Observations on ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot

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 ….

“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’[1] – 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.




[1] 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’.


Further Reading

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.

Remembering Michael Hartnett

Hartnett by the Bridge in Newcastle West

Michael Hartnett was an esteemed poet from a young age, but his assurance about his creative destiny had its dangers.  In the following edited essay, first published in The Irish Times on February 16th, 2009,  MICHAEL SMITH recalls a significant artist whose early death at 58 on the 13th of October, 1999 can be viewed as an accident of time and place.  

The author, Michael Smith himself, poet and Aosdána member, passed away in November 2014. His contribution to the arts as a teacher, poet, editor, translator and publisher cannot be overstated.  He had a profound impact on the Irish literary scene. He has been described as a classical modernist, a poet of modern life. Born in Dublin in 1942, Michael Smith was the founder of New Writers’ Press in 1967 and had been responsible for the publication of over 100 books and magazines. He was keen to promote the modernist tradition in Irish poetry, publishing the work of Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, Anthony Cronin,  and Michael Hartnett, among others.


As with many relationships, even the most intimate, it is often extremely difficult to pinpoint the original meeting. I can only say that it was in the early stage of our enrolment in UCD that I first met Michael Hartnett. I cannot recall the circumstances of that first meeting. I can’t even remember what academic subjects Michael had chosen. What I do remember is that James Liddy (and perhaps John Jordan) had agreed to pay his first year’s fees. So the lad from Newcastle West in Co Limerick was indeed going to receive some patronage. This patronage was bestowed purely on the strength of his poetry. Michael was recognised as a gifted poet from a relatively early age, and quite rightly so.

Michael almost never attended a lecture, so far as I recall. I was little better myself. The whole novelty of being university students was more than enough for both of us. Study was for others. Unlike Michael, I was deeply rooted in my Dublin working-class background, whereas, for Michael, Dublin was a kind of playground, despite his Limerick working-class background. But that working-class background was something we shared.

I think Michael had no other ambition than to be a poet. I think he gave little thought to how he would survive financially in the future. Was he feckless in this regard? Probably. Did he come to Dublin with the naivety of Kavanagh, expecting wonderful things? I doubt it. He didn’t have that innocence. On the other hand, he wasn’t cynical. John Jordan and James Liddy had accepted him as a gifted poet. The future was in the lap of the Muse.

What memories I have of him are selective, like all memories, I suppose. Often we would walk home together after a drinking session in McDaid’s, where we were usually treated to drinks by James Liddy and his friend, Patrick Clancy. Patrick Kavanagh was still holding vociferous court there at the time. Michael had already had his first confrontation with Kavanagh in the Bailey at the launch of the first issue of Poetry Ireland, edited by John Jordan and published by the Dolmen Press. That confrontation is too notorious to need detailed repetition. Michael made an adverse comment on Kavanagh’s poem (to Kavanagh himself, although Michael didn’t know who he was) that begins: “I am here in a garage in Monaghan.” Kavanagh’s reaction was violent, upturning a table full of drinks.

Michael was living in digs in a cul-de-sac off the North Strand, so our walk home often overlapped. I recall him voicing his strong disapproval of Kavanagh’s raucous behaviour in McDaid’s, saying that if anyone in Newcastle West behaved like that, he would be barred from the pub, and why should a poet be made an exception of.

He had great admiration for Yeats, though, oddly, not so much as a poet but as a businessman. He admired Yeats’s business acumen.

In his digs, under the bed, Michael had a small brown cardboard suitcase which he opened for me once to show me a huge quantity of beautifully scripted poems. I sometimes wonder what happened to all of this material.

There were, of course, other young poets in UCD at the time: Paul Durcan, Macdara Woods, Brian Lynch, Eamon Grennan, Malachy Higgins, to mention just a few names that come to mind.

In the case of the first three, and including myself, James Liddy was undoubtedly the extraordinarily generous mentor, with John Jordan a reserved encourager.

Of all of us, it was Michael who was held in the highest esteem by both John and James. And that esteem was well-deserved, for Michael arrived in Dublin as an already accomplished poet who was not looking for, nor needing any, teachers in the art of poetry. Much has been made of Lorca’s influence on Michael, largely because of his later version of Lorca’s Romancero Gitano, but really it has more to do with the precocity of the early work of both poets.

I have never met any poet who was more assured of himself as a poet than Michael was. It was his destiny. All else seemed of secondary importance. But however impressed by that I was, I sensed a danger in it, recalling Wordsworth’s lines in his poem “Resolution and Independence”:

We poets in our youth begin in gladness;

But thereof come in the end, despondency and madness.

I knew, and indeed Michael knew, that there was no money in poetry (Kavanagh had learnt that years before) and that he would have to earn his living at some stage in the future – but he seemed unconcerned by this. Writing poetry was a lifetime’s work, regardless. I sometimes think that a lot of Michael’s problems of later years came from that dedication. Yes, he did later earn his living in the international telephone exchange on Andrews Street, but he found it boring and was only too glad to escape from it (even during working hours) and head for O’Neill’s of Suffolk Street to drink pints with some other of his escapee colleagues from the exchange.

And Michael was good company, a wonderful raconteur, witty, and possessing a fund of knowledge of all sorts of arcane subjects. He had an extraordinary memory. Yet always it was as the poet that he was treated, in whatever company he found himself. That was the identity he had chosen or had been chosen for him. I think he never abandoned that. And therein lay a danger, the same sort of danger that beset Dylan Thomas, for one cannot always be a poet. There has to be a life apart from being a poet, at least for poets without personal financial resources or the resources of a generous benefactor. Ezra Pound had his wife’s money behind him, and also financial support from his doting father. Neither Michael nor Dylan Thomas had anything of the sort.

For Thomas there was the horrible scrounging and, later, the equally horrible American readings. For Michael, after his stint in the exchange, there was very little, and he seemed to live a hand-to-mouth existence, even when later he returned to Newcastle West with his wife, Rosemary, and their two children. Later, a cnuas from Aosdána came in useful, and some prizes he won and some royalties he managed to squeeze out of publishers.

To attempt to be a professional poet in Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a recipe for trouble. The days of the literary salons, such as Æ’s, were well and truly over. That left the pub, which unfortunately became Michael’s court, where he met his admirers who provided him with the kind companionship he needed, treating him to drinks and accepting him as a poet.

Was there anything else he might have done, any alternative? There was not at the time any such thing in Ireland as a poet in residence. So Michael made do with what was available.

A poet is not like a novelist who must toil daily and for long hours if he or she is to be productive. For the poet, the Muse is fickle and her visits are not on demand. So the poet must wait, never sure what the future holds for his work. When his own lyrical gift began to fail (though not until he had written some of the best poems written by an Irish poet in his time), Michael turned to translations from the Irish, translation always being a good means of keeping one’s skills honed.

Why did Michael turn to writing his own poetry in Irish? I think that this, too, was part of his attempt to be accepted socially as a professional poet. After all, in the old Gaelic order there had been such an acceptance. That order, however, was long gone and could never be recovered. After his early-evening court sessions in Doheny and Nesbitt’s, his admirers (often cultivated and literary civil servants) would head off to their respectable homes in the suburbs, leaving Michael as an abandoned court jester (which, in due course, he was becoming). Let it be said that there was no malice in this among those who patronised Michael with drink and small loans of money. But they had families at home and a job to do the next day.

Michael’s early death, whatever the medical causes, can be viewed as an accident of time and place. In a sense, he was a martyr to poetry. Gifted, even a genius, but nonetheless a martyr. If only . . . It’s useless now to ponder such possibilities.