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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

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