of J. Alfred Prufrock Summary
Meet Prufrock. (Hi, Prufrock!). He wants you to come take a walk with him through the winding, dirty streets of a big, foggy city that looks a lot like London. He’s going to show you all the best sights, including the "one-night cheap hotels" and "sawdust restaurants." What a gentleman, he is! Also, he has a huge, life-altering question to ask you. He’ll get to that later, though.
Cut to a bunch of women entering and leaving a room. The women are talking about the famous Renaissance painter Michelangelo. We don’t know why they’re talking about Michelangelo, and we never learn. Welcome to Prufrock’s world, where no one does anything interesting.
Did we mention that it’s foggy. Like really, really foggy. The fog has a delightful yellow color, and it acts a lot like a cat.
Yawn. What a day. We’ve accomplished so much already with Prufrock. There’s still a lot of stuff he still wants to get done before "toast and tea." People to see, decisions to make, life-altering questions to ask. But not yet…There’s still plenty of time for all that later.
Where did the women go? Oh, yes, they’re still talking about Michelangelo.
Yup. Pleeeen-ty of time for Prufrock to do all that really important stuff. Except that he doesn’t know if he should. He’s kind of nervous. You see, he was about to tell someone something really important, but then he didn’t. Too nervous. Oops! At least he’s a sharp-looking guy. Well, his clothes are sharp-looking. The rest of him is kind of not-so-sharp-looking. People say he’s bald and has thin arms.
But he still has pleeen-ty of time. And he’s accomplished so much already! For example, he has drank a lot of coffee, and he’s lived through a lot of mornings and afternoons. Those are pretty big accomplishments, right? Plus, he’s known a lot of women. Or at least he’s looked at their hairy arms, and that’s almost as good.
Prufrock says something about how he wishes he were a crab. Oh, Prufrock! Always the joker. Wait, you were serious? That’s kind of sad, my friend. Don’t you have important things to do?
Oops! It looks like he didn’t do that really important thing he meant to do. He was going to tell someone something life-altering, but he was afraid of being rejected. So he didn’t. Oh well.
Meanwhile, Prufrock keeps getting older. He doesn’t worry about that really important thing anymore. Instead, he worries about other important things, such as whether to roll his pant-legs or eat a peach.
It turns out that Prufrock really likes the ocean. He says he has heard mermaids singing – but they won’t sing to him. Boy, you sure do talk a lot about yourself, Prufrock. Finally, he brings us back into the conversation. He talks about how we lived at the bottom of the sea with him (geez, we don’t remember that one!). It turns out we were asleep in the ocean, but all of a sudden, we get woken up by "human voices." Unfortunately, as soon as we wake up, we drown in the salty ocean. Boy, what a day. We thought we were talking a walk, and now we’re dead.
LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
"We" are being invited on a trip somewhere. Oh, fun!
But who am "I"? Am I the reader of "J. Alfred Prufrock," or am I someone else? For the purposes of the poem, you are someone else.
Right from the very start, by addressing itself to a fictional person, the poem is announcing that it’s a "dramatic monologue." We know that a "dialogue" is two people talking, so a "monologue" must be one person talking, because "mono" means "one." The poem is "dramatic" because it is written in the voice of a speaker other than the poet.
We know this from the title, which tells us that the speaker is a guy named J. Alfred Prufrock – this is his song. (In olden times, poems were called "songs").
It’s not clear who Prufrock is singing to, but the title gives us a hint. Love songs are usually sung to people you’re in love with, so it’s a safe bet that Prufrock is addressing someone he loves.
Because these were more traditional times, we’ll assume this "someone" is a woman. Also, just to liven things up a bit, let’s pretend that we, the readers of the poem, are the woman he loves. Feel free to giggle now if you want.
Prufrock tells us the time of day that we’re taking this trip: evening. But, this is not your ordinary evening: this "evening" is "spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon the table."
Holy cow! What does that mean?
Really, it’s hard to overstate how shocking this opening was to readers of Eliot’s time. We’re still a bit shocked ourselves. It’s one of the most famous opening images – ever.
The image compares the evening sky to a patient strapped to an operating table and given ether, a kind of anesthetic, to numb the pain of the surgery that is about to happen. (In case you were wondering, the word is pronounced: ee-thur-ized). It’s an amazing, jarring, outrageous image.
This is how you start a love song? You suckered us into taking an evening stroll, Prufrock, and now it’s like we’re about to watch a gory surgery happen. Give us a moment to calm down.
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:
Prufrock repeats his invitation for us to come along with him. One of things you’ll notice about this poem is that it repeats itself a lot.
Now, usually when you go on a walk with someone, especially someone you love, you try to pick someplace romantic – a moonlit beach, a tree-lined avenue, that sort of thing. Not Prufrock. He’s going to take us through "half-deserted streets," where people walk around "muttering" to themselves.
Hm. These are the kind of streets that are filled with "cheap hotels" where you might stay for one night only as a last resort, if you had no other options.
Well, at least the street has "restaurants."
Actually, these are the kind of restaurants that have "sawdust" on the floor to clear up all the liquor that people are spilling as they start to get drunk. It’s also littered with oyster-shells that no one bothers to clean up.
Eliot is sending us a lot of small signals in this section. "Half-deserted" makes the streets sound pretty sketchy, and "one-night cheap hotels" only adds to this impression. "Oysters" are an aphrodisiac, which means, to put it bluntly, that they make people want to have sex…
Oh dear. It looks like Prufrock has taken us on a stroll through the seedy red-light district, where prostitutes and vagrants hang out.
Remember the epigraph, which comes from Dante’s Inferno? Well, we’re in a different kind of hell – the underbelly of a modern city.
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
The streets twist and turn like a "tedious argument." It’s an argument with "insidious intent" – the streets are so confusing it’s as if they were trying to trick us into getting lost.
But, by this point, we might feel that Prufrock is also being "insidious" by trying to trick us into taking a walk through the seedy part of town.
We could even go a step further and say that both the streets and Prufrock resemble Guido da Montefeltro, who tried to fool God (see "Epigraph").
The streets are leading somewhere, however. They lead "to an overwhelming question," a question of huge and possibly life-altering significance.
Oh, tell us, tell us!
Nope, Prufrock isn’t going to tell us, and he doesn’t even want us to ask what it is. If we want to find out, we’re going to have to take a walk with him. Sounds pretty tricky, if you ask us.
For good measure, he repeats his favorite phrase, "let us go," for a third time. Seriously, folks, when people warn you about bad peer-pressure situations, this is what they mean.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.There’s not much to explain about what’s going on in these lines. Women are entering and leaving a room talking about the Italian Renaissance painter Michelangelo.Eliot loves those Italians. The quote is adopted from a poem the 19th century French writer Jules Laforgue, but that doesn’t really help us figure out what it means here., no, you’re not missing And anything – these lines really do come out of nowhere and seem to have nothing to do with Prufrock’s question.They do, however, add to the general atmosphere. For one thing, the women must be pretty high-class to be talking about Renaissance art, but their repeated action of "coming and going" seems surprisingly pointless.
Remember how we said that Eliot includes sneaky references to Dante everywhere? Well, Dante’s Hell features a lot of really smart people who repeat utterly pointless physical gestures over and over again in small, cramped spaces. Just something to think about.Finally, these lines have an incredibly simple, singsong rhyme that could get really annoying if you had to listen to it for a long time. It sounds like a nursery rhyme, which totally doesn’t fit with the intellectual subject of famous painters.
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.It appears that the poem is back to talking about the "half-deserted streets" from stanza I.The streets are filled with a "yellow fog," which sounds really nasty, actually. This detail might allow us to take a stab at the location of the poem.Eliot was really interested in England, and he moved there before this poem was published. The capitol of England is London, which gets really foggy. You’ve probably heard the phrase, "London fog."So maybe we’re in London. Around the beginning of the 20th century, London was a really modern city that also had some of the roughest, seediest neighborhoods anywhere.This fog seems pretty acrobatic. It has a "back" and a "muzzle," which sounds like either a dog or a cat. Also, it "licks" things and makes "sudden leaps." OK, definitely sounds like a cat.The poem is comparing the quiet, sneaky, and athletic movement of the fog to a common housecat. It’s a pretty sweet image. If you’ve ever been around a cat, you know how they can sneak up on you. One moment you’re sitting on the couch, reading a book, and the next moment, something soft and furry is rubbing against your leg.The fog is wandering around the streets like a cat wanders around a house.Finally, the fog gets tired and "curls" around the city houses to "fall asleep" like a cat would curl around something smaller, maybe the leg of a table or chair.One interesting detail: it’s a "soft October night," which means the poem is set in autumn.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;Eliot knew a lot about literature. He read more books than almost any other writer in the 20th century – maybe more than any other writer, period. He could make subtle references to all kinds of literary figures without even trying. His brain worked like that. Good for him.But you don’t have to "get" these references to understand his poems. Sometimes, though, they are fun to point out.Here, the phrase "there will be time" refers to a poem called "To His Coy Mistress" by the 17th century English poet Andrew Marvell."To His Coy Mistress," like many poems, is about a man trying to get a woman to sleep with him, and it begins: "Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime." The woman is being "coy" by pretending that she won’t sleep with the poet. The poet is saying, "Look, we both know you want to sleep with me, and if we had until Eternity to be together, it would be fine for you to waste time playing games. But we don’t, so let’s hop to it."Prufrock, however, uses the reference to "time" in exactly the opposite way. He thinks there’s plenty of time for delays and dawdling.
Just like in Marvell’s poem, Prufrock addresses himself to a "mistress," someone he "loves," but here it’s Prufrock, and not the mistress, who is being "coy."By talking about the smoke, he’s trying to justify the fact that he wasted our time with an entire stanza of description of the fog instead of asking that "overwhelming question" he told us about.
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.He keeps repeating that "There will be time," as if he hasn’t quite convinced himself, or his lover. Plenty of time to get your "face" ready to meet other people. Also, plenty of time to "murder and create," which sounds pretty sinister. Is this supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing? We’re not the next line, he says there’s "time for all the works and days of hands." Allusion alert: Works and Days was the name of the name of a work written by the Greek poet Hesiod. It’s poem about the importance of working for a living and not living a lazy a pointless existence.Hmm…pointless existence…sounds like someone we know, eh, Prufrock?Also, have you noticed how Prufrock seems to refer to individual body parts instead of people? So far we have "faces" and "hands." The hands are dropping a "question" onto a "plate," as if it were something we could dig into like a fancy steak dinner. Bring it on!But no, we still don’t learn what the question is.Plenty of time for that later. There’s also time for "indecisions," for not deciding things. We have all this time "before the taking of a toast and tea."Now this really seems like England, doesn’t it?
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.This lines seem to "come and go" from the poem just like the women they describe. Hello, women! Goodbye, women!
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,There’s still plenty of time to do all the important things Prufrock wants to do, except now he’s second-guessing himself.The setting gets more specific, too. We might imagine him standing outside the upstairs room his "love" is in. He paces back and forth and tries to decide whether to ask his big question. "Do I dare?" he wonders. But no, he doesn’t dare. He turns around and heads back downstairs.Of course, Prufrock doesn’t exactly describe this scene to us: he’s much too tricky for that. Instead, he poses it as a hypothetical situation – "Well, if I wanted to chicken out and not ask my question, there’s plenty of time for that, so what’s the big deal?"Sure there's time, Prufrock, sure there is.
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!"]Now he’s going to describe his appearance, and the first thing we learn is he has a big bald spot. He’s probably a middle-aged man, or at least close to it.Also, he seems worried about what people will say about him and his bald spot and his thin arms and legs.His only attractive features, funny enough, are his clothes. He has a nice coat and necktie, which he wears according to the fashion of the time. He’s not a trend-setter, though, he’s a trend-follower.As for "they," we don’t know who "they" are, but according to Prufrock, they’re a gossipy bunch – and not so nice.Prufrock’s concern about what other people think might make us suspicious. Back to the Epigraph we go!Recall that Guido da Montefeltro was also worried about his reputation, even though it didn’t matter because he was already in hell.Prufrock, too, seems to have nothing to lose by asking his question – it’s not like we were in love with the guy already. To the contrary, he seems like kind of a coward. But now, on top of cowardice, he also seems superficial.
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.Prufrock doesn’t want to rock the boat or "disturb the universe." That would involve taking a risk, and risks aren’t Prufrock’s thing.But he still insists (again) that he has plenty of time. Truth be told, he’s starting to sound pretty kooky, like a broken record.Even though he hasn’t done anything in the poem yet, he insists that everything could change "in a minute" – if only he could make a decision.But things can also change back again in another "minute," once he "revises" the decision he made. Kind of like when he was about to enter the room to tell his love something, and then went back down the stairs.doesn’t that just leave you where you started?
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?Now he’s trying to convince us that he’s a wise man with lots of experience. He doesn’t need to do anything, because he’s done everything already!And by "done everything," we mean he has survived "evenings, mornings, afternoons." Impressive.What else have you done, Prufrock? Well, he has drank a lot of coffee – in fact, his whole existence can be "measured" by how much coffee he has drank.This is a wicked image. Prufrock thinks he is impressing us, but he’s really damning himself before our eyes. He basically lives from one cup of coffee to the next, with nothing interesting in between.Prufrock says he has heard voices "dying" or fading away when music starts to play in a "farther room." We already know that he has a hard time entering rooms that contain people he wants to talk to (see lines 37-39), so he has to settle on overhearing other people’s voices through the walls. He lives through other people.The phrase "dying fall" is, you guessed it, another literary reference, this time to Shakespeare’s famous play, Twelfth Night. In the first scene of the play, a lovesick count named Orsino is listening to music that has a "dying fall." The music reminds him of his love for one of the other this poem, however, it’s as if Prufrock were overhearing the "voices" of another couple – maybe Orsino and his love? – in another room, which get covered up by yet another room even "farther" away.It’s a tricky image, we know, but the point is that Prufrock can only experience love at second- and third-hand. If Orsino’s love is the real thing, then Prufrock’s is just a copy of a copy of a copy.Finally, he asks, "So how should I presume?" To "presume" is to take for granted that something is the case. The speaker of Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress" presumes that his mistress wants to sleep with him.This can be a bad thing, if you presume too much, but Prufrock is just looking for any reason not to ask his important question. He doesn’t want to "presume" that he’ll get a favorable response. This is pretty cowardly of him.
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,Here he goes with the body parts again – this time it’s "the eyes." The guy has seen a lot of eyes in his time. (Are we supposed to be impressed?)He’s trying to cover up his fear but not doing a very good job.He doesn’t like how eyes seem to "fix" or freeze him, and a "formulated phrase" means a phrase that judges, summarizes, and reduces something complicated to something simple. We don’t know what phrase he has in mind, but it shouldn’t be surprising by now that he’s afraid of judgments of any kind by other people.
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?Oh my. Now he’s really starting to lose it. He’s starting to confuse his verb tenses. He just told us that he has "already" known the eyes that would formulate him, but now he talks as if this event hasn’t happened yet. Which is it, Prufrock?We’re starting to think he hasn’t really "known" anything at all.He imagines himself "sprawling on a pin" and put, "wriggling," on a wall.He’s referring to the practice, in his time, where insects that were collected by scientists were "pinned" inside a glass frame and hung on a wall so they could be preserved and inspected. If you go to a really old science museum, you can sometimes see examples of these insect specimens.So Prufrock is imagining that the eyes are treating him like a scientist treats an object of study. He doesn’t like that so much.The image of a guy tied down and "wriggling" might also remind you of the very first lines of the poem, when the evening was "spread out" like a patient on the operating table.Prufrock seems pretty spooked by doctors and scientists – maybe because these people can see things for what they really are.He thinks that once these scientific eyes have got a hold on him, he’ll have to talk about or rather "spit out" the story of his life ("days and ways").The "butt-ends" could refer to any kind of end – the little odds and ends of his daily life, the evenings he spent, etc. But it’s also the word people use for the end of a cigarette, the part that doesn’t get smoked. Prufrock is comparing his life to a used-up cigarette.
Oh, and, by the way, he’s still worried about "presuming" too much about the situation. Thanks for the reminder, Mr. P.
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!]Considering how much he dislikes scientific observation of himself, he sure does it a lot to other people. Here he sees women merely as "arms," and he uses the same repetitive phrase about how he has "known them all."He sounds tired and bored, as if he were saying, "If I have to see one more white arm with a bracelet on it . . .!"But he seems pretty excited about the arm in line 64. This is probably the arm of the woman he invited on a walk (the "you" of the poem).If they did go for a walk through half-deserted streets, it would make sense to see her arm under the "lamplight." The soft, "light brown hair" makes this arm different from all the other ones and would seem to contradict his claim to have seen all the arms.
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?Finally! Just when we were wondering where the heck this poem was going, Prufrock admits that he has been "digressing," or wandering away from the main point.And what is that main point? We’re not sure anymore: that’s how far he has digressed.He blames his digression on the scent of a woman’s perfume. For a guy that claims to have known all the women, he’s still fairly preoccupied with all things feminine.
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?Lots of arms. Loooots of arms. It reminds us of Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham." "Did you see them in a shawl? Did you see them down the hall?"Oh, and in the off chance that you forgot, he still doesn’t know whether he should "presume" to do something.He still hasn’t told us what that something is. He doesn’t even know where to "begin" talking about it.
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?…Here he wonders how to "begin" to talk about that difficult subject. And the difficult subject is…himself! Oh, brother.This is the story of his "days and ways" from line 60, and it begins "I have gone at dusk through narrow streets."But, of course, we know that already. He’s basically taking us back to the beginning of the poem. The most interesting new detail he has to offer us is that he saw "lonely men" smoking pipes out of their windows.Some people bring the party with them wherever they go; Prufrock brings the loneliness with him.
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.Here’s another image from way out of left field. It might also be the most accurate self-evaluation that Prufrock offers in the entire poem.It would have been more fitting, he says, to have been born as a pair of crab claws that "scuttle" across the floor of the ocean.The crab is thperfect image of Prufrock, because it seems suited to a single over-riding goal: self-protection.
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.Prufrock continues to confuse the past, present, and future. He winds the clock back to the afternoon and then plays it forward to the evening, which is when we started the poem.The afternoon and evening are "sleeping," much as the cat-like fog was asleep outside the house in line 22. He’s wondering if he should "wake" the day up somehow, say, by asking (cough, cough) a certain question? But he’s hesitant because the day seems so peacefully asleep, as if it were being "smoothed by long fingers."This image of the fingers makes us think of petting a cat, but it may remind you of something different. The evening is "asleep" and "tired" – nothing is happening. But it might also be "malingering," or pretending to be tired.At any rate, it looks pretty comfortable stretched out there on the floor – and, hey, there’s "you" again! We haven’t seen the second person for quite some time. Nice of you to mention us, Prufrock.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?Well, some time must have passed in the poem, because "tea" is over. In line 34, he hadn’t had tea yet, but now he’s digesting all the sweet and tasty things he consumed.It must be a pretty easy life for Prufrock, what will all the eating and doing nothing.He’s feeling so lazy, in fact, that’s he’s not sure he has the "strength" to ask the "overwhelming question," which would produce a big decision or a "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;Prufrock doesn’t want to be confused with a prophet. (We want to tell him: "Don’t worry, no danger of that!") Even though he weeps, fasts, and prays like a prophet, he isn’t one. Even though, um, he has seen his head on a platter – what’s that about?In the Bible, the prophet John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus, dies after the stepdaughter of a powerful king asks for his head on a platter.We’re not sure what Prufrock is trying to say – he may just be feeling sorry for himself.He doesn’t want us to think he feels sorry for himself, though – he says it’s "no great matter." But if we lost our head, we would probably beg to differ.
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.He continues to mope around and feel sorry for himself. He already feels as if his best days are behind him, like a candle that flickers and goes the old days (even older than Eliot’s poem), a "footman" was like a butler who would help rich people do things. One of the things a footman would do is to hold your coat as you got in a carriage or entered a house.But this footman isn’t so friendly. He’s the eternal Footman – "death" – and if he’s holding your coat, it means you are probably about to enter some place that you won’t come out of again.Prufrock has another rare moment of honesty when he admits to being afraid. It’s pretty uncommon for him to say anything "in short" like that.
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,Time in the poem continues to play tricks on us. Now Prufrock talks as if he has already passed up on his opportunity to do that important thing.He starts this big long thought about whether "it would have been worth it," which he won’t finish until the end of the stanza, so just keep this thought in mind.It seems that even more eating and drinking have been going on, as well as "some talk of you and me," which suggests that "we" have been having tea with our dear Prufrock.He talks about "biting off the matter," as if it were something he could eat, like his precious marmalade (a kind of jam). "The matter," we assume, is the important thing that he meant to discuss so many lines ago.He compares the effort it would required to take on "some overwhelming question" to squeezing the entire universe into a ball. Sounds pretty hard, but do we believe him?
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"– Prufrock compares his task of asking the question to Lazarus coming back from the dead. Really, now, this is a bit much. It shouldn’t take a resurrection to tell someone how you feel.But there’s more to the story. In the Bible, a rich man named Dives dies and gets sent to Hell. Around the same time, a poor man named Lazarus dies and gets sent to Heaven. Dives asks the prophet Abraham to please send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers to mend their ways or they’ll end up in Hell. Abraham is like, "No way, man. If your brothers didn’t get the message already, what with all the prophets and such who have been running around, one dead guy coming back to life isn’t going to save them."Now, ahem: (Pointing our finger, Batman-style) to the Epigraph! The epigraph comes from a poem about another guy who, unlike Dives, did make it back from Hell to tell warn people about sin. His name was Dante Alighieri, the poet.But Prufrock is no Lazarus, nor is he a Dante. He’s more like Dives, the guy who never escapes from his terrible situation.
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."Now he finally completes the sentence, "Would it have been worth it, after all," from the beginning of the stanza. The sentence goes, "Would it have been worth it, after 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.’"Clearly Prufrock thinks that, no, it would not have been worth it. So, he thinks, it’s a good thing he never tried or risked anything.Prufrock is imagining his worst-case scenario: he has asked her his big question – though we still don’t know what it is – and she replies that she has been misunderstood.But why would the woman with the pillow think she has been misunderstood?Maybe his question is something like, "I’m really into you, and when you did such-and-such thing, it made me think you were into me, too. Do you want to kick it with me?" But that’s just a wild guess.At any rate, he never asked the question, because he was too afraid of getting rejected. So he’ll never know if that’s what she "meant."
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After 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!He’s still thinking in worst-case-scenario mode. He wonders if it would have been worth it if after him and his love have experienced all of these nice but trivial pleasures of everyday, middle-class life, including "sunsets," "novels," and "teacups" – but he can’t finish his thought.If we had to guess, we might say that he’s afraid that if his big question didn’t go over well, it would throw a wrench in his tidy, polite, inoffensive life. It’s the most bogus excuse in the book, like when you ask someone on a date and they say, "No, I don’t want to ruin our friendship." But Prufrock is right about one thing: he’s totally incapable of saying what he means.
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
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."Ah, now he comes up with the right words to say what he means. It’s as if the words locked in his "nerves" were being projected by a "magic lantern" onto a screen for him to read.But, in typical Prufrock-fashion, even the right words are disappointing. It’s just another image of a woman sitting on a couch or a bed and saying she has been misunderstood.Once again, it is implied that he doesn’t think asking her would have been worth the risk of rejection.But, once again, he’ll never know, will he.
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.Aside from Dante, the poet whom Eliot loved most was Shakespeare. So here’s a Shakespeare Hamlet, the title character is an indecisive chap, much like Prufrock has been for most of the poem. Hamlet can’t decide whether or not to kill his uncle, even though his uncle has committed some really awful crimes. Like Prufrock, Hamlet can seem like a coward who talks too much. But now Prufrock says he’s not like Hamlet, after all.And if you like puns, the end of line 111 has a good one. In the play, Hamlet begins his most famous speech: "To be or not to be, that is the question." You might even say it’s an "overwhelming question." But Prufrock has already made a decision on that question: he was not "meant to be."Prufrock compares himself to a minor character in the play, one of the "attendants" who serve the king. We think he’s talking about Hamlet, Polonius is the father of Ophelia, the heroine, and everyone respects him because he always takes the cautious route and acts like "an easy tool." Even Shakespeare uses him to "start a scene or two" in the play, then kills him off around the midway point.Polonius talks a good game – he uses fancy words ("high sentence") and proverbs – but in the end, he’s kind of a dunce. As Prufrock so cautiously puts it, he’s "almost ridiculous" and almost like "the Fool."With this recognition, Prufrock has finally arrived at a pretty honest assessment of himself. It’s a bit late, however, to do anything about it. It’s never good to just say, "Yeah I’m a tool, but, oh, well."
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.Ah, yes. We love these lines because they bring some silliness back into the poem. Trousers. Ha!Though Prufrock has done a pretty good job so far at disguising the passage of time, he can no longer hide the fact that he’s getting older and older. He blew his chance to ask the question, and now he’s like the guy who stays at a party too long, except that the party is his own poem.Because he already failed to make one big decision, he’s going to pretend he’s an assertive, confident guy by making a bunch of comically minor decisions. Thus, the infamous rolled trousers bit. A true classic.Hey, at least his pant-legs won’t get wet if he steps in a puddle. Always thinking ahead, that Prufrock.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.As one of the annotated guides to Eliot’s poems put it, parting your hair behind was considered "daringly bohemian" at the time.Prufrock is still trying to make all kinds of tiny decisions, now that he has missed his big chance. As always, he’s interested in the small pleasures of food and fashion, like the peach and the white flannel trousers.He’s also going to check out the ocean – maybe he’ll talk about how he wants to be a crab again.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.OK, so no crabs. Instead, he sees some mermaids.Wait, that’s actually pretty exciting. But this is Prufrock, who can’t keep track of what time it is, so he says he has "heard" the mermaids singing to each other, as if this event were already in the past.
I do not think that they will sing to me.Even the mermaids won’t sing to him. Where’s your self-confidence, man!
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.Of all the things Prufrock claims to have seen, the mermaids are definitely the coolest.But do we believe him? He has tricked us before.These mermaids look like they’re surfing on the waves with their tails. The only troubling sign is that the waves have "white hair," which makes us think of old people.
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.This is kind of an "it was all a dream" ending, but even weirder.Prufrock brings "us" back into the picture, saying that we have been hanging out in the ocean with him.The word "chambers" has two meaning here: it can refer to small cramped spaces, or it can refer to rooms, especially bedrooms.Remember that Prufrock has spent significant amounts of time lurking outside of rooms and imagining women who are wrapped in shawls and laying on pillows. We don’t know who the "sea-girls" are, but they don’t seem quite as majestic as the mermaids.The "human voices" may remind us of the "voices with a dying fall" from line 52.Oh, and by the way, we’re dead. We drowned with Prufrock. No!Seriously, though, we can’t help you much with this ending. It could signal that Prufrock has truly grown insane, or that his "true self" is really more crab-like that human, or that, yes, he has been dreaming the whole time. (We don’t really buy the dream story, but if that’s your thing, go for it.)One thing is clear: Prufrock’s story does not turn out well. It does not turn out well, at all.
So "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is totally a modernist poem. Its author, T.S. Eliot, was an American who moved to Britain in 1914. Eliot wrote most of "Prufrock" when he was 22 years old (!), in the years before the start of World War I. At that time, Britain was considered the most modern country in the world. The poem is set in a big, dirty city, and its speaker is a very unhappy man who is afraid of living and therefore bored all the time. War, cities, boredom, and fear: these are all classic modernist themes.