Favorite Poem: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Last week I asked about your favorite poems, and I really enjoyed the stream of responses which included, in the order in which they were posted: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot, “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr, “The Height of the Ridiculous” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Matthew 6:25 – 34, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” by Walt Whitman, “The City in Which I Love You” by Li-Young Lee, “Poem In October” by Dylan Thomas, “Constantly Risking Absurdity” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “A Supermarket in California” by Allen Ginsberg, “l(a” by e.e. cummings, the entire “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman, “Herbsttag” by Rainer Maria Rilke, “Death Fugue” by Paul Celan, “Cloud” by Vladimir Mayakovsky, “The Waste-Land” by T. S. Eliot, “What a Piece of Work is Man” (from “Hamlet”) by William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare, “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats, “Kaddish” by Allen Ginsberg, “Power” by Gregory Corso, poems by Jane Kenyon, Anne Sexton, Christina Rossetti, Carl Sandburg, “Wild Swans at Coole” by Yeats, “The Drunken Boat” by Rimbaud, “Sonete Postrero” by Carlos Pellicer, “Sonnet” and “Masa” by Cesar Vallejo, “in Just-/spring” by e. e. cummings, “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, “When i consider how my light is spent” by John Milton, “The Purist” by Ogden Nash, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost, Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare, “As The Mist Leaves No Scar” and “The Reason I Write” by Leonard Cohen, “So I said I am Ezra” by Archie Ammons, “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams and “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” by Kenneth Koch, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas, “In Society” by Allen Ginsberg, “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost, “13 Ways of looking at a blackbird” and “The poem that took the place of a mountain” by Wallace Stevens, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell, “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost and “Love is a Dog from Hell” by Charles Bukowski.

The first one mentioned (by none other than my LitKicks co-editor Jamelah) happens to be my own favorite. T. S. Eliot began writing his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1910, when he was a 22 year old philosophy graduate student. Five years later it was published in Poetry Magazine, and it became his first famous work.

Nearly a hundred years later, it’s still puzzling and fascinating us. On the surface it is an ugly little poem, a satire about a “hollow man” presumably from T. S. Eliot’s own hometown of St. Louis, Missouri (to where the name “Prufrock” has been traced). The poetic style appears at first clumsy, intentionally malformed, and certainly unmusical. Except that, by the third reading or so, the music starts to creep up on you. And the naive phrases, the crude brushstrokes of an inelegant man, start to become elegant.

The poem is notable as a literary milestone in several ways. Like James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, which was published a few years later, it is an intense interior monologue, a modernist stream of consciousness. Eliot’s narrator compares himself to a bug wriggling on a pin before Franz Kafka began to dream up “Metamporphosis”. And, Eliot composed the poem as a cut-up, a cubist mental collage, half a century before William S. Burroughs began to make the “cut-up” style famous.

“Prufrock” is an incredibly innovative and important poem, but that’s not why I want to write about it.

I want to write about T. S. Eliot’s strange poem because it captures the insanity, intensity and sheer length, width and breadth of human feelings more than any other poem I have ever read. The author holds nothing back. We’re inside the head of J. Alfred Prufrock, a thin, middle-aged man from a notable upper-class family. He seems to be a type we’ve all met, an ineffectual and frightened snob, who probably listened to everything Mother and Father said as a child and then failed to grow out of this as an adult.

He never married, and in his middle age is probably either a virgin or close to it. He haunts tea parties and dances, feeling ridiculous and alone, and dreaming of making love to the women in the room. This poem is his brain scan, as he wanders from room to room.

He wants to ask a woman to dance, or catch someone’s eye. He knows he is eligible enough to interest a woman, but his inner thoughts and fears won’t allow him to risk a moment of sexual vulnerability, despite his raging desires. His thoughts veer wildly from the warmly romantic to the coldly clinical, as in the opening lines:

Let us go then, you and I
when the evening is spread out against the sky
like a patient etherized upon a table

We hear this and we instantly know that Prufrock has problems. He may be mentally ill — he hints to the reader of dark secrets, hallucinates that his city’s polluted fog is actively oppressing him, and imagines himself beheaded like John the Baptist. But there is something in his language, in his odd turns of phrase, that endears him to us, and hints at a higher purpose.

Like P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, Eliot’s Prufrock is a supposedly dull character whose private language — the words he uses to narrate his experiences to us — reveal an entirely different dimension. Prufrock may be a lousy conversationalist, but he can sure sing to us:

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
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

A chaste prude, Prufrock imagines sex as a cataclysmic, orgasmic confrontation with the universe itself. This poem reminds us that, in some deep sense, to make love to another person is to make love with existence itself, to engage with the world, to touch outside yourself. This is what the poem is about. In line after line, Prufrock departs from the flesh and blood around him — departs from the surface of the planet, it seems — to soar into twisted, psychedelic, almost comically overblown realms of imagination.

should I, after tea and cakes and ices
have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas

Would it have been worthwhile
to have bitten off the matter with a smile
To have squeezed the universe into a ball

Some writers — bad writers — could depict entire orgies of wild sex and make us feel that none of it matters. In Eliot’s poem, everything matters. To Prufrock, a reader imagines, a kiss on the cheek would feel like an earthquake. This is as it should be.

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

In the last verses, the party winds down and we can tell that Prufrock will not be getting lucky tonight, or any night soon. But he continues to torture himself, desperately trying to find a way to reconfigure his persona and find his lost confidence:

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

I love this parting shot in the final section, not only because it’s a hilariously innocent image, a good sexual innuendo, and the inspiration for an Allman Brothers album. I love it because T. S. Eliot had the nerve to write such a childish thought. To present such poetic inanity in the service of truth is no less than an act of courage.

I have a few more things I’d like to say about T. S. Eliot, and I have a feeling you’ll be reading more articles from me about him in these pages. For today, I just want to pay tribute to the most honest, most memorable and most astounding poem I have ever read.

40 Responses

  1. Wear yr trousers rolled
    Wear yr trousers rolled w/impunity

    What a wonderful, luminous analysis and appreciation of ‘Prufrock’!

    When I was an undergraduate two of my friends wrote themselves and their relationship as ‘Prufrock’ on the flyleaf of the Norton Anthology, which I took with me when we all dispersed because by that time they had, too. Since then I’ve had a soft spot for the language and the anguish in the poem, but your essay reminded me of the humor as well. Thank you!

  2. from Cerebral Cyanide”The day
    from Cerebral Cyanide

    “The day a woman explicated the poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, students offered multiple opinions for every stanza.”

    After reading the above, I can see how bad my first novel is because in my rush, I didn’t give good examples of that day in class because then I believed it was inauthentic to make up bullshit because I couldn’t remember my classmates’ comments; but that day in class was the proverbial Kodak moment with students interrupting other students to give their opinions.
    Me, the rolling stone, even has a copy of that poem in my files. I’ll teach it to my son before the Bukowski, which is much more to my taste, but much later after Mother Goose and the Three Character Classic.

    What I don’t like about the poem is its effete tone and my projection of Prufrock–please excuse the cliche–as an ineffectual intellectual.

  3. PrufrockAye, indeed this is a

    Aye, indeed this is a favorite of mine too.

    Though I apply a lot less analysis when I read it.

    But I do see his preoccupation with the opposite sex, boredom, repetition, mediocrity and finally aging and death (I think this explains its popularity — he strikes a chord in us like Sartre and his nausea). Same as most country songs, lol…. And some great opening lines that set an indescribable mood:

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

    Thought ‘Howl’ woulda been #2. Now I have to read some of those works listed.

    ‘Nuther good Eliot poem is ‘Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’.

  4. A hollow manTo me, this poem
    A hollow man

    To me, this poem may very well be perfect, but the fact that Prufrock is completely neurotic underneath his constructed surface makes him, and thus the poem, totally endearing. Perhaps this is because I often go through my own fits of being a neurotic basket case, I don’t know (well, yes I do), and it can feel as though the entire world hinges on overwhelming questions that might be, in reality, very, very small.

    So the poem makes me smile at my comrade in craziness, but it also makes me wonder whether there is actually such a thing as a hollow man, or if, perhaps, those who seem so tied up in the surface of things are that way because everything underneath is completely paralyzing.

    Of course, there’s no way to really know this.

    Anyway, there are other reasons why I love this poem, and I already touched on them last week. So I guess there’s not much else to say, except yeah, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a fucking great poem.

  5. Rock on, professor b.That’s
    Rock on, professor b.

    That’s probably the best explanation of Prufrock that I’ve ever read, and I studied it in college.

  6. The Case Against
    The Case Against Prufrock

    While I understand Levi and many other people’s reasons for choosing this as the best or one of the best poems of all time, I have to put forward my case on this classic poem.

    ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is for me, without a doubt, T.S Eliot’s best poem. It contains not only all of his innovative poetic energy and technical brilliance, but more importantly, it captures the soul of its author. Because of this, the poem contains all the best and worst aspects of Eliot’s work. It also means that the case against Prufrock is necessarily the case against Eliot, because for me, the fault of the poem lies precisely in the author’s own frigidity and inhumanity.

    Levi, you’ve done quite a damn good job at analysing the poem. But, I’ve got some bones to pick. Your claim that the poem ‘captures the insanity, intensity and sheer length, width and breadth of human feelings more than any other poem’ seems to be at odds with your actual analysis. You show that Prufrock is, quite narrowly even, a ‘chaste prude’. But it is more than that. What Prufrock lacks, because it author lacks it, is real human feeling. What Prufrock is concerned about is his own inaction.

    And how should I begin?

    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?

    The greatness of the poem lies in its brilliant encapsulation of that common modern fear of action. But nowhere in this poem is there care or concern for other people. And it’s no good to argue that Prufrock’s concern for himself is reflected in other people, etc. I don’t think it reminds us of anything to do with love-making and especially not with engaging with the world. The poem makes it quite clear, like you said, that Prufrock ‘departs from the flesh and blood around him’. And that is the core of the poem. A man soaring into his own thoughts to escape – and escape is the right word – his fears about the people and the world around him.

    I should have been a pair of ragged claws
    Scuttling across the floors of silent seas

    ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is not a love song at all. It is a hate song. This poem cannot in my eyes be a great one, because it does not cover the wide ranges of human feeling or thought. It covers very well one kind of feeling, which was the feeling that poured through all of Eliot’s life – paradoxically, his inability to feel, to connect. It is because of Eliot’s genius that he communicates this so well, but it is also because of his genius that we are left with a kind of inhuman poem. It is not an accident that the same man who wrote this poem was also a horrible anti-semite and vaguely fascist sympathiser.
    Like I said before, it is a classic poem, and its meaning is expressed beautifully. But by giving it a ‘best poem’ status (ignoring the fact that that’s simply your preference), I feel that you are rewarding an expression, however sincere it is, of frigidity, self-absorbtion and more importantly, a lack of human empathy. The best poems contain love, and contain real love.

    Just my bias.

  7. AHeM~~~~~Hey Levi, t’was Buk

    Hey Levi, t’was Buk who wrote “Love Is A Dog From Hell”.

    I dug the analysis of “Prufrock”, by the way. Great poem.

  8. Oops, you’re right! I was
    Oops, you’re right! I was thinking of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog”. Fixed it, thanks.

  9. Very well said, Noah, and I
    Very well said, Noah, and I don’t disagree with anything you said. Yes, it is a hate poem more than a love poem … but the hate is certainly rooted in fear rather than in snobbery, all superficial indications to the contrary. The awareness of this fact is what makes Prufrock (and Eliot) separate from their peers, who may also be anti-semites and fascist sympathizers. This poem presents tremendous conflict, and I do feel tremendous conflict about how much it affects me (as I think you do too). Maybe this is why I said I have more to say about T. S. Eliot. In attempting to write this article, I wrote at least three different articles, which I’ll have to figure out what to do with.

    When a poem is completely infused with self-hatred and irony, as this one is — isn’t the case against the poem also the case for the poem?

  10. Is there such a thing as a
    Is there such a thing as a hollow man? Good question, and I would answer no, there isn’t. I am sure Prufrock was meant to represent not an oddity or a freak but rather all of us, and the human condition itself. We can seek to become hollow, but this attempt always fails.

  11. So, Levi, are you saying that
    So, Levi, are you saying that because Eliot recognizes these traits in himself, he may be expunging the traits by writing them down and sharing them? I remember reading that Jack Kerouac was asking William S. Burroughs why he wrote such vile stuff, and Burroughs said something like, “Because when I get it out, I will be clean inside.” (paraphrase)

  12. Well, I doubt that anyone who
    Well, I doubt that anyone who would write something like,

    “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

    would use his writing as a way to exorcise his own demons. While Eliot was a troubling figure and though it’s easy to analyze him in conjunction with his writing, I think it’s not really a good idea to make the poem mean the same thing as the poet. If that makes sense. I guess my point is that I think Prufrock stands on its own outside of Eliot’s anti-semitism or fascist sympathies (or anything else).

    I think the points against the poem were made very well, yet I also think that Prufrock is a love song — the only kind poor J. Alfred could sing. Certainly, it’s not a love song in the conventional sense, but I think for someone so overcome with fear and indecision and self-loathing and a sense of propriety, it’s the one that happens. I don’t know. I guess I think it’s possible to be cold and afraid and unsure and alive entirely within one’s own head and still love, albeit in a way that makes any sort of real love impossible. Maybe I just know that because my plastic robot heart cannot love. Or something.

  13. Prufrock’s Heart of
    Prufrock’s Heart of Darkness

    It is difficult for me to deeply consider Mr. Prufrock, without invariably calling to mind (by way of antithesis) Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. In fact, I read somewhere (too long ago to remember the source), that Eliot wanted to begin Prufrock with a quote from heart of darkness (“Kurtz, he dead” or something like that), but an editor talked him into the quote from Dante instead, because it was more “literary” (Conrad was too contemporary to count as a literary reference). But Eliot was deeply influenced by Conrad, and, in turn, Apocalypse Now (based roughly on Heart of Darkness) was deeply influenced by Conrad-as-understood-by-Eliot. In Apocalypse Now (Redux I think), Kurtz (Marlon Brando) reads Eliot’s poem Hollow Men (a reiteration of the themes of Love Song . . .), and the photo-journalist (played by Dennis Hopper) quotes Hollow Men: “without a bang or a whimper.”

    During the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s character is in a hotel room in Saigon waiting for a special-ops mission. He says (paraphrasing): “every day I wait in this hotel in Saigon, I get weaker, and every day Charlie squats in the jungle he gets stronger.” He is a man trapped in a civilized world knowing he belongs in the jungle. At the end of the sequence, he smashes a mirror in his room and there’s blood smeared everywhere as the Door’s “The End” comes to a climax, and his anguish surfaces. Like a caged animal, he has rubbed his own flesh off against the bars of his prison. Here is Mr. Prufrock if he had a bit more testosterone and perhaps some Army training.

    Later in the movie, Kurtz explains how he had been with a Army unit that was inoculating children in Vietnamese villages, and one day, an old man comes running after them screaming. When they return to the village, they find that the inoculated arms of the children had been cut off and piled up in the center of town. After his initiate horror, he says what struck him was the genius, that these men had developed the will to do what had to be done. They weren’t amoral men. On the contrary, he says: “moral terror is your friend.” By the end of the movie, Martin Sheen’s character has developed such a Nietszchian will, and carries out his mission of terminating Kurtz’s command “with extreme prejudice” in a death scene which is sequenced alongside a ritual sacrifice of an ox, and his last words are: “the horror, the horror.”

    That is what Mr. Prufrock lacked: will. He avoided the insanity and horror that plagued Kurtz, and anyone else who confronts the absolute monstrosity and menace that is life. He lived in a civilized world where eating a peach may slobber too much juice down the forearm for appropriate tea party etiquette. It is the illusion of control, there is no death and decay in such a world, it is a collective promise of protection against the realization of one’s own death and lack of control, but there is also no peach juice. Mr. Prufrock never developed the will to face death, his own and other’s, or dismemberment and decay, so he cowers under the protection of civilization, and wakes up nights to pace back and forth in his cage.

    It is only in his interior life that he is unbounded. And it is in this sense that I understand the final lines. He had visions. Unbounded mind dreaming of mermaids by the sea. “I have seen them!” he claims. But this is only temporary respite from his condition. The inevitable call of civilization and its demands brings him back: “human voices wake us and we drown.” He may have well said: “I had to shit and realized I am not a God.”

  14. Most of Green Day’s lyrics
    Most of Green Day’s lyrics convey these same feelings of self-loathing.

  15. There they were as our
    There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
    So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
    Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
    To look down into the drained pool.
    Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
    And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
    And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
    The surface glittered out of heart of light,
    And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
    Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
    Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
    Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
    Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
    Cannot bear very much reality.
    Time past and time future
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.

    T.S.Eliot, Four Quarters (Burnt Norton)

  16. I was going by the lines”I
    I was going by the lines

    “I should have been a pair of ragged claws
    Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”

    which are great lines, I think, but maybe “self-loathing” is too severe a term for it. Anyway, I was just copying Jamelah.

  17. Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’
    Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’ has the epigraph:

    Mistah Kurz – he dead.
    A penny for the Guy!

  18. Correction: went back and
    Correction: went back and checked my sources. The poem that Eliot wanted to begin with a quote from Heart of Darkness was The Wasteland, but Ezra Pound talked him out of it. But Eliot did begin Hollow Men with a Conrad quote.

  19. I’m surprised to hear you say
    I’m surprised to hear you say that, Um … what about all the stuff about his hair growing thin, etc? I’d say the man definitely has a negative self-image, no?

    I’d also like to say to Jamelah that I am sure you don’t actually have a plastic robot heart, but I did enjoy your thoughts on this.

  20. Kilgore, I really liked your
    Kilgore, I really liked your analysis (and, yeah, I agree with your correction re: Waste-Land). Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” seems to be one of Eliot’s major points of reference, maybe partly due to that book’s correlation to the work that is probably his #1 point of reference, Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.

    Despite the confusion of “Prufrock” and “Waste-Land”, I think your analysis holds up. In fact, the more I look at both poems, the more alike they seem to me. Prufrock is Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant in “Waste-Land”, and he’s also Tiresias the blind visionary. Both poems hold up the distant promise of redemption through some sort of holy cosmic orgasm (purely spiritual, of course). Amusingly, “Waste-Land” is actually the least pessimistic of the two poems.

    It’s also amusing to realize that Dennis Hopper quotes Eliot’s “Hollow Men” in “Apocalypse Now”, which is based on a book quoted in “Hollow Men”. Among techies, that’s what we call an infinite loop. It can crash a computer, but it doesn’t seem to do much harm in poetry or film.

  21. Actually, I do have a plastic
    Actually, I do have a plastic robot heart. I got it after the accident.

  22. Well what do we know about
    Well what do we know about Prufrock?

    He has at least one good friend…

    LET us go then, you and I

    And had a few one night stands…

    Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

    And he’s not rushed…

    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

    …. a little unsure of himself.. I think he wants to impress the ladies and worries about what they will think….

    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!]

    But wait he’s been here before…

    For I have known them all already, known them all:

    … and maybe done a few ? probably not ?

    Knows their voices, eyes (that inspect him like a bug specimen) and their arms.

    … but what can he do to impress them this time?

    do people with a poor self image consider themsleves great?

    I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker

    ….Certainly in the october of his years

    But now he wants to make his move… and the next three stanzas he considers ways to do so but never will( I think he’s an eternal bachelor). He settles on disillusionment but still can find redeeming qualities in himself.

    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.

  23. Hey um –Pretty interesting.
    Hey um —

    Pretty interesting. I’ve never taken the lines “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker/ And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,” to mean that he’s ever considered himself great. Instead, I’ve always kind of thought that in that headspace where Prufrock spends so much of his time, he’s imagined the scenario where he might be great, and saw that it’s never going to happen. And I think the “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” that comes later on is further evidence of this — that whole Hamlet stanza reads (to me) like he’s talking himself out of it, justifying his inaction and rationalizing his doubt — he’s not meant to be great, he’s only supposed to be the idiot in the background.

    At least, that’s my take on it.

  24. The way it seems to me, when
    The way it seems to me, when Prufrock says, “There will be time, there will be time” it’s not really a hopeful statement, but actually like he is fooling himself. Like the person who always says they are going to do something, until one day they they realize, they aren’t ever going to do it.

  25. Um, I do think you’re on to
    Um, I do think you’re on to something. It’s tempting to read the character narrowly, as a stereotypical WASP twit in a bad mood, but there are possibilities for the character. As I wrote above, he could be a mental patient or emotional invalid of any level of severity (T. S. Eliot himself spent time “resting” in a respectable sanitarium as a young man). He could be an accomplished writer, artist or poet, walking us through his tortured creative process, and what I took to be a virginal, prudish fear of sex could actually be the remembered disgust of a more experienced person. Prufrock could also easily be a shell-shocked soldier from the Great War, which began in 1914 and ended in 1918. This poem was written in 1910, and it’s unlikely Eliot foresaw the world war, but it wasn’t published until 1915, when Eliot may have taken the opportunity to give the character a military cast.

    In any case, I do think it’s valid to broaden the possibilities for the portrait of the character.

    However, Um, I don’t think the line “Let us go then, you and I” indicates that he has a companion. I think he’s rehearsing the come-on lines that he wants (and fails) to try on one of the women in the room.

  26. not so neuroticWhile I agree
    not so neurotic

    While I agree with everyone that Prufrock (and Eliot) are neurotic and unhinged, I think there’s a notion in the poem that Prufrock is actually the most sane individual in the poem. I look at my favorite line:

    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 take that line to be Prufrock wandering the poor quarters of the city, taking in the vital earthiness of the working classes ala Stephen Dedalus in “A Portrait.” And then for him to admit he does this in front of the women coming and going talking of Michaelangelo, what would these women say? How would they understand Prufrock’s “love” for such people and scenes? I think the poem is equally about the limitations of the so-called normal aristocrats. That he is caught between the world he was born into and the world he envisions as possible speaks as much about the insanity of everyone else as it does about his own. In many ways, Prufrock sees more and is more open to experience, in theory, than anyone else.

    “I have known them all,” seems to me to say Prufrock is far too sane to exist peacefully in a world that sees less than him, and it’s that fact that causes him all his pain and indecision. His ultimate failing is that he lacks the detached perspective that closes The Waste Land: Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.
    Whether or not Eliot had really changed between the writing of the first poem and the second, I have no idea, but just looking at the poems themselves, The Waste Land sublimates Eliot’s piercing vision, while Prufrock “drowns” in it. Prufrock then seems more human to me, but the Waste Land more profound and hopeful, and I like it better, though I love both.

  27. Here is an alternate
    Here is an alternate explanation of the “You and I” in the first line. The “you” (in my opinion) does not refer to an external other, but rather the strange and glorious monstrosity that Prufrock senses within him, but cannot fully comprehend nor reconcile with his languid civilized ways. It is the “you” that would “murder and create,” it is the “you” that, as opposed to making idle tea party chit-chit, would 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.” Finally, it is the “you” that would announce: “I am Lazarus come from the dead, come back to tell you all.”

    It is the living force that would manifest itself in the world as a monster (or in the case of Kafka as a cockroach). It is the character in Crime and Punishment who murders just to prove his freedom from society’s prohibitions. It is Micky from Natural Born Killers who, when asked “why do you murder?” says: “the wolf don’t know why he’s a wolf. I guess I’m just a natural born killer.” It is the narrator in the Stranger, who innocently (yes innocently) shoots a man on a beach in Tangiers and finds it absurd that they should prosecute him for it. It is, stripped of perversions, the Nietzschean superman beyond good and evil. It is the “you” that most resembles God.

    But, Prufrock lacks the will to act in accordance with his soul stirrings, and thus the rift: “come let us go then you and I.” This duality is reflected in the last line: “till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

  28. Wow, that’s an intriguing
    Wow, that’s an intriguing interpretation. You’ve really got me thinking now, about the paradox involving the interpretation of the term god-like. A lot of ideas are swimming around in my brain now, from Burrough’s giant centipede to Charles Manson.

  29. kilgore, just to clarify my
    kilgore, just to clarify my last reply, I was referring to your commentary when I said it was good and I learned something.

  30. Yeah, that’s pretty good,
    Yeah, that’s pretty good, Kilgore. I never thought of it that way — and I still think the most natural explanation for the first line is that he’s rehearsing his lame come-on — but to read the “you” as something within himself also works, is consistent with his crazed mental state, and also explains the “we” in the last line.

  31. Those are good points and I
    Those are good points and I would add that, if Prufrock is unhinged, we are all a little unhinged. The fact that Eliot can look into his soul and replicate that baleful side of his brain doesn’t mean he is crazier than other humans, just aware of it. Or am I crazy?

    Salvador Dali said he saw insane visions but was sane enough to paint them in photographic detail.

  32. Perhaps, hollowness is the
    Perhaps, hollowness is the property of everything being about the outside. How I carry myself, how I look in the eyes of others. Perhaps the the poem is an echoing wimper made from somewhere deep inside, whispering ‘I wish I could do the “charleston”‘. Or maybe I’m just in my own solitary confinement.

  33. Now I’m very intrigued about
    Now I’m very intrigued about the initial reference to “You,” and I think we have several equally plausible interpretations. One other thing we should consider is the epigram, which says something like: “if I thought you would ever return from hell, I would never tell you my story, but since I know nobody returns from those depths, I can speak freely to you.” So, if there was meant to be a parallel between the speaker in the epigram and J. Alfred, then J. Alfred must be addressing someone (the referenced “you” to whom he is speaking throughout the poem), and speaking so freely, because he believes that the listener’s voice will never be heard. This makes sense if the referenced “you” is a submerged force within himself that he knows will never see the light of day, due to the systematic repression. Just another aspect to consider in this fascinating discussion.

  34. um….this may be over

    this may be over simplifying things but couldn’t the ‘you’ be me or you, i mean the reader ?

    i see what you mean bill about his sense of infinite time as an excuse for inaction …

    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
    And for a hundred visions and revisions

    i always wondered about the peach thing is that why because the juice would be messy ?

    I should have been a pair of ragged claws
    Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

    and these lines ? to me it speaks of his boredom/repitition/time thing saying in time geologically speaking he would have been as well off a crustacean sort of like the idea ‘the best a man can do is not be born’.

  35. Other versionsI could be
    Other versions

    I could be crazy, but there is an interesting take on Prufrock in Millhauser’s The Barnum Museum. I believe the poem is cut up scene by scene and turned into a comic book, then each frame is described, comic nuances and all.

    A glorious poem either way.

  36. …we grow old…we grow
    …we grow old…we grow frayed..we wear our trousers union made…One thing of some importance to me..because I made my own discovery..which you didn’t mention in your essay is that Prufrock is a “sonnet series”. Look again please. One sonnet is broken 9/5 with another sonnet inserted at the break, one line is broken in half later on, but it’s a repeat. I spent a long time with that poem during a bad patch more than three decades ago; I haven’t read it since.

  37. Hi,
    Interesting comments in

    Interesting comments in fact. But one thing I am flummoxed is the ending of the poem. The poet seems to completely deviate from the context. could anyone give an explanation or interpretation of last stanza of poem with special reference to ”Till Human Voices wake us, and we drown.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!