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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by Tiffany

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I recently heard a fellow student recite part of this poem in class. Most of you may be familiar with T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" poem. T.S. Eliot wrote this poem in 1919, called "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", before "The Wasteland".

It's fairly short and simple to read. It has some beautiful words in here. Prufrock is the character speaking in this poem who is trying to deal with spirituality in the modern world. The poem contrasts with his vanity; he sees that his life is void of meaning and yet he lacks the will to want to change it. He finds himself and the rest of the people in his society spiritually paralyzed and lacking "realness". He wants to shake people out of their meaningless lives, but is afraid of being rejected if he should do so. The last part of the poem shows his disappointment in himself for not being courageous enough to do any of this. And so he remains as he is.

Here is the poem below. It starts with a passage from Dante's Inferno:




S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.
A passage set at the beginning of a poem is known as an epigraph. Translation from Italian to English:

"If I thought that that I was replying to someone who would ever return to the world, this flame would cease to flicker. But since no one ever returns from these depths alive, if what I've heard is true, I will answer you without fear of infamy."



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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.
Anesthetized here means to be anesthesized or made numb using ether. It also has a double meaning which could mean "ethereal", made less real.

Sawdust restaurants refers to cheap bars and restaurants which would put sawdust on the floor in order to soak up spilled liquids such as beer.

Michelangelo, of course, refers to the famous Italian Renaissance artist who painted the Sistine Chapel and created works such as La Pieta and David. When he refers to women who "come and go to talk of Michelangelo", perhaps he is referring to those who merely speak of the art and yet do not understand the spiritual meaning or context of the work.



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.
Note how he repeats these two lines for emphasis.



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.
Cakes and ices refers to cookies and ice cream.



And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"-
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."


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."
Magic lantern is the name for an early type of slide projector.



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.
Prince Hamlet is from the Shakespeare work Hamlet. Why do you think he is referring to this "tragic hero"?

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. This phrase probably sums up his romantic or sexual frustration as a middle-aged man. He has wanted to show his interest in his woman earlier in this poem (note when he describes her perfume and dress) but believes that they have no interest in him; that is, "the mermaids will not sing to him.



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.





Thinking about the Text
1. What sort of personality traits can you pick up from this poem about Alfred? Note when he talks about his age, his physical traits and his clothes.

2. Why do you think this poem is called a love song? Who is it a love song to? Think about how a love song is defined.

3. How do we know he is unhappy with the modern but lonely and detached society he lives in? Consider various phrases within the poem such as:

"one-night cheap hotels, sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells";
"I have measured my life with coffee-spoons";
"Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter";
"After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the
floor".

Note how he refers to fancy things in society yet looks at them in a negative light. He also alludes to the lack of morality or meaning in these lives.


4. Why do you think that he includes this passage from Dante's Inferno? Note that this was part of an epic poem in Italian literature called the Divine Comedy. It was about the Christian afterlife and passing into the gates of hell. After the section entitled Inferno, the poems continue on to Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Paradise).

5. What are your favourite lines from this poem? Feel free to share them in your comments.


References: WSU, Wikipedia, Wikipedia 2, brianteutsch

8 Comments
    sunamu
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    nauduri suryanarayana murtyTue, 06 Oct 2009 21:40:45 -0000

    That has always been the case with pioneering work which defies the established norms and finds few takers from the contemporaries. It takes a lot of time for the ideas and the experiments made to sink into the psyche. It is just impossible to appreciate rugged beauty after attending an extravagant show belles on the ramp. Romantic poetry is so intoxicating, yet so down to earth that it has redefined the poetic material and brought to fore more use of metaphors than similes. While classical poetry has its own methodical beauty of a form … like a luscious lake, or a luxurious expanse of exploding nature at dawn of Spring, romanticists gave the 'lyrical' touch with the Odes of Nightingales and the Mauds dancing in the gardens. It is a daunting task to convince the contemporaries staying independent, non-imitating and original. And using free verse with the touch of poetry calls for no mean skills. words which wont implode with meaning will be dribbled from reader's view like a wool of cotton by a deranged wind.

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    windwind
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    emily jonesTue, 03 Feb 2009 22:40:30 -0000

    Well, I guess in the way that for all the trees you can't see the wood.

    Too many words, too many symbols, too much ideas, thoughts and, well, going around in circles for one to peacefully and quietly enjoy the poems.(without getting a headache that is).

    Maybe it is just that today we are so used to short versions of literature, of everything actually…

    But as I said I enjoyed the "pearls" that you cited.

    Thanx

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanyTue, 03 Feb 2009 23:39:02 -0000

    True enough! Hehe.

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    windwind
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    emily jonesMon, 02 Feb 2009 16:38:41 -0000

    Isn't he the guy who wrote about cats?

    I like the lines about the faces, but

    I find him a bit too much.

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    avicster
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    Avichal ChaturvediMon, 02 Feb 2009 20:54:44 -0000

    I guess he'd be okay with that, I'm sure he thought of himself the same way :)

    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanyMon, 02 Feb 2009 21:43:13 -0000

    Too much in what sense?

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanySat, 31 Jan 2009 08:28:40 -0000

    Well said! Eliot really did defy a lot of conventions, but I guess in the end that's what makes him stand out!

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanySat, 31 Jan 2009 04:50:22 -0000

    @avicster - Sweet! I do like this poem better too, actually. You sure know quite a lot about English literature. "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" were a set of whimsical poems written by him that actually inspired the musical Cats, which I find really interesting.

    A lesson on all his allusions would be great…if not exhausting! You should give it a go. I find poetry is extremely personal, and that it's hard for someone to enjoy a poem unless he or she can relate to it on a deeper level, and I suppose that requires some research behind the poetry. A lot of people look to older, more structured poetry (usually British, like Shelley) because once we get into the more modern American poetry, there is so much more freedom that some people argue that "anyone" can write free verse. I'm not sure what to think about that - it's good to appreciate both kinds.

    I will definitely check out those poems. Thank you! :D

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    avicster
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    Avichal ChaturvediSat, 31 Jan 2009 05:38:42 -0000

    It had more to do with the era than the region I suppose. At the time when romantic poetry flourished (18th-19th century), American literature hardly existed at all.

    I agree that it's important to appreciate both kinds. I'm a big fan of romantic poetry. But I do agree with the purists to an extent, in that classical poetry (mostly romantics) came to truly define English poetry as a genre. Eliot's work sometimes hovers tantalisingly close to the poetry-prose border. In addition, his themes are almost always strictly "un-poetic". But that does not take away the sheer brilliance of his work. In fact, epic poems historically tend not to be straitjacketed in a rigid structure, and don't always follow rhyming. Kahlil Gibran, who was a contemporary of Eliot, albeit a much more popular poet, was also not entirely conventional. But he bridged the poetry-prose gap much more effectively, or maybe his themes were simply more poetic. Eliot defied way too many conventions to be popular. I personally like to believe he was too talented to follow any rules set by men before him.

    I'll give the lesson a shot, but it may take a while. My job has been rather cruel to me of late :(

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    avicster
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    Avichal ChaturvediSat, 31 Jan 2009 04:26:32 -0000

    I so looove this poem. I actually read this before "The Wasteland", and don't hate me for this, but I like it better! Eliot was not essentially a poet in the traditional sense. But that was part of his appeal I guess, or perhaps his entire appeal. On the one hand he came up with sad, cynical epics like Prufrock and Wasteland, and on the other he also wrote children's poems about anthropomorphic "practical" cats! He broke from conventional rhyming schemes, intorduced non-romantic, non-landscape imagery into poetry, and oh, how he loved to allude. He was extremely well-read, in English as well as vernacular literature. Prufrock contains countless references to famous literature pieces from all across the world. In fact an entire lesson can be devoted to the allusions in his poetry alone. The same is true for Wasteland. Honestly, sometimes he just appears to be showing off :)

    His work was so different from his predecessors (Romantics and Victorians), that some of them refuse to acknowledge it as poetry at all. The themes were much more humane, but the outlook was far more cynical. Some people credit him with attracting a new class of readers to poetry, others criticize him for driving the traditional readers away. I guess It is in the nature of great artists to polarise opinions.

    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 ridiculousâ€"
    Almost, at times, the Fool

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

    Alliteration, Tiff :)

    Also check out Eliot's Hollow Men and Four Quartets.

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanyFri, 30 Jan 2009 19:50:18 -0000

    Here are my favourite lines:


    "There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;"

    "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons."

    Gosh, what a sad poem.

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    oLahav
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    Oren LahavFri, 30 Jan 2009 19:49:32 -0000

    Great lesson. I remember studying this poem back in high school (though I never really got poetry)…

    The name always reminds me of Alfred J. Kwak for some reason.

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanyFri, 30 Jan 2009 19:54:08 -0000

    Haha interesting, what a cute cartoon character. Poetry can be hard to get into, I'll admit. It can be like reading a novel. It can be a bit slow-paced, you're wondering what the whole point of it is, not really understanding some of the words. This poem is a bit different because it's written in "stream-of-consciousness" style and is often used as a dramatic monologue (a dramatic performance to be spoken). I think two things will help with enjoying poetry more : 1) reciting it aloud to interpret the author's feelings and 2) researching the meanings behind the poem. :D

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