they do to show us what the world was like at a certain point in the world through their eyes. Modernism was the movement that came after Romantic era where the emphasis on imagination, emotions, the sublime, the transcendence, nature, and the natural. Modernism on the other hand rejected all that the Romantics believed in and threw it all away. Modernist believed in the quality of thought, expression, and technique. The author uses free verse, and irregular rhyming that focus on the movement that the Modernist era has taken. The poem is about a middle-aged man who cannot make a progress in life and dare to approach women due to his shyness. One of the characteristics of modernism is that era questioned the self and their identity. J. Alfred Prufrock throughout the poem gives a sense of irony because he never talks about his feelings of love. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Elliot uses his Modernist way of thinking to show how not only the way the characters are being portrayed as a modern dilemma caused by questing, and the alienation that is brought upon by the setting of modern urban civilization.
Questioning the self, and the world around was a big part of the modern movement which was most often used within the plot or the characters of the story. T.S. Elliot’s character J. Alfred Prufrock is a man that expresses no feelings at all that struggles with knowing himself and his true identity, and questions it, he says, “To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’ / Time to turn back and descend the stair” (Elliot lines 38-39). Here Prufrock’s question shows hesitance to make a meaningful movement and the physical act. The repetition of the phrase “Do I dare” shows the reader the confusion that this man has within himself. He is unable to feel content with any progression in his life and isn’t able to allow himself to love anyone, not even himself. Elliot’s character has similarities as those of James Joyce’s character Gabriel, from his short story “The Dead,” is unable to socialize or dare make a conversation with others do to interact with others in a modern society that leads him to feel alienated and have a desire for solitude. Just like Prufrock’s indecisiveness is also caused by self-isolation from the society as a modern man who lacks self-esteem. His character questions if he dares go back and talk to whom he has fallen for and keeps questioning by saying
Do I dare
Disturb the Universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse (Elliot 45-48)
He even questions what time or in this minute can do but Prufrock is questioning existence itself. The narrator brings an objectivity to the questions making them not only a subjective experience but a universal one. He doesn’t know how to proceed in a world that is so different than him. The experience of the overwhelming questions falls short of that kind of grandeur for Prufrock due to his indecisiveness.
Not only is J. Alfred Prufrock questioning himself and the universe, but he disconnected from it. Like any other modernist work there is a sense of alienation which seems to be one of the central themes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” His status as a social outcast in his society creates our character to feel isolated and lonely searching to fill that void but doesn’t know how to do so. Prufrock finds himself in a society that is not different from a hell for him, so Elliot portrays the complexities of the modern world vividly through the inconsistent psychology from Prufrock that even measure out his own life and says,
For I have known them all already, known them all –
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, (Elliot 49-56)
Prufrock is aware of “the eyes” that are looking at him and is intimidated which leads him to not want to be a part of this society. He estranges himself from the crowd by finding life to be uninteresting and unimportant when he asserts that he has “measured out his life with coffee spoons” which is sad but that was the reality of his life. It is clear that this character is lonely which results in alienating himself from everything even love itself.
The setting in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” it isn’t our typical romanticized setting that we are used to. T.S. Elliot gives us a great visual of how this society isn’t full of emotion just like our dear Prufrock. Our narrator describes it and says, “For the yellow smoke that rubs its back upon the window-panes / … / Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening” (Elliot 15-17). Here the narrator gives us a sense of what the neighborhood he is in looks like or at least how the fog does. There is no beauty in how it is described which would indicate how the writer wanted to modernize the setting as well. He uses the “yellow fog” as a sort of metaphor the describe the society that has a more realist view to it since modernist writers did reject nature. The smoky evening that he finds himself in a bleak city that is almost miserable to live in. It also is metaphorical because the fog is being described like a timid cat that is trying to avoid anyone from getting to it. Prufrock also uses his own life and the lives of others to see only the negative side of the setting which our dear Prufrock says, “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 the windows?” (Elliot 70-72). Not only is Prufrock lonely but he it also seems like the whole society as a whole is as miserable in his eyes. These “lonely men in shirt-sleeves” are also looking upon the scenery of the city that they live in but do not become a part of it just as Prufrock does. Again, in this part he mentions the smoke which indicated this almost secret and timid Prufrock in a setting where he feels like he does not belong.
Overall J. Alfred Prufrock is a modern man that seems to not fit in his society. This man struggled with questions of the self and his identity, and the setting is as if it is describing Prufrock’s life. The narrator brought up objectivity to the questions making them not only a subjective experience but a universal one to the life of Prufrock. Prufrock is constantly questioning himself and the universe, but he disconnected from it and asking the “overwhelming question”. Like any other modernist work there is a sense of alienation, questioning the self and identity, and the setting where our protagonist lives in seem to be many of the central themes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The tone throughout the poem seems to be as Prufrock being an outsider, which he is, watching everything that is happening around him but not feeling a part of it. Elliot portrays the complexities of the modern world vividly through the inconsistent psychology from Prufrock that even measure out his own life as coffee spoons. Elliot sets this speakers journey as an analyzation of the modern man’s perception of life. The sense of questioning and hopelessness are implications of the modernism that brings a new way to look and appreciate life and its components.
The Idea of Masculinity in My Last Duchess and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess and T.S Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock are monologues that are similar in presenting middle-aged, unmarried men who are suffering from insecurities. Eliot’s 20th century The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is the story of a man searching for love and acceptance whereas My Last Duchess is set in the 17th century and focuses on a Duke searching for power. Both of these stories focus on the role men have within society, and how they are not achieving their desires. Prufrock is a feminine man whereas the Duke is a hegemonic man. Both My Last Duchess and The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock are both interested in the idea of masculinity yet their approaches to masculinity are quite different. Despite their characters being complete opposites, they are both unsuccessful in obtaining their desires due to their insecurity with manhood. Through the connection of the narrators, I will examine how their desires cause them to feel insecure in their manhood.
Two Different Characters and the Same Insecurity
Considering the narrators have the same outcome, it is important to analyze their differences, to see why they both have the same result. First, My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue where the Duke unintentionally reveals himself; when trying to criticize his last duchess he reveals his detestable nature. The Duke first reveals himself to be a man of jealousy, and arrogance. This is shown when the Duke has the portrait of his last duchess painted by Fra Pandolf a man of chastity and honour yet the Duke’s jealousy is so strong that he observes the painter with his wife in order to oversee his wife actions. The duke is so insecure within his relationship he feels he needs to supervise his duchess and Fra even though Fra is a man of faith and would not pursue the duchess. The duke never says that his wife cheated on him however, it is insinuated in the quotation “The bough of cherries some officious fool/ Broke in the orchard for her’ (Browning 27-28). This gives the impression that men often gave her gifts and it made the Duke furious because he thought that men were attracted to her. Later, the duke implies that the duchess was the kind of woman who had to be watched, for she had a heart “too easily impressed” and “her looks went everywhere” (Browning 23-24). The duke is revealing his jealousy because he believes that his duchess was unloyal and seeking the attention of others.
An interesting passage that concludes the poem is when the Duke directs his attention to a sculpture of Neptune taming a seahorse. It is an ironic metaphor for the Duke’s relationship with the duchess. Like the seahorse, the Duchess was a free spirit and rather than improve himself to ‘tame’ her, he simply killed her.
Unlike My Last Duchess, The Love Song for J.Alfred Prufrock is an interior monologue. Prufrock is an anxious man who lacks self- confidence. His anxiety and self-consciousness are highlighted when he is descending the stairs. His emotions overwhelm him and he becomes indecisive. He asks himself ” Do I dare? Do I dare?” he fears that he will “disturb the universe” (Eliot 46). Prufrock fears so much of what others are thinking of him that he continuously doubts himself. He continues to ask himself questions on how to comfort himself but admits he will be unsuccessful. Prufrock worries that the conversation does not apply to him ” women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” (Eliot 35-36). Despite that, he does not need to join the conversation he still worries about what others are doing. He fears the judgment of others.
His anxiety is continued to be seen when he asks “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?’ (Eliot 79-80) This shows the absurdity of Prufrock’s worries due to the fact that the order does not matter. Prufrock’s insecurity is shown when he continues to worry and references his balding head twice. A significant quotation that expresses Prufrock’s emasculating anxiety is when he says
“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!)
Is it 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? (Eliot 55-59)
Prufrock’s distress over the woman is evident here he cannot approach her. Prufrock is aware that if he does not approach her he will remain unhappy, but he has no confidence in where to begin with the woman. He is terrified to speak to her because he feels he will not be able to explain his feelings well enough, and he does not think that they will be interested in him, therefore, holding him back.
Different Types of Masculinity
Although these narrators have different character traits they stem from the same place of insecurity. Together the characters demonstrate the wide scale of masculinity. The Duke being hegemonic and Prufrock leaning towards more feminine masculinity. The significance of the narrator’s being polar opposites is that it shows the interests the poets had in creating particular social constructs of masculinity within different eras. According to Butler’s article, she explains that Prufrock embodies Judith Halberstam’s definition of female masculinity.
Masculinity in this society inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege; it often symbolically refers to the power of the state and to uneven distributions of wealth. Masculinity seems to extend outward into patriarchy and inward into the family; masculinity represents the power of inheritance, the consequences of the traffic of women, and the promise of social privilege. (1736) “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” embodies the implications of this definition in several ways. First and foremost, if masculinity represents in part “the consequences of the traffic of women,” then Prufrock’s ideation of women as objects of his desire is a type of masculine performance. Therefore, masculinity inhabits the instances of Prufrock’s male gaze, which are present from the first few lines of the poem to its ending (Halberstam 1736).
With that being said Prufrock in mulitple ways truly embodies the definition of female masculinity. Especially due to Prufrock’s idea of a woman being an object of his desire. The significance of Eliot focusing on female masculinity is that it demonstrates the complex array of men during the 20th century. Looking at the character traits and differences of the narrators the desires of the narrators are understandable. The Duke wants to feel powerful because it makes him feel like a “true man”. Whereas, Prufrock desires a sense of belonging within his subconscious. The Duke’s lack of power is demonstrated through his last duchess. To further understand why the Duke desires power we need to analyze the duchess. The last duchess was a beautiful woman which is evident since he wanted to have a painting of her. When he speaks of the painting, he mentions her blushing “spot of joy”. This suggests that she was easily embarrassed by a compliment. The Duke, however, seems irritated that she was easily pleased “She had/ A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad (Browning 23-25). With the Duke reacting in such manner, it demonstrates his need to feel powerful especially compared to his wife.
Although Prufrock desires to have a sense of belonging within is subconscious is shown through in a sense a woman as well. When Prufrock is at the party he wishes he could speak to a woman but continues to ask himself questions, yearning for a response. According to an article, it concludes that “the male character’s anxieties and conflicts all the results of a past unsatisfactory mothering situation during his childhood. Hence, the male character, strives perpetually to relinquish and abandon the female characters and his whole life is an endless search for his idealized loved object” (Sistani). Furthermore, in My Last Duchess the duke reveals himself to be powerless and emasculated because his last duchess was willing to put herself before him, causing him to earn for power and according to Efird “the duke becomes” the limit case of the practice of reserve as sexual inhibition that defines normative bourgeois masculinity” (78).
“In his confrontation with the Duchess,” Sussman argues, “the Duke confronts a crisis of manhood in that the Duchess challenges both the formation of manliness as reserve as well as, the Duke’s use of such manliness to justify his social position. The female here refuses to recognize the class position that, with clear reference to the Victorian bourgeoisie, is ostensibly validated by sexual and emotional constraint”. Efird’s insight demonstrates that the duke tries to uphold his manhood yet the Duchess makes him feel less than because she does not care that he is a duke.
Coincidently the duchess is why the Duke is unsuccessful in obtaining power. Prufrock is unsuccessful in his search for obtaining a sense of belonging within his subconscious because of fear. One of the reasons that the duchess causes the Duke to be unsuccessful in his search for power is because she makes him feel emasculated. The duke is unsuccessful in his desires because he is not seen by others in the way he wishes to be seen. He continues to show that he is unsuccessful with power because he has to kill his wife in order to feel powerful. This is seen when he has to hide her smile because even though she is dead he still feels powerless in comparison to her. When the duke sees her smile he feels weak and emasculated. Prufrock is afraid, he fears rejection not only from the woman but from himself, he overthinks everything he does. This, in turn, causes him in the end to fail.
T.S Eliot and Robert Browing write poems that tackle the idea of masculinity yet they go with opposite approaches. Despite the narrators being on opposite sides of the masculinity spectrum, their endings are the same. In the end, both characters are unsuccessful in obtaining their desires. Prufrock is incapable of achieving a sense of belonging within his subconscious because he is fearful and anxious. The duke fails to achieve power because of his character traits but as well as his last duchess.
The Speakers in an Irish Airman Foresees His Death And The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock
The statement from ‘The Second Coming’ – the best people ‘lack all conviction,’ while the worst are ‘full of passionate intensity” – applies to the speakers in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
To begin, the speaker in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, Major Gregory, volunteered to participate in the war as an airman which this information alone can seem to adhere to W.B. Yeats statement about the worst people. However, this is not the case as unlike the quintessential soldiers who stand firm in their beliefs and motives- whether it may be to defend what they love or resist and fight against what they hate- the speaker in the poem directly declares his reasons does not root from these intense emotions. The speaker is also not fighting in the war for duty nor law or other common convictions but simply for his delight and excitement. This was not a rash decision as line 1 through 10 supports that the speaker settled and “balanced all, brought all to mind” (line 13) after his own thoughtful understandings. Therefore, Major Gregory is one of whom W.B. Yeats would consider as best people who “lack all conviction.”
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Furthermore, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the speaker or J. Alfred Prufrock is a prime example of people who “lack all conviction.” Prufrock questions very action with “do I dare?” from whether to engage in a conversation, turn back, or eat a peach. He is self-conscious and over analyzes the situations which lead him to negatively complicate things. He the opposite of being “full of passionate intensity” because he is unable to decide his actions. The possibility of rejection and the comments about his balding hair as well as thin arms and legs frightens him to the point he becomes anxious about every little thing.
A traditional hero is someone who is resolute in their convictions and acts upon it. In addition, they are characterized to possess mental and physical strengths. With the abilities, the hero will protect his people and also fight to demolish the antagonist. In the modern world, it is very difficult to be heroic in a traditional sense because every situation does not have a traditional antagonist and not all heroic deeds are considered heroic. Every person will have an opinion or criticism. While one person can see a person as a hero, others may disagree and this can also be said to the antagonist. It is hard to discern what is right as well as correct and what is not today as sometimes to be a hero in modern time means going against something that a larger crowd follows and it is risky. This makes it difficult to be completely resolute in our convictions.
Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses vs T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Two Sides of a Coin
Every man has struggled and will struggle against time. As human beings learn and grow throughout life, we struggle with our identities and how our words and actions reflect who we are. We struggle with the decision between action and inaction. We struggle with acknowledging and recognizing negative events and letting it passed unnoticed. For some, “he who hesitates is lost” is their life’s mantra. However, for others, they would prefer to “act in haste, repent at leisure.” These opposite viewpoints are expressed clearly in Lord Alfred Tennyson and T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Tennyson’s Ulysses and Eliot’s Prufrock are both men who travel through life, although with sharply contrasting views on life and of themselves as individuals.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an internal monologue (Brooker). This poem concerns man’s struggle of identity, and according to Brooker, “[t]he theme is the divided self as it struggles to cope in a modern world without friends and without God.” “Ulysses” is a dramatic monologue, in which he is struggling with the common human experience and “is consumed with an insatiable desire…to go beyond the boundaries of human experience and knowledge in order to look into the uncharted territory of life after death,” (Bloom). However, these men have two very different voices and outlooks on life.
Prufrock is “unable to fix his identity,” (Barnsley). His first question is, “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’” (11). When he entreats the readers to not ask, however, his hesitant and unacknowledging voice is made clear. After this bold question, Prufrock retreats to his two-lined refrain, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo,” in which he treats to trivial conversations because he is too afraid to acknowledge his question (13-14). In contrast, Ulysses’ confident and self-assured character is revealed by the poem’s structure because there are six stanzas, of five lines, six lines, twenty-one lines, eleven lines, eighteen lines, and nine lines. These chunks of lines represent Ulysses as a healthy and well-muscled ancient Greek who took on the world and survived. He also believes “It little profits that an idle king,” which challenges Prufrock’s hesitancy and repeated breaks to retreat to the refrain (1). Ulysses also claims he will “drink / Life to the lees,” which is his equivalent of sucking the marrow out of life, of truly living and taking advantage of every opportunity (7). In contrast, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is simply one missed opportunity after another, as he remains silent because he is afraid of what others think of him, the fears and insecurities he places in brackets, such as “[They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!]” and “[grown slightly bald],” “ (41-82). Prufrock even goes as far as to acknowledge his hesitancy when he says, “And time yet for a hundred indecisions / And for a hundred visions and revisions,” (32-33). While Prufrock is frightened at the thought of being alone and rejected and mocked, Ulysses states “all times I have enjoyed / Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those / That loved me, and alone;” (8-10). Ulysses is not ashamed of being alone, or afraid of suffering. Prufrock, however, has “seen the moment of [his] greatness flicker,” (84). Ulysses’ self-assured and forceful tone is made clear when he says, “I am become a name; / For always roaming with a hungry heart / Much have I seen and known…Myself not least, but honors of them all;” (11-15). Ulysses is very proud and self-confident. He believes he is great, and he has also done great feats to match his attitude. He is not ashamed to flaunt and boast of what he has done. On the other hand, Prufrock is “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am and attendant lord,” (111-112). Prufrock’s voice is timid, and he says that he is small, that he was not meant to me. In the second line, he omits the “I” and further devalues himself, in contrast to Ulysses’ strong “I” statement: “I am become a name,” (11). Prufrock also has a very dawdling attitude, exemplified when he says, “There will be time…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,” (24-28). However, Prufrock does pose a few interesting questions. He asks, “And indeed there will be a time / To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, “Do I dare?’…Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” (37-46). Prufrock’s contemplation of disturbing the universe and doing something with his life connects to Ulysses’ achievements and adventures, where “Much ha[s he] seen and known; cities of men / And manners, climates, councils, governments,” (15). Ulysses’ strong voice is summarized at the close of the poem he concludes, “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” (70). Prufrock, on the other hand, Prufrock says “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me,” (124-125). Each man has a unique and individual voice: Ulysses is very self-confident and satisfied with his life, whereas Prufrock continually hesitates and is not really living.
Although Prufrock’s stalling intent and voice s very different from Ulysses’s head-on approach, these two men do share a few similarities. Ulysses laments that he must “mete and dole / Unequal laws unto a savage race, / That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me,” (3-5). He mourns his kingship and relationships with people who do not know who he truly is, and who do not share his dedication to life, but are instead only “hoard, and sleep, and feed,” (5). Prufrock feels this as well. He cannot bring himself to speak of important social events in fear of people not understanding, and simply responding, “‘That is not what I mean at all. / That is not it, at all,” (97-98). In both poems, the men are approaching old age. Ulysses is “Matched with an aged wife,” (3) and Prufrock states, “I grow old…I grow old…/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” (120-121). However, although both men are approaching old age, their approaches are different. Ulysses views death as another adventure, and he laments his old age, saying, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!” (22-23). In contrast, Prufrock will “wear the bottoms of [his] trousers rolled,” as to not get himself dirty with life, preoccupying himself with trivial questions, such as “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” (122). Ulysses says, “you and I are old; / Old age hath yet his honor and his toil; / Death closes all;” (49-51). Ulysses is not afraid of death, but instead views it as another obstacle he can conquer. Although both men have very different voices, they do share touches of the same feelings.
Each of the poems has a unique and individual voice. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is a very confident, rugged, and strong ancient Greek who lives life to the fullest and views death as another adventure. In contrast, Eliot’s Prufrock in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” shies away from the conflicts in life, and constantly hesitates and avoids confrontations. Both men are metaphors for the common human existence, as men from all walks of life and time periods and geographical locations have struggled with their identities and view on life. Indeed, Ulysses “acts in haste, and repents in leisure,” while Prufrock is “he who hesitates is lost.” Although there are men who are Ulysses, and men who are Prufrock, those of us who are still growing and learning can view and gauge the lives of both men in order to figure out and choose our own paths.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: Emotion in the Poem
Poetics of Prufrock
Throughout the lines of T.S. Elliot’s literary work “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there are many images that work together to establish a sense of meaning, however as a reader, I felt the most connected to the poem during my initial encounter. Immediately, I felt as though the speaker was sharing his journal with me. As I read on, I encountered numerous lines in which the speaker questions himself saying “Do I dare, How should I presume, and How should I begin” (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 8, 11. 38, 68-69). With these questions in mind, I took the speaker as a very insecure man. From my initial reading, these questions made me anxious. I began to feel the chilling insecurity of the speaker, and eventually felt pity on his behalf. My emotions took over as I read on about a man who seemed to stand in his own way of love and happiness. Similarly, I felt pity for the speaker in the following lines as he claims “I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think they will sing to me” (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 22. 123-125). Here, the speaker paints a beautiful picture, however he regresses in saying the mermaids will not sing to him. Clearly, he is truly unable to see himself finding love, or fulfillment during his lifetime. Ultimately, I found “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to be an emotional rollercoaster for the speaker, and audience as well. As a reader, I found myself feeling pity for the speaker, and fear for myself that I would let life pass me by due to an emotional state of insecurity and self-doubt like the speaker himself.
On a dissimilar note, as I reread “The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I gained a deeper understanding of the speaker through prominent images such as women and eyes. Although the title is deceiving, as readers expect to be captivated by love throughout the many stanzas of T.S. Elliot’s work, women remain prominent symbols of inhibition. Specifically, within the following lines of the poem, readers receive a detailed account of the women surrounding the speaker: “Arms that are braceleted and white and bare But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair! Is it perfume from a dress” (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 11. 64-66). It is important to note that the lines above provide details of women’s arms, hair, and dress, yet not their faces or figures. Essentially, the speaker discusses the details that make up the women rather than the women themselves because he is unable to look them in the eyes. From the speaker’s perspective, women are symbols of inhibition as he can not bring himself to act natural in his surroundings due to his extreme self-consciousness. Along similar lines, readers encounter the image of eyes within the eleventh stanza of the so-called love song to symbolize the speaker’s shame. The following lines prove the significance of the eyes present in the setting of the poem:
And I have known the eyes already, known them all-
The eyes that fix you in a formulate phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 11. 55-59).
Personally, I took the image of eyes to symbolize the shame the speaker feels in front of others because he’s never found love. The image of eyes fixed on the speaker as he is “pinned and wriggling on the wall” imbues a sense of inhumanity. The speaker feels as though he is an animal encased in a glass frame on a wall for others to observe as an inferior species. Ultimately, the symbols of inhibition and shame work together to prove the speaker’s fear to connect with others whether it be emotionally or sexually. Undoubtedly, the author’s inclusion of women and glaring eyes in the poem show the audience that the speaker is uncomfortable not only in his surroundings, but also his own skin, as he lacks one of the most integral parts of the human experience: love. Overall, the speaker in “The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock” remains a man terrified of vulnerability with everyone except the audience of the poem unknown to him.
Analysis of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” begins with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. Being translated, it says: “If I thought that I was speaking/ to someone who would go back to the world,/ this flame would shake no more./ But since nobody has ever/ gone back alive from this place, if what I hear is true,/ I answer you without fear of infamy.” The speaker, in this case, will only tell his story with the knowledge that living ears will never hear it. Eliot’s Prufrock faces the same situation; he has a story to tell – a love song to sing – that he didn’t dare to declare among the living. Only now, where nobody can hear him, can Prufrock finally declare what cannot be said. He has been condemned to a kind of hell by his inaction.
This hell is cast in a yellow light. Images of yellow overwhelming the landscape abound: “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, the yellow smoke that rubs its back upon the window-panes” (15-16). Yellow is a color associated with cowardice. Fittingly, Prufrock’s world is cast in this yellow light because his world is a world of cowardice. His inability to speak his feelings and the fear of what implications that would hold have confined him to where he is. Essentially, Prufrock has proved himself to be a coward. This prison is a coward’s prison. Had Prufrock sung the song he meant to sing, he would not be in hell.
Yet it seems Prufrock had been planning to make his declaration. He always meant to say what had been plaguing him. He seemed to feel that he had all of the time in the world to act on his feelings:
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street…
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face for the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands…
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. (22-34)
Prufrock’s time to act was limited, but he didn’t know it. He thought that time would be limitless (“There will be time, there will be time”), and he found that it wasn’t. The tragedy is now that Prufrock is finally speaking his mind, his words will nevertheless remain unheard. He has all the time he needs now, yet his true time has passed. He cannot speak to the woman he loves. He can only speak to a great void, certain that he will not be heard.
The stanza mentioned in the previous paragraph illustrates Prufrock’s constant internal turmoil. He must “prepare a face to meet the faces” that he meets, for he cannot simply be who he is. The simple “taking of a toast and tea” requires “a hundred indecisions” and “a hundred visions and revisions.” He is so repressed that tea is a major trial. It is clear that the actions of everyday life bring great turmoil to Prufrock. He does not know how to act and does not know how to say what he wants to say. Every utterance is thought out and analyzed in his mind a hundred times. He is paralyzed by the fear of social criticism:
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? (54-61)
The image of Prufrock “pinned and wriggling on the wall” creates an image of him being totally exposed and on display. He is much like a specimen being primed for dissection. When on display, he is vulnerable to the criticism of his peers. The eyes that Prufrock speaks of are their eyes. Thus, one can see that simply functioning in the social world puts Prufrock in a state of extreme distress. He does not know how to act and fears being exposed. It is no wonder that he has difficulty declaring his feelings of love to a woman.
This is the question that ultimately overwhelms Prufrock – the question of love. This question is presented in the first stanza: “Streets that follow like a tedious argument/ Of insidious intent/ To lead you to an overwhelming question…/Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’” (8-10). This “overwhelming question” haunts the rest of the poem. The way that the sentence trails off after “To lead you to an overwhelming question…” implies that it is a loaded question, and one that will not be answered easily. Love could have served as a paradise for Prufrock, even a type of heaven. Yet he chose to forsake heaven for hell. Why anyone would do such a thing is a question that cannot possibly be answered easily. Prufrock spends the entire poem trying to explain this.
Aside from the question of why Prufrock let love get away from him, there is the question of what could have happened if he had, in fact, spoken his feelings. That question is what ultimately kept Prufrock from ever acting. The fear of what could have happened was simply too great. “And would it have been worth it, after all?” (86) Prufrock asks repeatedly. He does not know how to eloquently express himself – “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” (104). He imagines the possible outcomes of his declaration of love:
Would it have been worth while
If one, setting 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.” (106-110)
Prufrock harbors a fear that if he was to really express what he feels, he would be misunderstood, or, worse, rejected. That is the fear expressed in “That is not what I meant, at all.” He runs the risk of loving this woman and not being loved in return. Would it be worth risking this by declaring his love – “Would it have been worth while?” Prufrock will never truly know the answer to that question.
The poem reaches somewhat of a climax at the stanza discussed in the previous paragraph. Up to that point, the poem focuses on Prufrock’s deliberations and hypothetical questions. He contemplates what could have been: “Would it have been worth while,/ To have bitten off the matter with a smile,/ To have squeezed the universe into a ball…” (90-92). He also rationalizes his current situation: “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” (49-51). All of these musings lead up to his ultimate question – the question of love. The poem climaxes with Prufrock’s greatest fear: that he should speak his mind to the woman he loves, and she replies, “That is not it at all, /That is not what I meant, at all” (109-110). In a sense, Prufrock has justified his cowardice up to this point. He has presented all of his reasons for not making his declaration. He has shown the reader all of the parts of himself that he was too afraid to show the world. Basically, up until this climax, Prufrock has been preparing himself for making his declaration.
Naturally, the letdown comes after the climax. Prufrock acknowledges his inabilities and begrudgingly realizes who he 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…
At times indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool. (111-113; 118-119)
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, much like Prufrock, falls victim to great internal conflict and does not know how to act upon his feelings. They are both victims of indecision. However, in the end, Hamlet does act – which Prufrock never does. Prufrock acknowledges that he is simply not who he is – “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” This is his rationalization for not acting on his emotions – that is simply not who he is. The role he is destined to play, instead, is that of “the Fool.” This is the great letdown. He will never be the person he wishes to be.
The social world is simply a world that Prufrock cannot be comfortable in. Who he feels he should be socially and who he truly is do not match up. He wishes to be able to assimilate flawlessly into the social world. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each” (124), Prufrock observes. These mermaids are figures of women, precisely the figures that Prufrock cannot communicate with. He wishes for them to sing their song to him. However, “I do not think that they will sing to me” (125), Prufrock contends, accepting his life’s position. The mermaids can only exist as visions in Prufrock’s dreams. He has “lingered in the chambers of the sea/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/ Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (128-130). He can dream of existing with these creatures until the reality hits him. “Human voices wake us,” bringing Prufrock to the real world, the human world, where he drowns. This is a world where he cannot exist. Only in his hell can he speak, asking himself the nagging question: “Would it have been worth it, after all?”
The Self Esteem of J. Alfred Prufrock
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Elliot, depicts the thoughts of a modern day Hamlet. It follows, what seems like, the typical evening with Mr. Prufrock. He is a man that often loses himself in his own mind, efficiently losing his ability to commit to any action, out of the fear of judgement, rejection, and assumption. This horrible anxiety prevents him from truly experiencing, truly living. He lives an inactive life, constantly assuring himself that he has nothing to worry about since he has an endless amount of time. He lives by constantly shielding himself, separating himself from society. The philosopher, Francis Herbert Bradley’s quote, “No experience can lie open to inspection from outside” fully embodies Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock; Prufrock has a habit of not acting therefore not being able to experience a situation but rather just create scenarios in his mind of what might actually occur so that he may avoid any form of judgement or bad thought. It is as if Prufrock has placed a glass divider between him and the world, to protect himself from any harm.
Prufrock regularly pulls himself away from other people. He tends to wander on his own during the evening, wandering the empty, abandoned area of town, “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…” He finds these moments are calming, “like a patient etherized upon a table,” to go through these “streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent,” and never having to come in contact with any human. When going on these walks Prufrock simply observes the world, completely separating himself from it, acting like he is simply observing a painting, “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…” He will never interact but he will always watch, never having an experience but always having assumptions about said experience.
Prufrock prefers to keep to himself since he believes that everyone will reject him by just a mere glance of his appearance, “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…” He assumes that everyone else will make assumptions about him, dissect him like a scientific experiment with their own eyes without ever getting to know him (a bit of irony since he does the same with other people, refusing to interact since he “already knows” what they will think of him). He thinks he knows fully what women say behind his back, “how his hair is growing thin!…But how his arms and legs are thin!” when in reality he has never even interacted with these women, “the women who come and go talking of Michelangelo.” Without interacting with these women, he loses the truth. He will never know of their opinions of him, if he never talks to them. He regularly observes these cultured women by standing back during social gatherings. He has done this so often, keeping his head low to the ground during these parties, that he is now familiar with these ladies by their arms, not their mind, “And I have known the arms already, known them all- arms that are braceleted and white and bare…” He consistently assumes that he knows of their gossip behind his back, preventing him from every acting upon them. If Prufrock simply interacts with these various women, he could be surprised on the outcome, perhaps they would like him or perhaps his suspicions were correct but he would then know for certain and fully experience the situation.
This fear of judgement is due to his low self esteem, the way he constantly degrades himself and does not allow himself to feel confident enough to act. Throughout the work, Prufrock shows his swing of emotions ranging from prideful of himself to once again being reminded that he is not as great as he believes he is. He refers to himself as the great John the Baptist, “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter…” but then flips around and states that he is actually not as great, “I am no prophet- and here’s no great matter…” In addition, he refers to his clothes, the physical objects he owns, as wonderful but he views himself as the opposite:
“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!”)”
Furthermore, his age really does play a role in the way he acts. Most of his self esteem issues stem from the fact that he is now physically aging to the point where it’s quite noticeable. It is as if he is reaching a midlife crisis, realizing that he has only a few more good years before he is bed bound, only a few more years until he is just like any other elderly man. Prufrock formerly believed that his life was full of lavish and pride but now, when “…the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker…”, he realizes that his time is short. He has not done all that he could have done, only contributing to his self destructive nature, preventing him from ever putting himself in the crowd and living in the moment.
Prufrock’s self loathing mindset has undoubtedly aided in his inability to socially interact but coupled with his philosophy of never ending time, it is made apparent that he will always observe and never have the experience. In an odd way, Prufrock is aware that he’s time is short but he forces himself to believe that there will always be time to act, a bit of self comfort,”And indeed there will be time…There will be time, there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces you meet; there will be time to murder and create, and time for all the works and days of hands…” He tries to believe that he has all the time in the world to complete anything he has yet to complete. This belief has caused him to delay further action. Prufrock states that he has time but yet knows he does not, and furthermore, to add insult to injury, he doesn’t commit to any action. His inability to act is seen throughout the poem with this unknown question. This question is mentioned in various stanzas ranging from the first stanza, “…of insidious intent to lead you to an overwhelming question…oh, do not, ask, ‘What is it?’” to the end of the poem, “…to have squeezed the universe into a ball to roll it towards some overwhelming question…” It is followed by his own assumption that if he does ask this question, he will be reject vehemently by the asked, “And would it have been worth it, after all. Would it have been worthwhile…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.” His constant over thinking of situations and his constant procrastination contribute to his lack of experience, the lack of truth he holds. If he does not overcome both of these, he will only be able to assume that these women do not like him, that he will be rejected, that they will hate him but he will never know if this rings true.
In conclusion, the philosopher Francis Herbert Bradley’s quote, “No experience can lie open to inspection from outside” fully embodies Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock; Prufrock has a habit of not acting therefore not being able to experience a situation but rather just create scenarios in his mind of what might actually occur so that he may avoid any form of judgement or bad thought. He separates himself from the reality he lives in, would rather be alone to avoid being loathed by others and yet he loathes himself by simply assuming what others think of him. His low self esteem and lack of motivation has contributed to his self destructive nature; he can not fully experience, to uncover the truth of his reputation, if he is merely observing and avoiding it. He views the world through a glass window, wishing he could desperately be part of it but is too scared to act. Prufrock will continue to live in this dream like state, an observer state, “till human voices wake us, and we drown,” returning to reality.
Imagery in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
When it came to modernist poetry, imagery was important to flesh out the lavish artistic style said poets loved to express, which in turn allowed them to declare themes and concepts clearer. T.S. Eliot, consider among the great poetic modernists, masterfully utilizes imagery through his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to illustrate the superficiality and weakness of its protagonist representative of society as a whole, and serve as a warning to any potential male readers of Eliot to not make a Prufrock of themselves.
T.S. Eliot uses imagery in his modernist poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” throughout the poem in a strange and unconventional way. Rather than build meaning, as typical with imagery, Eliot sets out to utilize imagery to take real meaning away. Over the course of the poem, the narrator, J. Alfred Prufrock, struggles to tell the reader his overwhelming question. He instead diverts attention to images or ideas that are ultimately meaningless to the grand scheme promised in the poem. One of the most left field and significant of these is when he remarks he “should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” This line has no real meaning and does not connect to anything going on in the rest of it. The reason for his diversion is to deflect focus from his serious thoughts into empty wonders. Ragged claws suggest a crustacean creature, which is significant for Prufrock’s character as these creatures are built around self-defense and keeping their sensitive being hidden away through a hard exterior. Prufrock wants to keep to himself and shed off any serious concerns with his defense of a wandering and unfocused mind. This stream of consciousness, while revealing of who Prufrock is on the inside to a degree, does nothing with its promise of some sort of life-altering overarching theme or question. Prufrock is afraid to reveal anything that could be taken as not as grand as he wants to be, so he keeps it inside of his shell. The thought of him wanting to be a crab may be random, but the image of a crab is significant, even if for the wrong reasons.
Prufock’s self-image is also crucial for understanding what the poem offers to say about the emasculation and growing pessimism that plagues men as Eliot saw. This comes from the imagery of Prufrock himself.
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!”] (Eliot 40-44)
Prufrock is a self-deprecator, a man afraid and unaccepting of his own masculinity. On multiple occasions, he draws attention to his bald spot. Balding in men is caused due to the male hormone dihydrotestosterone and while it is tough to say that this knowledge was common sense in Eliot’s time, it is still interesting to note with a contemporary perspective that Prufrock is, in a way, afraid of his own masculinity through his balding. Prufrock’s fickleness regarding his being makes him appear more as a feline than a man, obsessively grooming. It is important to note that no one in the poem actually says to his face that his limbs are thin and weak. Prufrock hypothesizes that people will say that, showing his low self-esteem and image. His necktie is simultaneously “rich and modest” and this juxtaposition compliments Prufrock’s scatterbrained and unfocused state of being; he cannot make up his own mind as to whether he is well off or just standard. Prufrock can be related to many males reading this poem, so Eliot uses him as an example of what a man should not be. In his own poem, Prufrock is a weak and spineless man who is too afraid of any notion of accepting responsibility or venturing out of his comfort zone, too afraid that he will instead insult and then be insulted in retaliation. Again, Prufrock further signals his alienation and insecurities with those around him with the line “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” which implies that he is afraid of showing his true self to people that he does not hold close to him, writing them all off as simply faces one meets (line 27). This idea of wearing a face is perhaps a direct allusion to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and his idea of a “persona.” Jung describes a persona as being “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual” (Jung, 190). This perfectly falls in line with what Prufrock is setting out to accomplish through this line. He is being self-defensive about his true self, hiding his real thoughts and weak personality behind a façade to not come off as cowardly, to make a more desirable impression on those around him, and those he feels attraction towards. After all, what sort of man is one worth taking notice of when he measures his life with coffee spoons, an image that signifies that he does not think far into the future and is more concerned with the materialistic entities surrounding him.
He projects this fear of commitment to his real world and those living within it and his favoring of nonsensical nothings outwards when he states he has known the arms already, known them all” of the people he always passes by (Eliot, line 62). His life is so mundane and his mind so single focused that he does not view the people around him as whole, just body parts. This image of floating body parts adds to his isolation and is rooted in Prufrock’s fear of women, or rather, of making any sort of impression on a woman. There is a brief moment in like 64 where he sees an arm “in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!” (line 64) The exclamation mark following this observation builds an image that Prufrock is fascinated by this woman, and her presence has left an impact on him so great that he truly emotes in the poem, and it is the only time than an exclamation in the poem is delivered due to the action of someone outside of Prufrock. However, this is not enough for him to come out of his emasculated shell, as he immediately forgets about this and slips back into his sterile monotonous tone describing the various objects about him.
J. Alfred Prufrock is a man who, in his modern times, has become complacent and passive, letting himself go to be taken by the powers that be through a trivial life on no true substance. Prufrock makes a point in saying there is “time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions” and this line perfectly sums up Prufrock’s decision making, or rather lack thereof (lines 22-23). Prufrock values his time, but only when it’s spent, ironically, doing nothing. Throughout the whole poem, Prufrock is making indecisions and is constantly revising his own vision of himself through preparing “masks” for others. This is a man who does not take action, but rather action takes him to nowhere in particular. Prufrock is afraid to make any real decisions that could remotely leave an unsatisfactory impact on the world, so he attempts to justify himself on multiple occasions at holding out on asking his important question by question how he should presume. (line 54). This is a man who has been emotionally castrated, and with that comes the associated post-complacency with the theoretical removal of the primary source of testosterone. Prufrock is too afraid to make any significant contact with a female because he’s afraid he will somehow offend her with his presence accidentally. Prufrock’s refusal of action and passivity is signaled most clearly when he declares he is “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” (line 111). Hamlet is, of course, the protagonist of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and he is a character whose sole defining trait is his inability to act. The entire play is Hamlet musing over whether he should or should not commit various acts, most significantly murder his uncle. By saying that he is not deserving to be Hamlet, Prufrock is affirming himself as even less decisive than a character whose sole purpose is to be indecisive. It also shows that Prufrock believes that he should never be considered the protagonist of even his own poem, and as such the poem does not really follow him but rather he follows various occurrences around him. Prufrock as a character does not really grow or change and him not wanting to be a protagonist and rather be a minor role who starts a couple of scenes ties into how he dresses moderately and wishes to not be noticed. Prufrock is so complacent that he describes mermaids as ignoring to sing to him. The singing of mermaids is often associated with using femininity to draw masculine men seeking pleasure to their dooms, but Prufrock is so emotionally sterile that his lack of masculinity offers nothing to the mermaids; he is not even worthy of being killed. Prufrock will remain walking through the fog, ever so passive and disregarding anything around him. At the end of the poem, Prufrock completely slips away into the ocean imagery that he had been alluding to for the whole poem. It appears he finally got his wish of becoming a crab, at least in his mind, which represents that he has successfully shelled himself away from the world. He ends the poem by saying that he, and the reader, have both drowned together, that Prufrock’s toxic self-pitying has gone on to infect the reader, and he is pulling the reader down into the dark ocean with him. This is what happens when we indulge in the life of someone as worthless as Prufrock, Eliot says.
Overall, T.S. Eliot utilizes all sorts of various images and descriptions to develop his character of J. Alfred Prufrock, who actually is not much of a character at all. Rather than develop Prufrock to be a compelling and interesting figure, Eliot does the exact opposite and draws him as pathetic and unremarkable through Purfrock’s own personal self-image and the way he views the world around him. Eliot’s purpose for doing this to poor Prufrock is to set him up as a figure representative of the detrimental effect that the modern age to Eliot has had on men such as Prufrock. Prufrock is an extreme case of emasculation and complacency, showing the weakening of pompous men and their crippling self-doubting that causes them to be weak and engage in inaction, bringing down the world and people around them in an ill fog of depression and unsureness. “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” on the surface is a run of the mill stream of consciousness about a man going for a walk, but Eliot fleshes the world and subject through rich imagery to deliver a point about superficiality in his modern day, delivering a cautionary tale to his male contemporary reader to not fall into the same pitfalls that Prufrock has vested onto himself.
Jung, Carl, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (London 1953) p. 190