A close reading of 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'

The speaker of 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' is trapped in his own mind, so full of hesitation and doubt that he is unable to act. Seamus Perry explores the poem's portrayal of paralysing anxiety.

Who is Prufrock?

T S Eliot wrote this poem while he was in his early twenties: he later recalled beginning the poem while a student of philosophy at Harvard University in 1909–10, and he finished it while travelling for a year in Europe, in Munich and Paris. But you could not say that it was a young man’s poem exactly: later in life Eliot, when asked, said: ‘It was partly a dramatic creation of a man of about 40 I should say, and partly an expression of feeling of my own through this dim imaginary figure.’[1] The poem is extraordinarily original, but it does have some anticipations. Of all the poets of the Victorian period, Eliot later remarked, the only one ‘whom our contemporary can study with much profit is Browning’: that is Robert Browning (1812–1889), who was famous for writing poems as monologues in the voices of assumed personae. Eliot’s poem is not very much like a Browning poem, but it does grow from the example of his dramatic practice: it is through inventing a prematurely middle-aged persona, as he came to see it in retrospect at least, that Eliot found a way of articulating something about himself.

He once referred to that thing, in private, as a ‘complex’. Presumably with some degree of levity, given the nature of the authority upon which he was commenting, Eliot wrote ‘The Prufrock Complex’ next to these words from the report of a palm-reader: ‘when faced with a personal problem, any prolonged contemplation of probabilities merely produces hesitancy and indecision’. Prufrock is one of the great inventions of the modern literary imagination: he has become an archetype for the ‘complex’ of over-scrupulous timidity. He is a man paralysed by an overwhelming anxiety about the possibility of getting things wrong: his judgement has such nicety and fastidiousness that it never arrives at decision, let alone action. So there is, as it transpires, a certain irony in the manner in which the poem opens:

          Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table …

The language of the opening line is decisiveness itself, and involves a determination to get going, along with a firm address to another person; but the sense of purpose is quickly dissipated as the speaker becomes absorbed in a lyrical evocation of the light effects of dusk, which in turn then gets waylaid by the sheer oddity of the simile that seems to come, unsolicited, to his mind to describe them. The play between the belated romanticism of an evening ‘spread out against the sky’ and the incongruous modernity of ‘a patient etherised upon a table’ purposefully sets different sorts of world in juxtaposition: the poetical and the medical, the lyrical and the hospital; and this juxtapositional method will be the main way the poem gets to work. The title of the poem announces that method as it braces the romance of ‘The Love Song’ against the precise social formality of ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’. Eliot said later in life that he chose the name because it sounded ‘very very prosaic’, though it probably sounds more eccentric than prosaic to most readers, even a bit of a joke name; but Browning offered examples of characters with bizarre or even cartoonish names (Bishop Blougram, Mr Sludge, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau) who revealed within their poems a seriousness of predicament that we might not have expected to find. Eliot begins his poem with what is by any standards a linguistic misjudgement and might seem just a comic stroke – to include of all things a pronominal initial in the name, as one might on an official form, in the title of a love poem; but he then goes on in his portrait of indecisiveness to make the fallibilities of such uncertain judgement seem terrible as well as comical. ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’, Prufrock announces towards the end of his poem, distancing himself from the character in literature who has most often (rightly or wrongly) been seen as making dithering about a decision the source of great tragedy. Prufrock’s experience of the ‘overwhelming question’ falls short of that kind of grandeur.

Prufrock, and other observations by T S Eliot

Prufrock, and other observations by T S Eliot

Front cover to T S Eliot’s Prufrock, and other observations published by The Egoist in 1917.

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Going nowhere

‘Let us go’, Prufrock repeats, and again, ‘Let us go’; but the movements of the poetry have already established by the end of the first verse that we are occupying a consciousness that is destined to go nowhere very much. And in fact the epigraph to the poem, which comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, has already introduced the idea of going nowhere as a key theme in the poem’s orchestration. (It is from Canto 27 of the Inferno.) In the passage, Dante, who is touring Hell, has begun to converse with one of the inhabitants, Guido da Montefeltro, who is initially reluctant to respond; but on the reasonable assumption that Dante must be in Hell for all eternity too, he begins to speak:

If I thought my answer were to one who ever could return to the world, this flame should shake no more; but since none ever did return alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer thee.

For Eliot to begin his poem with a voice from the depths of Hell is to create another of the poem’s formative juxtapositions, and invites the reader to make out a connection: the world of the poem is nothing to do with medieval Catholicism, but rather genteel New England society – a place of tea cups and coffee spoons, collar pins and neckties, musical soirées and perfumed evening dresses – but conceivably another version of Hell for all that. The inescapability of social conventions and the stifling prescriptions of polite decorum constitute a new kind of infernal entrapment.

For Hell is a place you don’t leave: Dante was unusual in coming back to tell the tale. The opening urgency of Prufrock’s ‘Let us go’ dwindles in the short second verse to the desultory-sounding to-and-fro of the unidentified women, who ‘come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’. That couplet also comes and goes, returning about 20 lines later, but with no improved sense as to who the women are, let alone what they mean to the speaker. Like the cat-like fog that rubs itself lazily upon the cityscape, the poem curls about and about, its beautifully drifting, self-interrupting sentences repeatedly putting off the moment of coming to a full stop. Often, instead, they come to a question mark: ‘Do I dare / Disturb the universe?’ It would be wrong to say that these questions are ‘rhetorical’; they are genuinely expressions of perplexity: ‘So how should I presume?’

The form of the verse co-operates in this universe of non-ending by avoiding the different sorts of progressiveness that would come from using stanzas, or blank verse, or heroic couplets. Eliot’s poem has no regular rhyme or rhythmical patterning: it is in free verse, vers libre, though the effect here is anything but a launch into untrammelled freedom, as some of the proponents of vers libre at the beginning of the 20th century liked to claim. ‘Vers libre’, wrote Eliot in 1917, the year that ‘Prufrock’ was published in the volume Prufrock and Other Observations, ‘is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art.’ Vers libre involves abandoning the ‘comforting echo of rhyme’, he said; but his poem does not do without rhyme at all, just without regular rhyme, as in a rhyme scheme. Eliot wrote beautifully about the possibilities of this, as though in oblique commentary on his own poem: ‘There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood.’ You could find examples of all of those in the poem, and other effects besides, created by rhyme’s interruption into an unrhymed or unpredictably rhymed space: ‘Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?’

Eliot is drawn, too, to leaving Prufrock caught up in rhymes that are no rhymes but merely repetitions, enacting the way he is victimised by the insistently reiterative movements of his own anxious mind – as, say, when he can’t dislodge the accusation of being too ‘thin’:

(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!’)

Prufrock and the women

‘They’ are probably women: Prufrock’s anxieties revolve partly around the imponderabilities of time, but chiefly around a fear of women, and a fretfulness about the humiliations of social encounter that rises here and there to a kind of suppressed hysteria: ‘When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall …’. In a Browning monologue there is usually an implied interlocutor (whom, of course, we do not hear) with whom the speaker is interacting in one way or another; but just to whom Prufrock is addressing himself is not so clear. The ‘you’ addressed in the first line seems to evaporate quite soon, as though he (is it a ‘he’?) never were in real life; and the ‘you’ of ‘you and me’ that comes later – ‘here beside you and me’ and ‘some talk of you and me’ – does not feel like the same addressee, or indeed an addressee who is really present at all. Prufrock is talking to a ‘you’ inside his own mind, and she is a part of some back-story to the poem’s frustrated erotic life which is kept almost entirely under wraps. The poem has moments of rich sexual response and, as though not knowing what to do with them, they no sooner arise than they are diverted into the sidelines of a bracket or an aside: ‘Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)’ The closest we come to disclosure is the studiedly neutral double reference to ‘one’: ‘one, settling a pillow by her head’, and again, ‘one settling a pillow, or throwing off a shawl’. In his portrait of this ‘one’, she appears unimpressed by his efforts to ‘say just what I mean’; but he is using her imagined indifference as a reason for abandoning an effort in the first place.

'"Prufrock and other Observations": A Criticism' by May Sinclair, from the Little Review

'Prufrock and other Observations A Criticism' by May Sinclair, from the Little Review

In her review of Prufrock and other Observations May Sinclair addresses how T S Eliot’s poetry challenged conventional public taste.

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The poem comes to a close with Prufrock lapsing gratefully back into a lovely fantasy of ‘sea-girls’ singing their mermaid songs in the deeps: Prufrock eavesdrops upon them, momentarily at ease, it would seem, now that the fulfilment of his desire is completely out of the question. But the last line conveys that there is no escape from the poised chat over the tea cups: ‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’ The poem does not mock Prufrock’s dreamy romanticism, which it voices very beautifully; and while it could hardly be called a resolute ending, it is the right one. The poem ‘does not “go off at the end”’, protested Ezra Pound, Eliot’s friend and early champion, to an editor who had wanted something more: ‘It is a portrait of failure, or of a character who fails, and it would be false art to make it end on a note of triumph.’[2]

Footnotes

[1] Poems of T. S. Eliot, i. 374.

[2] Ibid., i. 366.

 

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  • Seamus Perry
  • Seamus Perry is a Fellow of Balliol College and an Associate Professor in the English Faculty, University of Oxford. He is the author of books and articles about, among others, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, T S Eliot, and W H Auden.

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