T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Updated on July 14, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

T. S. Eliot

Source

Introduction and Excerpt from Poem

T. S. Eliot composed a little volume titled Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which under the influence of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, became Cats, the longest running musical on Broadway.

How does one reconcile the lavish and hilarious persona responsible for the likes of old possum and the cats with the gloomy, spiritually dry personality of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land mentality? It's like mistaking a man with little education and travel experience for the writer of the Shakespearean canon.

Let's explore that issue, but first let's enjoy and excerpt from Old Pru's "Love Song":

Excerpt from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

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.

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. . . .

To read entire poem, please visit "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" at Poetry Foundation.

Reading of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Commentary

T. S. Eliot is a very funny poet. His works are taken much too seriously. A reader needs to think in terms of irony, satire, and sarcasm and then enjoy a few belly laughs while reading Eliot.

Prufrock Killed Poetry: Where's Your Sense of Humor?

The sanctimonious, state-sponsored clown, Garrison Keillor, seems to fancy that all poetry must always provide a barrel of laughs or ecstatic effusion. He has scribbled down his laughable opinion about "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," claiming that the poem is

a small, dark mopefest of a poem in which old Pru worries about whether to eat a peach or roll up his trousers. This poem pretty much killed off the pleasure of poetry for millions of people who got dragged through it in high school. ("Choosing the Right Lunch Partners," February 20, 2007)

Keillor and all his cohort of high school ninnies who learned to hate poetry because of being "dragged through it" might benefit from revisiting the poem with better awareness: that the poem is highly ironic, even satiric, in its critique of the blemishes of modernism that was having demoralizing effects on the art of poetry.

The non-serious nature of the poem clearly rails against the angst-infused positions that were rendering poetry not only unintelligible but ultimately without literary value.

Who is J. Alfred Prufrock and what does he want?

Critics regularly note the ironic disjointedness in the title as a "love song" apparently sung by a man with a business-suit name, but they then descend into the maudlin angst of this poor pathetic creature, and ultimately they take the work as a criticism of modern society, instead of a criticism of the skewed direction of art.

Eliot was poking fun at such criticism and such stances. The poem itself is a mishmash of form, consisting of 131 lines separated into free-verse paragraphs, yet it has rime throughout, delivered in a disjointed rhythm.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The form itself makes fun of free-verse and phony erudition (the many allusions to classic works that seem so out of place) as it floats them down a stream-of-consciousness.

Opening Movement: "Like a patient etherised upon a table"

The first three lines set up the hilarious mood of the poem: "Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table." The first line sounds as if the speaker of the poem is inviting someone to go somewhere in the evening, perhaps a social gathering or just an outing with a lady friend; after all it's a "love song."

But the reader is slammed in the face when the evening is described as a patient on an operating table being prepared for surgery. The romance is dead by line three.

The speaker continues to mumble. describing the evening quite negatively, mentioning "one night cheap hotels," disgusting restaurants, and "Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question."

But then he cuts off the thought, by telling his listener not to bother asking what the "overwhelming question" is, but instead says let's just get going "and make our visit." Now, it sounds as if the speaker and his companion are definitely going to a social gathering, maybe a dinner party.

The Italian Epigram: "S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse"

But the dinner party never materializes, and it becomes quite apparent that the speaker is simply addressing himself, likely while looking at his face in a mirror. There is no companion, there is no evening engagement, just a musing voice that is making fun of all the modernist techniques that the poet is employing in the poem through this pathetic speaker.

The epigram that opens the poem alerts the reader to the "insidious intent" of the speaker in the poem. The following is an interpretive translation of the Italian epigram:

if I thought such nonsense would really be foisted on the world, I would not concoct it, but since those who delve into the avant-garde poetry world have nothing to take back, I have deigned to let it fly.

Modern Boredom: "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes"

The speaker describes the fog in the metaphorical likeness of a dog: it rubs its back and muzzle on the window-panes, and it "[l]icked its tongue into the corners of the evening."

The speaker is concerned about social gatherings; he has often encountered them, and the lines "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" become a mantra.

And the line "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" which follows his claim to have known all those bored people in offices, lounges, and evening affairs demonstrates the speaker's awareness of his own boredom.

Floating Down the Stream: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws"

The speaker inserts telling images into his stream-of-consciousness descriptions of angst-filled scenes with outrageous images such as "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas," and "I grow old … I grow old … / shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."

And while these are famous lines often cited as showing the modern angst of Prufrock, they are quite humorous when one realizes that the speaker is making fun of the serious tone that critics will take regarding the style and highly allusive nature of the poem.

Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock has tricked many readers with his dry, spiritually destitute personality.

Tricked by Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock

The insufferable, elitist clown and disgraced sexual abuser, Garrison Keillor, blames "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" for "kill[ing] off the pleasure of poetry"—in high school, no less! Keillor bellyaches that the poem is "a small, dark mopefest of a poem in which old Pru worries about whether to eat a peach or roll up his trousers." It is ludicrous and even pathetic that Keillor, whose own banter attempts to lace humor with reportage, does not see the humor in "Old Pru."

Robert Frost asserted that his poem "The Road Not Taken" was "a tricky poem—a very tricky poem." However, many other Frostian poems have turned out to be quite tricky as well. And T. S. Eliot became a master at composing some of the trickiest poems to grace the poetry world.

The Character of J. Alfred Prufrock

The speaker of T. S. Eliot's most widely anthologized classic is J. Alfred Prufrock himself, and his personality is the theme of the poem; he is a ridiculous character, utterly laughable. As Roger Mitchell has explained, "He is the Representative Man of early Modernism. Shy, cultivated, oversensitive, sexually retarded (many have said impotent), ruminative, isolated, self-aware to the point of solipsism."

In other words, "old Pru" is merely a conglomeration of all of the ridiculous traits of humankind—and the literati in particular at any time; therefore, readers cannot take Prufrock seriously and are thus at liberty to laugh and enjoy the nutty things he thinks and says.

Failure to Read Closely

Keillor refers to the following lines: "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled," and "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" Keillor has been tricked by Eliot's poem, and in Keillor's comment about the poem, two assertions demonstrate his misunderstanding. The first false assertion about the poem is that it is a "small, dark mopefest of a poem": This is a false assertion because the poem is too funny to be a "dark mopefest," plus it is really a longer poem than most lyrics.

The second false assertion is that, "old Pru worries about whether to eat a peach or roll up his trousers": While "old Pru" does ask if he dares "eat a peach," he does not question whether he will roll up his trousers. It is likely that these two false assertions indicate why Keillor has been tricked by the poem; he simply has not read it carefully and closely enough, and likely his high school teacher was not a poetry adept.

Other Funny Lines

The opening of the poem, at first, may simply seem startling but upon further study, the reader can see the hilarity in the absurdity of "the evening [ ] spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table." The connection between "evening/sky" and "etherized patient/table" is just so ludicrous that it is laughable.

"The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes": fog becomes a cat or a dog, and the speaker likes that metaphor so well that he repeats it in the next stanza. Fog as dog jumps like a frog into the mind of those in tune.

"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." The jarring juxtaposition of a pathetic creature double questioning his traipsing down a stairway and then hastening to the bald spot in his pate cannot help but elicit a belly a laugh, provided the reader/listener is in the right frame of mind.

While Prufrock would be a sympathetic character were he less pitiful, he becomes a caricature who instead of drawing sympathy draws derision from the reader. Perhaps by tweaking his reading a bit and by reading closer, Keillor and his ilk could learn to enjoy the misadventures of J. Alfred Prufrock.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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