The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, TS Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
[Inferno, Dante]

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized 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:

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.

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

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;

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.

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time

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!”)

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

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?

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?

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?

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.

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.

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 towards 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.”

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!

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.”

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.

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.

I do not think that 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.

Introduction

The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock was published in 1915 and it is the first professionally published poem by TS Eliot. It is still well-known today as a masterpiece of Modernist poetry. Few words about modernism : an artistic movement that followed cultural trends and changes along the “fin-de-siècle” and the early 20s. It gets apart from the traditional forms of artistic codes. Its soul fits in Ezra Pound’s (American figurehead of modernist poetry) sentence : “Make it new!”

Thus, The love song of Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot does not fit in any traditional scheme: through a fragmented and bewildering monologue, we follow the poetic voice of a fictional character, Alfred Prufrock, in an urban environment. Let’s notice that the urbanization is one of modernist poetry leitmotiv.

Therefore, several tensions arise to the reader: we logically expect a love poem, but it turns out to be a parody of such genre. Then, the title sets a precise character while we will show that it is not that easy to define him. Finally, there is a discrepancy between the different tones of the poem: ironic, lyric, tragic… No traditional category can encapsulate the whole poem.

Thesis : The indetermination that defines The love song of J. Alfred Prufrick creates a character difficult to figure out, giving him a form of fatality.

Plan : I) A general indetermination II) The aforesaid indetermination takes under control the poetic voice, a difficult construction of the “I”. III) These indeterminations and difficulties lead to a sense fatality and tragedy. Final parallel between The love song of Alfred Prufrock and Shakespeare’s 30th sonnet.

I – A poem built on indetermination…

A . Language and fragmentation

Visually fragmented poem, punctuation BUT sort of unity by the repetition of various words, it creates an echo.

Ex : “let us go” x3 or “there will be time” x5 stanza 5

Interruptions both in the text and in the mind. Structural mechanic // semantic mechanic. Undetermined poem, does not match with any convention.

“time yet for a hundred indecisions / And for a hundred visions and revisions” (l. 32-33): metapoetic line

A modernist aesthetics of collage → alternance of narration and questions + juxtapositions

ex : “in the room the women…” the juxtaposition of what Alfred Prufrock sees and what he thinks

stanza 10 “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 ?” also metapoetic

B . The indetermination of the addressee, then of the sense of the poem because a love poem is supposed to have an addressee

Analyze of the title of the poem : it is supposed to be a love song. Presumably, a romantic poem, a poem about romance. What the reader gets is perhaps sth more like the parody of a romantic poem. The reader expects a love poem and the first two lines set a romantic tone (evening = moment for revelation, dream and contemplation) but a disruptive line : “Like a patient etherised upon a table”, l. 3) end of the romantic tone.

who are  “you” and “I” ?  teller + listener figured out by the epigraph, explain about Inferno, even give a translation to the audience

[If I believed that my response was heard
By anyone returning to the world,
This flame would stand and never stir again,
But since no man has ever come alive
Out of this gulf of Hell, if I hear true,
I’ll answer, with no fear of infamy.] spoken by Guido in Dante’s Inferno

A speaker / listener relationship: we are in hell with Prufrock and won’t be able to return from it either

“you and I” at the beginning + come back stanza 11 and 12 (seems more like “you” is a women in this second part of the poem, talks about memories)

Another interpretation : “you and I” = the persona, a divided self.

C . Talk about the setting shaped by Alfred Prufrock’s mind: between hell and city

His feelings are associated to places he goes to

Hidden setting, night time: possibility to digress

Alfred Prufrock is our guide trough this enrolment “let us go”

Urban environment : “one-night cheap hotels”(= prostitution), s.4 → sordid, shameful activities

Slow movement (take the time for the description of the cat s4), boring neighborhood (“half-deserted street”), parallel with Alfred Prufrock’s life

The reader understand that Alfred Prufrock is going to a party, upper class society but he never attempts it, actually going nowhere

A journey to Hell ? Dant’es quote + ref to Lazarus

Lazarus of Bethany = subject of a miracle of Jesus: he died and Jesus rose him to life four days later (Gospel of John chapter 11). Alfred Prufrock : l.98-99 “That is not what I meant at all ; / That is not it, at all.”: Alfred Prufrock will not live as Lazarus, brought back to life. If Alfred Prufrock goes to hell, he won’t have any possibility to escape.

II – … for an “I” difficult to construct

A . Prufrock is a consciousness more than a character

Fragmented consciousness that rises and falls. Character constructed by what he tells, but form of failure of language. Formal instability to experiment what he describes.

Degradation of the being bridged by the emergence of consciousness. He can’t escape on his own insufficiencies + flaws: “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair” (l. 40) / “I grow old… I grow old…  / I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.”

Self-portrait as a timid, uncomfortable character (l. 56-58) = paralyzing anxiety and self-consciousness

“in the room…” l.13 and 35

This couplet comes back à timeless and spaceless room à it is a rhyming chorus – sounds like a litany. Time is suspended, we lose track of time. The poem is still delaying the conclusion we could expect, because it stays jailed in a mind and not in the reality, we’re able to understand.

The poem is actually a travel into the confines of a complex consciousness.

B . An antihero character

Samson, Ulysses, saint John the Baptist : deconstruction of heroic figureheads / association to unheroic or humiliated mythical characters. Result: woman > man and man = decline.

– Samson : Judges 16:4, powerful chief of a great army. All his strength relies on his extraordinary hair. However, he gets seduced by Delilah, a “manizer” of the enemy clan. To take his power off, Delilah cuts his hair. It grows again and Samson destroys it all =/ AP’s, who can’t be a hero because “How his hair in growing thin!” l.41. Imagery of decay and mortality which suggests Prufrock’s demise: “How his hair is growing thin!” (l. 41) = V-ING form connoting an ongoing process, Prufrock on his way towards old age and death.

– John the Baptist : not really a hero, but he was killed by an order of a powerful woman, Salome New Testament Mark 17:29

John the Baptist was not seduced by Salome’s appeal, so she manipulated her father to make him promise anything. Then she demanded of John the Baptist’s “head brought in upon a platter” l.83. “I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter” (l. 84).

– Ulysses : in the Odyssey, Ulysse grants himself listening to mermaid’s sing, because he is strong enough not to be tracked by them. Here, we have a reversal situation because the “mermaids” are “singing, each to each” l.125 : the manizers are not even interested by Alfred Prufrock. See activity / passivity.

C . An antiromantic hero

Let’s just briefly describe what we understand through “antiromantic hero”. It is as well a very codified hero.

Here, we deal with a satirical portrait of AP because his own self does not rely on any convention: loss of singularity while he’s the I, the main character, the center. Nothing epic, nothing heroic, nothing totally tragic.

Mock-heroism: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” (l. 123)  would it be the most heroic thing he could do? Anyway, we can interpret this sentence as the conclusion of the repetition of “Do I dare…” 2xl.38, l.45. Disappointment to the expectation of a reader. A derisory “heroic act”. Expectation can be constructed by lines 45-46 : “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” : we think that there will be an outcome that may disrupt the relative quietness of the poem. Turns out to be sth as derisory as eating a peach.

III – These difficulties lead to a sense of fatality / tragedy

A . Women and frustration

As “love” is in the title of the poem, we legitimately expect a feminine presence…

The frame of Alfred Prufrock’s relation with women is given by an epiphora on l.49, 55 and 62 “known them all”, at the end of the first line of three stanzas in a row : he poetic voice uses synecdoches to hint at women: “the eyes”, “the arms” : no full mention of women, as to move them away from him.

Illusion / disillusion tension is also present here: l.63-64 “Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight downed with light brown hair!)” à Alfred Prufrock doesn’t have a crystal-clear vision of the women he describes, reality is revealed by the light. It shows that Alfred Prufrock had an idealized vision of them, then we can suppose that they are objectified, sexualized by his mind.

Contrast with the title “love song” à these lines read as the heart of the irony contained by the title : love turns out to be a sexual frustration!

B . However, a form of conclusion in decay and mortality VS suggestion of immortality

 struggle against fatality while sort of unstoppable cast. Echo between the first line and the last one. Circularity by drawing a parallel between the very first and last lines  “Let us go then, you and I” l.1 + “Till human voices wake us, and we drown” :

1st observation : the “you and I” becomes “we”, so we have both an echo (= circularity) and an evolution. This partly unidentified “I” is dragged down with Alfred Prufrock’s decadence

2nd observation : It sounds clear that the assimilation of “we” with a decay outcome, “drown”, infers a sense of tragedy and failure, as if “you” and “I” could not reach harmony anyway.

3rd observation: Remember in our first part our interpretations about who “you” is: a woman, a divided self, the reader à the failure is even more important because be “you” ever so polyvalent, none of its aspects matches with Alfred Prufrock.

4th observation : l.132 + mention of the “sky” l.2 + mention of the “sea” l.130, 131.

The poet is in an interval and the final word, “drown”, that involves a movement of descent, makes us think of the epigraph, extracted from Inferno : back to hell in spite of having lived, the time of the poem, out of it. One more link between the beginning and the end, that suggests both mortality and immortality:

            – mortality because “I” drowns and cannot reach the object of his quest

            – immortality because he is condemned to live the decay eternally, because in   Inferno, souls never die, they just live apart.

C. An opening on Shakespeare’s 30th sonnet

In The sacred wood (1920), TS Eliot writes that “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to dead poets and artists.” In other words, the comparison to come with Shakespeare’s 30th sonnet does not seem abusive.

Same words as an eternal circle, parody of a love poem, confessional poem.

Elaboration of a different structure (at WS’s time). Linked to this unusual narration notion of time, passing of time : impression of an impossible renewal: reiteration of the words by packed polyptotons. Quote for the sonnet + in TSE’s poem l.49-63 (= 15 verse) : 8 mentions of “know / known”. Quite a frequent word in English, but all packed here, 20% of the poem. Cf. livre

Parody of a love poem : it turns out to be an account of a complex situation rather than one more sonnet tackling pure love issue, this is due to an enclosure system in which semantic functioning is responding to textual functioning // here, fragmented construction for fragmented thoughts.

In both poems, the poetic voice is locked in its melancholia.