“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, commonly known as “Prufrock”, was the first professionally published poem by American-born British poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Wikipedia tells that Eliot began writing “Prufrock” in February 1910, and it was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse at the instigation of Ezra Pound. It was later printed as part of a twelve-poem pamphlet titled Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917. The poem has come to represent a generation, an epoch, much in the same way as The Great Gatsby, Waiting for Godot and Ulysses are also seen as seminal works which seek to define an age.
Rightfully, it is regarded by many as one of the very first great modern poems. It is modern in theme because it expresses the confusion and indecision arising from the self-doubt of modern man facing a world in which the traditional religious and social certainties were losing force. It is also modern in method, making its impact by means of images and symbols which are not held together by any strict or obvious logic, but by the free association of ideas. In other words, the confusion and incoherence of Prufrock’s mind and of his world are to some extent reflected in the apparent incoherence of the poem. Close study of the poem (by you, hopefully) will reveal that it has, in fact, a coherence and logic all of its own.
‘Let us go then, you and I’ – and analyse the poem!
While the two opening lines of the poem might well belong to a conventional love poem I don’t think anyone is going to rush out and put it on their Valentine’s Day card – not even Jacob Rees-Mogg! The essential point to make about Prufrock is that it is a dramatic monologue. Like many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the purpose of this monologue is to light up his own mind rather than illuminate ours! He is using his utterances not so much to expound the meaning of his life as to pursue it. The meaning he extracts may surprise him, and puzzle him, as much as it does the reader. This meandering quest to find his life’s meaning accounts for the tone of improvisation in the dramatic dialogue, as well as the speaker’s absorption in what he is saying, and also for his strange lack of any real connection with his audience. Indeed, in Eliot’s monologue, the listener is mainly Prufrock’s other self.
It is interesting to notice how little dramatic situation there is in Prufrock. There is, in fact, barely enough situation to serve as a springboard for Prufrock’s self-revelation. There is the ‘journey’ through ‘half-deserted streets’ to a drawing room where the ladies ‘talk of Michelangelo’ make it easy to avoid ‘the overwhelming question’, and a final retreat to the sea-chambers of fantasy where Prufrock can spend the rest of his days listening to the song of the mermaids. The relative unimportance of the actual situation is underlined by the fact that Prufrock does not really direct his utterance to the situation at all. It is important to remember that his utterance is not contemporaneous in tense with the situation. He speaks, not to alter this situation, but to extract from it the pattern of his life. In fact, the use of tenses in the poem is a vital element: Prufrock’s utterance is framed almost entirely in the perfect and future tenses. Thus the crucial situation, the putting of the question, appears not in actuality but as anticipation (‘there will be time’) or as recollection (‘would it have been worth it after all … I have known them all already’). After the evocation of the tea-party, there is no situation at all, not even the implication of a present tense. There is only the pattern of the future, blended with the pattern of the past (‘I shall wear white flannel trousers … I have heard the mermaids singing’).
The use of tenses, combined with the Hamlet references, may be considered significant in relation to Prufrock’s indecisive, fearful nature. As already mentioned, Prufrock’s monologue achieves something of the same effect as Hamlet’s soliloquies. It reveals a private hell from which there is no escape, not even through fantasy. There is also another Hamlet-like dimension to Prufrock: fearful anticipation (1-69) and retrospective excuses for failure (70-131), coupled with self-laceration.
Another interesting feature of the poem is that while there is often little sense of logical continuity between its parts, Eliot pays detailed attention to syntactical continuity. The poem gains in coherence through the extensive use of linking words, phrases and expressions. No fewer than twenty-one lines are introduced by and, which introduces seven of the verse-paragraphs. To link the major paragraphs, Eliot makes use of sporadic word-repetition, which in Prufrock is a more significant device than rhyme. There are repetitions within the paragraphs and echoes linking each paragraph to its successor (yellow fog, yellow smoke, evening, they will say, voices dying with a dying fall, each to each ….). The word ‘time’ appears ten times in the third and fourth paragraphs.
The voice of the poem is, mainly, one of shadowy, uncertain identity. The presiding image is of a dream labyrinth (the landscape, the fog, the streets, the sea), an image created by an uncertain mind vainly endeavouring to find itself. One occasional weakness is illustrated by the Hamlet passage (‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’). This is, perhaps, too abstract, too clever, too sharp a definition for the generally uncertain and vague identity of the ‘voice’ we have been listening to up to this point.
Many of us, students of the poem, perhaps coming to it for the first time are almost certain to be puzzled by Eliot’s method here. However, even after several readings, Prufrock can still remain as obscure as ever! The sources of difficulty are easy enough to identify. The principal one is the absence of a straightforward sequence of thought and of continuity between the various fragments which go to make up the poem. The physical appearance of Prufrock reflects Eliot’s method of composition. It was not composed as a unit: as befitting a poem we have earlier described as ‘one of the very first great modern poems’, some lines were written in America, some in Paris and some in Germany; added to this was the fact that it underwent a good deal of editing and re-arranging of lines before the present version emerged. One looks in vain for logical connections between the parts. The speaker proceeds by indirection, implication, suggestion. Indeed, at one point he declares that it is impossible for him to say just what he means (105). A good deal of what one might think necessary for an understanding of the speaker and his situation is omitted or else merely hinted at or vaguely implied; even the nature of the ‘overwhelming question’, apparently a central issue in the poem, is left obscure.
The disjointed fragments, put together in an apparently arbitrary fashion, can, however, be related to one another and made to take on the appearance of parts of a unified structure provided that a certain amount of ingenuity is exercised by the reader. Indeed, it is only by means of such an exercise, involving the discovery of the missing links in the broken chain of events and ideas that Prufrock can be made to acquire the kind of ‘meaning’ that most people look for in any work of literature. Reading Prufrock in this fashion for its ‘meaning’ is rather like playing a game of charades, solving a puzzle or doing a piece of detective work. Clues are seen to be left lying around: a journey of some sort is in question; a man seems to be facing a difficult predicament; an urban landscape is described; details of the man’s appearance and character are, apparently, revealed. The poet’s peculiar use of pronouns is noted. The reader will naturally try to combine these elements into as orderly and intelligible a sequence as he can, discover logical relations between them, and make out his version of the ‘story’ of the poem. Each reader’s version may, of course, be somewhat different from that of his neighbour; each will marshal the ‘clues’ to different effect. The number of possible versions of the poem as a ‘story’ is obviously endless.
What kind of poem, then, is Prufrock? One of Eliot’s images gives us a useful clue to the poet’s method:
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on
a screen ….
The magic lantern will serve as a symbol of Prufrock. The fragments of the poem are like separate, isolated slides projected onto a screen. The voice of the speakers invites us to follow it on a dream-like progress from the half-deserted streets to the room full of fashionable women, through the yellow fog, to the staircase and finally to the mermaids in the chambers of the sea. The only place in which all these different locations could exist together is in the mind of the speaker.
If Prufrock has unity it is not a unity of idea or incident: the streets, stairways, rooms and ‘chambers of the sea’ clearly cannot belong to a single, visible world. Instead of trying to relate the fragments of the poem to such a world, one should regard them as projections of various states of feeling, some of them contradictory, all originating in a single mind. This is the only sense in which it is possible to speak with confidence of the ‘unity’ of the poem. The images of Prufrock correspond to these states of feeling: they objectify them. The experience of reading the poem should be like that of listening to music: moods and feelings are communicated, emotions stimulated. It does not really matter where the room is in which the women talk of Michelangelo, or whether this can be the room towards which the speaker may be going; nor does it matter whether the fog has formed before the projected ‘journey’ or after it. The physical details of the poem, the relationship between its people, places and objects, are as unsubstantial as those in a dream; they dissolve and reappear quite arbitrarily. The time-sequence is equally chaotic. Therefore, if Prufrock can be said to be about anything, it is primarily about a state of mind.
 It is essential for our understanding of the poem to realise that the ‘you’ and ‘I’ refer to two aspects of Prufrock’s personality. The ‘you’ stands for the timid, apologetic, public side of Prufrock; the ‘I’ stands for the inner man with his passionate desire for a more heroic and splendid mode of life. There is a third person in the poem, the woman, who is the object of Prufrock’s love. She is constantly referred to as the ‘one’.
You might also like to read a brief analysis of Eliot’s Religious Poetry featuring ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’ here.