What is T S Eliot’s Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock all about?

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LET us go then, you and I”

But both “you” and “I” go precisely nowhere in this poem by T S Eliot. Indeed, who “you” and “I” are cannot even be established with any certainty. Well, of course the “I” refers to Prufrock, but who is he and what is Eliot doing with him? Is this really a love song? How can it be? And if Prufrock is meant to represent the condition of modern man c1915, what does that say? Why is modern man’s condition so pathetic, meaningless and without direction? Is modern man no more than a failed lover who cannot get around to even posing the question?

And who is “you”? The reader? If so, if we are being invited along on Prufrock’s “quest”, what kind of a quest is it? However, he might well be addressing the object of his affections, the woman, a woman, who never really gets to centre stage in this supposed love song, just as Prufrock can never hope to consummate the relationship.

And if it is a genuine love song, as opposed to a straight parody of one, it should be that the object of any quest would be the winning of a lady’s heart – but how is such a venture ever likely to be successful when the reader considers the opening image:

“When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table”

This is typical of many of Eliot’s uses of figurative language: the image fails to do the job of an image as it would in a normal poem, giving the reader little that they can grab a hold of, but instead merely draws attention to itself and renders the reader’s initial experience of the world as Eliot presents it both disorientating and unnerving. The reader is befuddled from the start, much in the way that the poem’s protagonist is: Eliot has set up the reader, as well as Prufrock, as well as the modern man who he represents, to fail, to get lost, to lose heart and to wander aimlessly through a meaningless universe where all the old certainties have been lost.

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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


When the rhyme scheme kicks in and the poem picks up something of a rhythm, the reader feels carried along towards something, but the meaning of the words contradicts this. The speaker’s repetition of “Let us go then” strikes the reader as weak: who is this protagonist who suggests we continue the journey with him rather than marching us along towards some certain point in the future.


To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                            

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.


The strength of the rhyming couplet seems to offer us some certainty, suggesting that something has been arrived at or achieved. But the reader will already be suspicious of Prufrock’s achievement of anything, let alone consummating a relationship in any way. And this is merely a suggestion – another “Let us go” – the third – and the indecisiveness of Prufrock will already rankle for the reader. This is also the first occurrence of the phrase “an overwhelming question”, which piques the reader’s curiosity, but for which he is never given any specifics: of course, on the one hand it is the declaration of his interest to the woman who is ostensibly the object of his love, but at the same time it is the essential quandary of modern man: what now? In a world devoid of meaning, how can I achieve anything, progress, move one way or another, measure my advancement or succeed. All the old certainties are gone: the modern world is not a place in which life can be lived meaningfully.

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Completed in 1910 or 1911, but not published until 1915, this poem is a study of the tortured mind of modern man: overeducated, eloquent, neurotic, and emotionally stilted. Compared to the traditional heroes of love poetry, Prufrock is utterly un-heroic; he is grossly indecisive, halfhearted and aimless.

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,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

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.

And it is through the use of bathos that Eliot makes it clear to the reader the depth and extent of Prufrock’s essential problem. Sinking from the exalted heights of “murder and create” and the hyper-serious tone of “all the works of days and hands” – we seem for a moment to be back in the glory days of epic poetry and dreadfully meaningful words and actions – to the commonplace of the clichéd “on your plate” or the utterly quotidian “toast and tea” – but that he is “taking” these everyday foodstuffs as opposed to eating them, is further evidence, if it were needed, of the absurdity of Prufrock’s condition: “taking of a toast and tea” is bathetic in itself, even the use of the indefinite article – “a” – is risible: is “toast and tea” to be spoken of in the same manner as “an aperitif” or “a life”, “a final decision” or “a deposition” – it really is an odd use of the indefinite article, and one that causes the reader to suspect a strong shot of bathos.

But there is pathos too: there are moments when we feel real and genuine pity and sympathy for Prufrock and his hopeless plight:

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;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room.

  So how should I presume?

Indeed, it is the mixture of bathos and pathos that give this poem its distinctive tone – halfway between dignified and profound on the one hand and farcical and petty on the other.

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One of the most prominent formal characteristics of this poem is the use of refrains. Prufrock’s continual return to the seemingly random refrain:

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

…is both disorientating and mesmerizing for the reader. Who are these women? What are they actually saying? And why are we being told? Is it merely an incidental observation of Prufrock’s, thereby showing how incidental everything else in the poem is, that is, non-essential, or can there be a hidden meaning here? But this is not a poem that gets to the heart of the matter of who is Alfred J Prufrock is; Eliot mocks this notion in Portrait of a Lady, where he satirizes the central idea of Matthew Arnold’s “The Buried Life”, that one’s essence is hidden, and that falling in love comprises uncovering this essence in each other.  What Eliot gives us in this poem is an effort that fails, that was always going to fail, and that must necessarily fail to come to terms with who the protagonist is, and so with who modern man is.

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!”]

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!”]

…this is modern man in all his glory. In a world where the old certainties have collapsed, and meaning cannot be had, man is reduced to a pathetic shell of his former glory.

His recurring questioning – “how should I presume?”– and negative appraisal – “That is not it, at all” – the frequent lapses into colloquialisms and idiomatic expression show just how unpoetic Prufrock is, and how unpoetic the plight of modern man is. Gone is the age of the hero, the epic and the romance, the modern world is one populated by the most prosaic of characters, the slightly ridiculous and abundantly pathetic Prufrock, who cant gain any purchase at all in the world he finds himself fallen into.

The faintly ridiculous repetition of some of his sayings, such as:

There will be time… And indeed there will be time

…will strike the reader as almost laughable. Prufrock is a figure of fun, but one we empathies with. The strong whiff of absurdity we get from his is the absurdity of the condition of modern man. For a protagonist to repeatedly comment on there being time enough left when his procrastination is terminal is absurd, but also tragic – this is the tragicomic nature of Prufrock and so of the human condition in the modern world.
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And what can be made of inconsequential imagery such as this…

The yellow fog 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

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,        

And seeing that it was a soft October night

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time

For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,

Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

Of course, this has an effect on the reader and does help to shape our understanding of Prufrock, if only to colour the mood or light in which we see him, surrounded as he is here and elsewhere by a rather bleak urban universe where nothing is quite as it should be, or could be. Here again is imagery which doesn’t do as it should, but by merely drawing attention to itself, foregrounds the essential oddity of the universe in which Prufrock finds himself, and so in which modern man finds himself, a universe from which he is alienated.

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The triviality of contemporary society is an obvious theme, or at least, motif, of the poem, but it is nothing to the social paralysis that is gripping Prufrock, and this is what Eliot wants the reader to take from the poem and apply to themselves. Is Prufrock foolish and pathetic? Yes. But do we empathize with him? Yes, we do. Prufrock is an Everyman; he stands in for modern man, and in some way, Eliot is saying, this is who we have become, at the start of the twentieth century, with the certainties and progress of the Victorian era having petered out and a new brand of nihilism stalking our consciousness.

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Eliot modernizes the form of dramatic monologue by playing games with the implied listener: who if anyone is being addressed? If it is the reader then this is not a dramatic monologue, but if there is an implied listener other than the reader who is it, in what way is Prufrock related to them, and how does he, she or they affect the manner in which Prufrock relates his experiences of the modern world? Does the implied listener make Prufrock unsure of himself? Or wary of seeming arrogant, too self-assured, and vain?


Also, by focusing on Prufrock’s interiority and isolation, the dramatic monologue form is undermined and the reader might well wonder why it has been employed. As with Preludes, the reader is ever really sure what’s going on, or rather what they are meant to think is going on. Is Prufrock addressing anyone at all? Does he actually manage to speak to the object of his affections? Does the implied listener think of Prufrock in the same way we do? The poem could be seen to be an internal debate in the mind of Prufrock between two sides of his personality and it is through this debate the poet throws light on the spiritual degeneracy of the speaker. Either way the primary focus is the development and revelation of the speaker’s character.

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?

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The rhyme scheme of this poem is irregular but not random. While sections of the poem may resemble free verse, in reality, “Prufrock” is a carefully structured amalgamation of poetic forms. The bits and pieces of rhyme become much more apparent when the poem is read aloud. There are fragments of sonnet form, particularly at the poem’s conclusion.

I do not think they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

 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.


The pessimistic, anti-romantic content, coupled with the despairing interjection, “I do not think they (the mermaids) would sing to me,” creates a contrast that comments bitterly on the bleakness of modernity. The plight of Prufrock is anything but romanticized: it is stripped bare, stripped of any possible gloss, and the man is shown for the pathetic failure that he really is. The old poetic notion of unrequited love, of the spurned lover pining away as he walks beneath the grove of sycamore, is nowhere to be seen: Prufrock is revealed as a terribly mundane, weak and shallow middle aged man, a symptom of the modern age.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!

Smoothed by long fingers,

Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,

I am no prophet–and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid. 

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The obvious reference to Andrew Marvell’s Carpe Diem poem – To His Coy Mistress – “Let us roll all our strength, and all
 / Our sweetness, up into one ball” – a poem concerning the poem’s voice’s attempt to convince the addressee, the coy mistress of the title, to have sex with him before death makes such pleasures impossible – is perhaps the most stinging criticism of Prufock, and thus of modern man – the comparison with Marvell’s 17th Century protagonist who is consumed with passion is not a flattering one: Prufrock is even more of a buffoon and a pathetic figure when compared to the assured manner in which Marvell’s protagonist goes about his business. Why can’t modern man be like Marvell’s lover? What has changed?

And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say, “That is not what I meant at all.

That is not it, at all.”

The conditional “If one…”, the phrase “bitten off” which strongly implies “more than you can chew”, the quotidian and decidedly unromantic “cups” and “marmalade” and “tea” all work to make the comparison with Marvell’s poem even more laughable. The joke is certainly on Prufrock and the terribly reduced and hollowed out “modern man”. The double retraction “not what I meant, that is not it” which shows Prufrock might have gone too far even still, the final definite “at all”, put the nail in the coffin of Prufrock’s volition: he can do nothing: modern man can do nothing. But why, Eliot is asking, must this be the case?

…and again…

Would it have been worth while

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.”                                          

Though Eliot is not at all suggesting that there is a way around this plight: in a meaningless world all meaningful action is impossible. In a world robbed of the strictures of religion, tradition, and ledged, there is nothing left against which we can measure ourselves.

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The poem’s use of fragmentation and juxtaposition is what defines it, and is what defines much of Eliot’s early work up to and including The Waste Land. It is disorientating – which Eliot’s style is designed to do, but it also holds the key to Eliot’s perception of the modern world. Eliot writes in The Waste Land of “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” and “Son of man… you know only a heap of broken images” – so in Prufrock Eliot is working with all that he can get – the few bots of literature that have survived from the old world, but they no longer work the magic of old. The world has changed and whilst he can still reach back to the likes of Marvell and his Carpe Diem and his old-world certainties, they either ring hollow now, or they show up the depths into which we have since sank.

Prufrock asks..

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

…and the reader sees the irony in the poet’s use of these words – it is almost that Prufrock is a mock-heroic hero: we cannot take him seriously when he utters such a pretentious mouthful as this, that is, if he is taking himself seriously, which cannot be taken for granted. The following lines underscore the hopelessness of Prufrock’s suit.

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. 

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Eliot uses techniques like pastiche and juxtaposition to make his points without having to argue them explicitly. He throws things together that have no place side by side and so forces the reader to make a connection.

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? . . .

 I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

 …what, we may well ask, is the connection between the two quite disparate images? The answer to the question might well be the black hole that is always about to swallow us up.

 Though making something beautiful out of the refuse of modern life, as a crab sustains and nourishes itself on garbage, may, in fact, be another point Eliot is making here. This notion subverts romantic ideals about art: that an artist or poet creates as though from the void, that there is some variety of mystical inspiration that visits the poet. Eliot is a modern poet, he acknowledges that his poetry is made out of the fragments of poets past; his poetry is deeply concerned with these fragments, and its art and its meaning is to be found in the manner in which they have been arranged.

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But Eliot is also adept at manipulating rhythm to make his point, to suggest an interpretation, to alter or create a specific tone, or even to undermine what he is ostensibly saying

 And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen

…the rhythm of the poem seems to be broken in many places, and where it is generated in but one or two lines, such as  “And would it have been worth it, after all, / Would it have been worth while” – the next line tears it away, and with the rhythm goes the tone that was getting almost hopeful. It is the subtle changes in the poem’s music that tell us the most about how e are to take any particular line. In so far as the line “the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets” punctures the rhythm and tone created in the previous two lines it is to be read as an intrusion of reality onto the slowly bubbling romanticism that Eliot has brewing. And what an intrusion; what does the modern world have to offer but “the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets” – the first item having romantic potential, the second none, and the final item giving us nothing but a dusty city street in need of sustenance.

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Whatever flashes we do get of the object of Prufrock’s desire, they are such broken fragments that we cannot get any kind of handle on the matter at all. And it is the uncertainty and indecisiveness which emasculates Prufrock which shines through and which becomes the poem’s subject, rather than whatever love he might feel, the nature of which has not been more than touched upon: her bare arms… downed with light brown hair.” That is all she is to the reader, so we leave the poem with little idea of the poem’s supposed reason for being, and are left instead with Prufrock’s incessant doubts.

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?

 And then the rhythm changes, as it continually does throughout the poem, swinging into lyrical moments that bear little analysis as such when the meaning of the words is arrived at. The rhyming couplets mark the moments where the poem breaks out into a certain rhythm, but it doesn’t carry the reader far; where the next rhyming couplet is expected the reader’s hopes are dashed – the word “advise” reverses the stress pattern of the following line, but ending only on a strong assonance and alliteration, as opposed to a half or full rhyme, a little twist that will prepare the reader for the first word of the next line, a dissonant monster of a word – “deferential” – on which the rhythm wholly founders, and then the rhythms of natural speech kick in as the rather shabby sentiments of casual conversation replace the hope of a noble outcome, much as Eliot uses bathos elsewhere in the poem to puncture the grand sentiments that almost form.

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

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool. 

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But in the end Prufrock is the modern man: solitary, neurasthenic, overly intellectual, and utterly incapable of expressing himself to the outside world. The poem sinks to the most unpoetic depths, the

 I grow old . . . I grow old . .

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

 Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

 So where have we ended up? Is Eliot saying that modern man is a pathetic man in the manner of Prufrock? In a way. Prufrock’s situation, or at least what we can make out of it, is analogous to the situation of man in the modern world of 1910. Prufrock’s indecisiveness, procrastination and foolishness, as well as his severe self-doubt and pitiable shyness, are not those of modern man, but symbolic of the condition in which he finds himself: unable to rise above the level of Prufrock because the old world has collapsed, leaving nothing which can lend our lives meaning.

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