In 1915, T.S. Eliot began his rise to prominence in twentieth-century literature with the publication of his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in which he portrays how modern man is restricted from the freedom of individuality and is forced to surrender to the opinions of society and his own self-doubt.
The poem is prefaced with an epigraph from Dante’s “Inferno”, which translates, “If I thought that my reply would be to a person who would ever return to the world, this flame would remain without more movement. But since no one has ever returned alive from this deep, if what I hear is true, I can answer you without fear of infamy.” As Guido da Montrefelto says this, a threatening flame flickers around him. The poem begins and, in a reflection of the opening, we have changed places with Dante and Prufrock has taken the role of Guido, telling us what he cannot reveal to anybody else. In the first line, he takes our hand and leads us through the desolate streets, pointing to “the evening […] spread out against the sky” (2). This is our first glimpse of society’s role in the poem, and it is a being as drowsy, ignorant, and unenlightened as “a patient etherized upon a table” (3). Once we have reached our destination, Prufrock urges us not to ask that “overwhelming question” (10) because he does not want to be distracted from his purpose or, perhaps, because he is himself unsure of what his purpose may be. He seems to be well aware that the more thought he gives to the ideals of society, the more power he allows them to have over himself, so he waves us off and says, “Let us go and make our visit” (12).
Once there, “The women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” (13-14). In this passage, we are given the first human representation of society, that of the chattering women walking about the café. Prufrock does his best to ignore them, and in stanza three he begins to tell us where his passions lay, or at least the he has a passion for something. He tells us “There will be time, there will be time” (26), assuring us that he has grand dreams and matching desires and that there is plenty of time in the future to satisfy every one of them. It is in this way that the “patient etherized upon a table” can be viewed not only as a metaphor for an almost dead society but also for Prufrock because he has been patient and will continue to be patient. As he says, “There will be time to murder and create” (28), but it is with this line that he shows us that he is eager to shed his idle ways, to embrace his passions, and to produce something of his own. He wants to create something outside the boundaries and constraints of contemporary society, something that could be as specific as a painting or a piece of music, or as broad as simply living life to its fullest. He wants to “murder”, not in the literal sense, but to do something dangerous, to create something as savage and bestial as the paintings of Matisse or Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”. At this point in the poem, one can feel this burgeoning passion threatening to overcome and conquer his patience; that is, until those gossiping women reappear: “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” (35-36). This time, it is little wonder that Prufrock cannot help but pay attention to the women as they continue to proclaim their affections for the Italian Renaissance master. Their words have become more than just an irritating buzz of distraction in his ear; they have become a massive harness thrown over his shoulders to which he can only capitulate. The women represent society and are a direct parallel to the trapping flames surrounding Guido in the opening. More and more, Prufrock feels trapped, isolated, and ultimately paranoid. How could anything he creates measure up to what the great Michelangelo has done before him? How can he compare? Suddenly, he questions himself and says, “Do I dare?” and again, “Do I dare?” (38), speaking of “turn[ing] back and descend[ing] the stair” (39), probably to that comfortable place in society where he can rest his rebellious mind without fear of reprisal. In his confusion, he hears the women’s comments becoming more personal as they shift their attention and take aim at his appearance. His balding head and thin arms and legs are taken to task, and Prufrock’s sudden self-consciousness causes him to take stock and regard his own conservative clothes in a less than flattering way. So, he says, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” (45-46), but it is not really “do I dare” but “Who am I to disturb the universe?” Once again unsure of how to proceed, Prufrock postpones his leap toward something greater. When he says, “In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (47-48), he is just beginning to understand the fickleness of his nature and his indecisiveness, although he is not yet sure what it is that is holding him back and causing his self-doubt.
Backing further away from his grandiose designs, Prufrock goes on to tell us how he has taken life for granted and how precisely he has planned his days for the future. He lifts a coffee spoon from the table to give us an example of the precision with which he has “measured out [his] life” (51). He is bored and sighing, for he has “known the evenings, mornings, [and] afternoons” (50) and wants to change them into something different and exciting. But there are those women again, chattering away, and Prufrock speaks to us candidly, as though he were looking over his shoulder with a sensitive ear toward their “voices dying with a dying fall / Beneath the music from a farther room” (52-53), hoping to catch a fragment of what they are saying about him. “So how should I presume?” (54), he says. What can he do? How can he break free when society keeps him so exact?
It is not only their voices and what they may be saying that keep him grounded; it is also the heft of their studying eyes weighing on his conscience:
And I have known the eyes already, know 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, (55-58)
Prufrock seems to be of the personality and mindset where his heart is in the right place and his intentions are true, but he is afraid of failure and does not possess the confidence to propel himself over the hump of society’s criticisms. What he needs is something to shield himself from the accusations of society, like egotism or arrogance, because he only ends up damaging himself further by turning these accusations inward and transforming them into self-doubts. If he were able to ignore their projections he might be able to fully realize his desires, and he admits as much at the end of the next stanza: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (73-74). Or, to translate, “if I were what I aspire to be and had the conviction and strength that my creativity should allow, I’d make a lot of noise and rattle the cages of society along the way.” He does not want to sit complacently idle, he still wants to live like a savage with his “ragged claws” cutting a path in front of him, but he has already begun to bow to society’s wishes and he knows he does not have the strength or the ego to fight back.
In the following stanza, he asks us, “Should I […] have the strength to face the moment to its crisis?” (79-80) when we know that he obviously does not. He then goes on to ply us with excuses. He admits to his lack of ego when he says that he has seen his head “brought in upon a platter” (82), and nods at his growing self-consciousness when he mentions his “head (grown slightly bald).” This is a man psychologically battered, humiliated, and scared. “I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter / I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker” (83-84). He is telling us that he is nothing special after all, and that he hardly cares anymore; that, though he once had aspirations for greatness, those feelings have faded away. We hardly have time to question “why?” when he sheepishly mutters, “I was afraid”. Indeed, afraid of failure.
Next, with his surrender nearly complete, Prufrock begins his retreat, repeatedly asking us if it ever would “have been worth it, after all” (87). Sure, at one time he said he wanted to “[squeeze] the universe into a ball / To roll it towards some overwhelming question” (92-93), but maybe “That is not what [he] meant at all” (97). He is denying that he ever had intentions toward these grand illusions and hoping that we will believe him. He is unwittingly defending the criticisms of society and his ensuing self-doubt by saying that his head momentarily got away from him and that he was a fool for ever thinking different. He goes on tell us that he has learned his place, which is that of “an attendant Lord […] an easy tool / Deferential, glad to be of use / Politic, cautious, and meticulous […] but a bit obtuse” (111-116). He asks us to look away because he is nothing special, needs no attention, and is “indeed, almost ridiculous / Almost, at times, the Fool” (117-118). Put simply, society has taught him and he has learned his lesson.
Now that Prufrock has been fixed into place he realizes, “I grow old…I grow old…” (119) and we cannot help but empathize with his plight. He believes that he has wasted his time thinking these fantastic thoughts, and that he has nothing to show for it. Hopelessly dejected, he tries to cling to some semblance of danger, but he is effectively crippled. It is sad, and perhaps self-ironic, when he decides that “[He] shall wear the bottoms of [his] trousers rolled” (120), which would have been considered fashionable at the time. He understands that he now must do the best that he can to conform, but he wonders, with a last shred of hope for individuality, “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach?” (121). Prufrock has become so psychologically damaged and unsure of what he is allowed to do that he cannot even think of tasting a peach without first questioning the act; in fact, he has become so normalized that he might even consider it daring to do so. This is a strong departure from the man who once saw fit to grasp the universe in the palm of his hand and sculpt it to his liking.
So, he takes to the beach and listens to “the mermaids singing, each to each” (123). It is reassuring to think that Prufrock may not have given up hope, after all, and that as fantastic a thought as mermaids singing to re-ignite his passions could still enter his mind. But, alas, the flame has withered: “I do not think that they will sing to me” (124).
As disappointing as this revelation is, there is one small consolation for both Prufrock and his audience. At the end, he finally sees why he will not be able to live through his passions: “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (128-130). He belatedly understands that he is trapped in a simplistic society and the machinations that go along with it, and that the “human voices” are his own internal dialogue of self-doubt stemming from society’s contempt for an individual who strays from the norm. Ultimately, he realizes he is suppressed and sinking.
It is unfortunate to see a person with such enthusiasm for what is indefinable in life become mired in a moment and punished for his hesitation. I think this is what T.S. Eliot was referring to when he wrote in a letter to a friend, “Even just the bewildering minute counts; you have to give yourself up, and then recover yourself, and the third moment is having something to say, before you have wholly forgotten both surrender and recovery. Of course the self recovered is never the same as the self before it was given”. Eliot was actually speaking about surrendering oneself to an author one has just discovered, but I believe it can also be read as a metaphor for passion in life. Of the three steps Eliot has given, Prufrock never advances passed the first one. He experiences “the bewildering minute”, but is never able, or allowed, to surrender himself to it because society redirects him from his elation to their reality. Inevitably, he surrenders to society, not to his emotion. Once he is recovered, he is exactly the same as he was before that dizzying moment and has nothing to show for it.Early in the poem, Eliot discretely divulges the entire arc of the story, this theme of surrender, as the fog of stanza two searches but gives up hope. It may seem ironic that something as inanimate and emotionless as fog could have the ability to surrender, but it is a metaphor and a foreshadowing of Prufrock’s own complications of the self and his surroundings. “Let fall upon its back the soot […] made a sudden leap […] and fell asleep” (119-122). In this passage, the fog is subdued from an outside source and, although it makes a brief attempt to soar higher, decides that it still has time and finally lies dormant. Like Prufrock, the fog had tasted the possibilities of the evening and was inspired toward something greater than itself, but in the end it could not respond. In the end, it could not answer the call.
Copyright to the author 2008.