Love Song Of Prufrock Essay, Research Paper
The ironic character of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," an
early poem by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) in the form of a dramatic monologue, is
introduced in its title. Eliot is talking, through his speaker, about the
absence of love, and the poem, so far from being a "song," is a
meditation on the failure of romance. The opening image of evening
(traditionally the time of love making) is disquieting, rather than consoling or
seductive, and the evening "becomes a patient" (Spender 160):
"When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized
upon a table" (2-3). According to Berryman, with this line begins modern
poetry (197). The urban location of the poem is confrontational instead of being
alluring. Eliot, as a Modernist, sets his poem in a decayed cityscape, " a
drab neighborhood of cheap hotels and restaurants, where Prufrock lives in
solitary gloom" (Harlan 265). The experience of Prufrock is set against
that of unnamed "women" (13), collectively representing womankind.
Their unattainable status is represented by their constant movement- they
"come and go"- and their "polite chitchat about Michelangelo, who
was a man of great creative energy, unlike Prufrock" (Harlan 265). We
cannot imagine that they would listen to any love song by Prufrock, any more
than they would find his name or his person attractive. "A man named J.
Alfred Prufrock could hardly be expected to sing a love song; he sounds too well
dressed" (Berryman 197)."J. Alfred Prufrock" indicates his
formality, and his surname, in particular, indicates prudery. The powerful
metaphor, a visual image of the "yellow fog" (15) in the fourth
stanza, represents the jaundiced environment of the modern city, or Eliot’s
"infernal version of the forest of Arden" (Cervo 227). The image is
ambiguous, however, because Eliot also makes it curiously attractive in the
precision he uses in comparing the fog’s motions to that of a cat who "[l]icked
its tongue into the corners of the evening" (17). We also hear the fog,
disquietingly, in that image, in the onomatopoeia of "licked."
Repetition of "time", in the following stanza, shows how the world of
Prufrock’s being is bound to temporality. "Prufrock speaks to his listeners
as if they had come to visit him in some circle of unchanging hell where time
has stopped and all action has become theoretical" (Miller 183).
"Time" is repeated, several times, but it is not only its inescapable
presence that Eliot is emphasizing, but also the triviality of the ways in which
we use it; "the taking of a toast and tea" (34). The melancholy of
Prufrock’s situation begins to emerge when he speaks of his experience of
failures in love and life. The initial vitality of his invitation to go out into
the evening is now replaced by images of the many evenings he has known, with
their same disappointing conclusions. This meditation expands to include
"mornings, afternoons" (50) – all of his life, in other words – which,
in a famous image, he has "measured out with coffee spoons" (51). The
emphasis on "I" in the poem, which we would expect in a dramatic
monologue, is also typical of Romanticism, with its celebration of the ego.
Again, in this poem, Eliot is pointedly unromantic, as the "I" that is
revealed is fit not for celebration but for ridicule, especially when Prufrock
shows that he has been repeatedly diminished, even reduced to a laboratory
specimen, by others’ evaluation of him. It is little wonder that his
self-confidence, the essential quality of a successful lover, has been
shattered. It is women, of course, who have delivered this judgement on Prufrock.
He finds them powerfully attractive, with "[a]rms that are braceleted and
white and bare" (63), but we notice that this image – like the eyes,
earlier, that "fix you in a formulated phrase" (56) – does not
indicate a whole person, but rather a fragment of a human being, almost
lifeless, like "[a]rms that lie along the table" (67). We may be
critical of Prufrock, but the objects of his desire are scarcely more desirable.
The criticism broadens to encompass a society, even civilization, and Prufrock
becomes a type of human being – modern urban man, perhaps – not merely himself.
The poem is haunted by the refrain referring to the women. Prufrock is taking
himself and us on a quest in pursuit of them, "Let us go then, you and
I" (1). It is a Romantic image, but Prufrock’s quest is frustrated by the
modern setting and by his unheroic qualities. Prufrock’s shortcomings as a
potential lover and the singer of a love song by which to woo his beloved are
evident in his physical features, his clothes and his behavior. "From an
account of his clothes, we realize that Prufrock is not, as he at first seemed,
a rebel to his surroundings" (Spender 160). Unlike the typical Romantic, he
is middle-aged "[w]ith a bald spot in the middle of my hair" (40), and
his clothes indicate a personality that is inhibited rather than passionate; his
necktie is "rich", but "modest" (43). He is apprehensive,
too, about what others – the woman in particular – will make of him. "They
will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin’" (44). After this
description, there is the profound irony of his question: "Do I dare /
Disturb the Universe" (45-46). The universe he is referring to is "his
small social circle of middle-class acquaintances" (Harlan 265). We would
not imagine that he was capable of disturbing anything. He rehearses various
conversational strategies in the hope that, at last, he will find the means to
divert the women from their "[t]alking of Michelangelo" (14). These
include images from the earlier part of the poem, such as "lonely men in
shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows" (72). However, even as he does so,
Prufrock is aware of the inadequacy of his procedure and would become a crab,
"[s]cuttling across the floors of silent seas" (74). This is another
image in the poem that is both disturbing and strangely appealing. It is an
image of escape. In the final stanzas of the poem, "Eliot brings to bear a
Prufrock’s dilemma four figures out of the spiritual history of man;
Michelangelo, John de Baptist, Lazarus and Hamlet," as images of the
disparity between what Prufrock is and what he would be – a Lazarus, or a
Hamlet, for example, figures with insights into the ultimate question of
immortality and the heroic tragedy of existence (Berryman 198). At the heart of
this is Prufrock’s self-acknowledge: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was
meant to be" (111). Rather, "Prufrock sees himself as more like
Polonius, the old fool from the same play" (Harlan 266). In Shakespeare,
the Fool, although dealing in nonsense and absurdity, customarily sees the truth
of a matter. The poem has been a journey into Prufrock’s psychology. The closing
image of the poem includes the principal theme of Prufrock’s relationship – or
non-relationship – with women which, in itself, represents the modernist
disenchantment with Romanticism. Prufrock would escape to a fantasy fulfillment
with the mermaids. However, even they are disappointing: "I do not think
that they will sing to me" (125). Moreover, banal and destructive reality
must be resumed as the dream subsides: "Till human voices wake us, and we
drown" (131). "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is typical in
its presentation of "modern disillusionment", a figure who has been
thwarted by life, both in terms of his own psychology and the environment of the
twentieth century wasteland world, which Eliot was to treat in detail in the
famous poem of that name (Harlan 266).
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