The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
J. Alfred Prufrock is not just the speaker of one of Eliot's poems. 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, as he says, "Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two." Nothing revealed the Victorian upper classes in Western society more accurately, unless it was a novel by Henry James, and nothing better exposed the dreamy, insubstantial center of that consciousness than a half-dozen poems in Eliot's first book. The speakers of all these early poems are trapped inside their own excessive alertness. They look out on the world from deep inside some private cave of feeling, and though they see the world and themselves with unflattering exactness, they cannot or will not do anything about their dilemma and finally fall back on self-serving explanation. They quake before the world, and their only revenge is to be alert. After Prufrock and Other Observations, poetry started coming from the city and from the intellect. It could no longer stand comfortably on its old post-Romantic ground, ecstatic before the natural world.
From A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Ed. Jack Myers and David Wojahan. Copyright © 1991 by Southern Illinois University Press.
The general fragmentation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is obvious and notorious. The poem seems a perfect example of what Terry Eagleton calls the modern "transition from metaphor to metonymy: unable any longer to totalize his experience in some heroic figure, the bourgeois is forced to let it trickle away into objects related to him by sheer contiguity." Everything in "Prufrock" trickles away into parts related to one another only by contiguity. Spatial progress in the poem is diffident or deferred, a "scuttling" accomplished by a pair of claws disembodied so violently they remain "ragged." In the famous opening, "the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table," and the simile makes an equation between being spread out and being etherised that continues elsewhere in the poem when the evening, now a bad patient, "malingers, / Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me." There it "sleeps so peacefully! / Smoothed by long fingers . . . ." This suspension is a rhetorical as well as a spatial and emotional condition. The "streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent" lead not to a conclusion but to a question, a question too "overwhelming" even to ask. Phrases like the "muttering retreats / Of restless nights" combine physical blockage, emotional unrest, and rhetorical maundering in an equation that seems to make the human being a combination not of angel and beast but of road-map and Roberts' Rules of Order.
In certain lines, metaphor dissolves into metonymy before the reader's eyes. "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes" appears clearly to every reader as a cat, but the cat itself is absent, represented explicitly only in parts -- back, muzzle, tongue -- and by its actions -- licking, slipping, leaping, curling. The metaphor has in a sense been hollowed out to be replaced by a series of metonyms, and thus it stands as a rhetorical introduction to what follows. The people in the poem also appear as disembodied parts or ghostly actions. They are "the faces that you meet," the "hands / That lift and drop a question on your plate," the "Arms that are braceleted and white and bare," the "eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase." Prufrock himself fears such a reduction, to use Kenneth Burke's term for the effect of metonymy. The dread questions "How his hair is growing thin!" and "But how his arms and legs are thin" reduce Prufrock to certain body parts, the thinness of which stands in for the diminution caused by the rhetorical figures. What Prufrock fears has already been accomplished by his own rhetoric.
In this poem the horror of sex seems to come in part from its power to metonymize. Like Augustine, Eliot sees sex as the tyranny of one part of the body over the whole. Though Eliot is far too circumspect to name this part, he figures its power in his poetry by the rebelliousness of mere members: hands, arms, eyes. Sexual desire pulls the body apart, so that to give in to it is to suffer permanent dismemberment. This may account for the odd combination in Eliot's work of sexual ennui and libidinous violence. The tyranny of one part scatters all the others, reducing the whole to impotence. In this way, the violence of sex robs the individual of the integrity necessary to action.
An oddly similar relationship of part to whole governs Prufrock's conception of time. In a burst of confidence he asserts, "In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse." Yet he seems to quail before the very amplitude of possibility contained in time, so that all these decisions and revisions are foreclosed before they can be made. Thus Prufrock's prospective confidence in the fullness of time becomes a retrospective conviction that "I have known them an already, known them all: -- / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons. . . ." To know "all" already is to be paralyzed, disabled, because "all" is not full of possibility but paradoxically empty, constituted as it is by pure repetition, part on part on part. In a figure that exactly parallels the bodily metonymies, time becomes a collection of individual parts, just as the poem's human denizens had been little more than parts: "And I have known the eyes already, known them all"; "And I have known the arms already known them all." The instantaneous movement from part to whole, from eyes, arms, evenings, mornings, to "all," expresses the emptiness between, the gap between dispersed parts and an oppressive whole made of purely serial repetition. The very reduction of human beings to parts of themselves and of time to episodes makes it impossible to conceive of any whole different from this empty, repetitious "an." As Burke says, metonymy substitutes quantity for quality, so that instead of living life Prufrock feels "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
From Michael North, The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission of the author.
The complications of "Prufrock" involve from the poem's beginning a more direct transformation of the dramatic monologue than does "Gerontion" when the pronouns that "I" uses suggest the presence of an unspecified listener. In many dramatic monologues the listener is also not specified, and the reader is invited to take over the role of listener in a one-sided conversation. In "Prufrock," however, it is not clear whether a real conversation is being dramatically presented, whether the "I" is having an internal colloquy with himself, or whether the reader is being addressed directly. The "you" that is "I"'s counterpart stands in two places at once, both inside and outside Prufrock's mind and inside and outside scenes that can with difficulty be imagined based on the minimal details provided. The reader's situation resembles the position of the viewer of Velásquez's "Las Meninas," in which a mirror invites an identification with the observers of the scene depicted in the painting while the painting's geometry indicates that the illusion of that identification can be sustained only by ignoring obvious details. Reader and viewer stand both inside and outside the frame of an illusion that cannot be sustained.
Two epigraphs from Dante precede and follow the poem's title, one for the entire volume that takes its name from "Prufrock," the other for the poem itself, which stands first in the volume. Together they suggest the oscillation and indeterminacy of Prufrock's position and the reader's. In the first epigraph, Statius mistakes Virgil's shade for a "solid thing" and forgets momentarily what he himself is and can do. In the second, Guido da Montefeltro predicates his address to Dante on the opposite mistake, that Dante is not human and cannot carry his words further. Like Statius and Guido, the reader who tries to pin down the indeterminate identities and locations of "you and I" in the poem will always be mistaken. What is taken for a shade or a figment may be flesh and blood, and what is taken for living flesh may be only a figment in a perpetual instability that marks "Prufrock," like "Rhapsody," as the transforming end of a sequence of poems to which it can be said to belong but some of whose implications it subverts. The subversion occurs largely through the removal of those referential, seemingly stable elements of scene and character that contribute to making the illusion of hearing a personal voice in poetry possible.
Eliot's particular transformation of the dramatic monologue in "Prufrock" depends on the character of the pronouns "you" and "I," which linguists call "shifters" because they are mutually defining and depend for their meanings on the pragmatic context of the discourses in which they occur. Instead of naming something unchanging, these pronouns indicate positions that can be variously occupied.
From Harmony of Dissonances: T.S. Eliot, Romanticism, and Imagination. Copyright © 1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press.
The physical and psychological enervation of Eliot's early personae may be read in part as correlatives of his literary situation; this is the way Prufrock, for example, states his problem:
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?
Prufrock does not know how to presume to begin to speak, both because he knows "all already"—this is the burden of his lament—and because he is already known, formulated. His consciousness of the other's eye—I haunts his language at its source: "Let us go then, you and I." An "I" who addresses a "you" becomes subject to the laws of communication, and his voice is subsumed by expression. In his critical replay of the poetic process, Eliot remarks that the poet expresses not a personality but a particular medium. The particular medium expressed in "Prufrock" is a confession or a dramatic monologue. The you-I split being the formal ground of his medium, Prufrock's problem is in fact the problem the expressive medium introduces, and this identification of the formal and rhetorical dimensions of the medium with the emotion or psychic burden of the speaker makes for the airless closure of the poem. As in Poe's "Raven," the speaker's relationship to the form within which his adventure transpires constitutes the nature of his adventure: his form determines the content of his story.
And if Prufrock's problem coincides with the dynamics of Eliot's particular medium of dramatic monologue, Eliot's problem coincides with the dynamics of the poetic medium itself; just as Prufrock is paralyzed by his consciousness of the other, his author is paralyzed by his consciousness of the tradition. In the line "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" the dramatic character and his author meet, "uttering the words in unison, though perhaps with somewhat different meaning," and displaying the rhetorical advantage a dramatic poet holds. And Eliot's imprisoning his speaker in the very medium of expressive or even confessional speech may register his own intertextual interment in a medium inscribed with prototypes of original or central speech—whether prophetic, like John the Baptist's, or epic, like Dante's, or dramatic, like Shakespeare's—which are codified in and reinforced by conventions precluding the possibility of saying "just what I mean." Eliot's ironic use of rhyme and meter in "Prufrock" acknowledges the complicity of the poet's conventions with his persona's "de-meaning" language. On the one hand, the "comic" meter of lines like "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" equates poetic forms that channel force and the social forms of keeping conversation light. On the other hand, dreams of escape from the pre-formulating formulae are them- selves recounted in formulaic lines, for the solution to Prufrock's problem would be a "solution" for Eliot as well-forgetting the present and the separate self, surrendering to the oblivion of an unconscious nature and the "natural" meter of English poetry:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
The epigraph to "Prufrock" formally subsumes its hero's problem with expressive language to the poet's problem with textuality. The poem is a dramatic monologue, a mimesis of speech, yet it opens with an epigraph that identifies it as writing and diminishes its urgency by absorbing it within the prototype of another confession, so that the beginning "let us go" is already the "end of something." At the same time that the epigraph consigns the persona to the company of his "semblables"—all those confined in the deadly circle of their solipsistic-confessional speech-likenesses—it seals the poet in the prison of literary "truth," which cancels out his life and tells someone else's "lie." Supernatural vision and natural blindness—issuing in prophetic or lyric utterances—would alike deliver Prufrock from himself; but such ascents and descents are not possible within writing, a historically coded and prescribed medium where vision drowns in revision and human voices drown out natural and supernatural music. And if Prufrock—too decorous and conventional to be a prophet or to dally with mermaids—is incarcerated in the echo chamber of his and others' chatter, Eliot finds himself locked in the "room" of literary "talk," too late to "tell all" or to "sing." The poem's epigraph at once opens and closes this discourse of a poet-hero generically old before his time. Eliot's early work is unusual in its dependence on epigraphs that mediate between the poet and the poem, preformulating the poem before it can begin, and his epigraphs often explicitly concern belatedness, exhaustion, and endings. Indeed, the epigraph to Prufrock and Other Observations locates Eliot's beginning as a poet by placing him in the company of Jean Verdenal and other "shadows"—Statius, Virgil, and Dante. In "Prufrock," the literary epigraph, bespeaking "not only . . . the pastness of the past, but . . . its presence" (SW, 49), casts such a shadow over the poem that nature itself disappears, for a "sky" that recalls "ether" is, in fact, "etherized" for the present speaker. Thus, social paralysis resulting from knowing all and being known or seen through parallels a literary anesthesia—knowing all predecessors and being preformulated and "epigraphed" by them. Both kinds of anesthesia subject the individual voice to anterior fon11ulas, forms, and styles.
Prufrock's acute consciousness of his age is thus the classic symptom of Eliot's philosophical and literary problem. Prufrock's body is presented as a text, for he literally carries the burden of the past on his body—in the lines, the thinning hair and arms and legs, and other signs of age that record time's passage. In the same way, his monologue is a "polylogue," superscribed with quotations, allusions, and echoes that document the presence of the past. Since existential experience is subsumed by textual experience in early Eliot, bodily and natural forms correlate with literary forms. The labyrinthine cities and "corridors" of history, the sepulchral drawing rooms with their "atmosphere of Juliet's tomb" (CP, 8), the body aging "on its own," and the formulas of discourse are all experienced as suffocating incarcerations. They are all modeled as texts, as stages set and scripts written before the speaker enters to recite his lines. And attempts to free the individual voice by breaking out of forms register, as in "Prufrock," only as impulses to dismemberment and suicide.
From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987.
It is a striking fact that three of the principal modernist poets--Eliot, Pound, and Williams--each wrote a poem entitled "Portrait of a Lady" within a few years of 1910. The title, of course, alludes to James’s novel and, for Eliot and Pound, refers to the Jamesian project of some of their early verse. Pound asserted that Hugh Selwyn Mauberley was an attempt to condense the James novel, and Eliot told Virginia Woolf that his early inclination was to develop in the manner of Henry James. Behind the model of Henry James, however (indeed, behind James's Portrait of a Lady), is a nineteenth-century poetic mode of female portraiture. Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti, and Swinburne wrote portrait poems – "Mariana," "'The Gardener's Daughter," "Andrea del Sarto," "The Blessed Damozel," "The Portrait," and "Before the Mirror," to name just a few -- that identify poetic style with the portrait of a lady. These poems engage not just the subject of woman but the gender of the poetical.
[. . . .]
For Eliot, poetic representation of a powerful female presence created difficulty in embodying the male. In order to do so, Eliot avoids envisioning the female, indeed, avoids attaching gender to bodies.
We can see this process clearly in "The Love Song of J. Prufrock." The poem circles around not only an unarticulated question, as all readers agree, but also an unenvisioned center, the "one" whom Prufrock addresses. The poem never visualizes the woman with whom Prufrock imagines an encounter except in fragments and in plurals -- eyes, arms, skirts - synecdoches we might well imagine as fetishistic replacements. But even these synecdochic replacements are not clearly engendered. The braceleted arms and the skirts are specifically feminine, but the faces, the hands, the voices, the eyes are not. As if to displace the central human object it does not visualize, the poem projects images of the body onto the landscape (the sky, the streets, the fog), but these images, for all their marked intimation of sexuality, also avoid the designation of gender (the muttering retreats of restless nights, the fog that rubs, licks, and lingers). The most visually precise images in the poem are those of Prufrock himself, a Prufrock carefully composed – "My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin" -- only to be decomposed by the watching eyes of another into thin arms and legs, a balding head brought in upon a platter. Moreover, the images associated with Prufrock are themselves, as Pinkney observes, terrifyingly unstable, attributes constituting the identity of the subject at one moment only to be wielded by the objective the next, like the pin that centers his necktie and then pinions him to the wall or the arms that metamorphose into Prufrock's claws. The poem, in these various ways, decomposes the body, making ambiguous its sexual identification. These scattered body parts at once imply and evade a central encounter the speaker cannot bring himself to confront, but in the pattern of their scattering they constitute the voice that Prufrock feels cannot exist in the gaze of the other.
From "Gender, Voice, and Figuration in Eliot’s Early Poetry." In Ronald Bush (Ed. ) T.S. Eliot: The Modernist in History. Cambridge University Press.
This five-line interlude ending on "the floors of silent seas" forms an encapsulated version of the remainder of the poem, in which the frustrated effort to establish purposive discourse leads once again to withdrawal downward and inward to a silent world of instinctual being. A return to images of distension and distracting sensuality provokes a final impulse toward violent imposition of the will--"to force the moment to its crisis"--which ends, like previous thoughts of disturbing the universe, in ruthless self-mockery. The image of decapitation parodies the theme of disconnected being and provides for at least a negative definition of the self: "I am no prophet."
By this point the tense has quietly shifted from present to past, and the speaker offers a series of prolonged interrogatives on the consequences of action not taken. While its grammatical context ("And would it have been worth it") reduces it to the contemplation of "what might have been"; the language and imagery of this passage enact with renewed intensity the recurring drama of mental conflict:
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."
The infinitives in this passage--to have bitten, to have squeezed, to roll--conform to the poem's widespread use of transitive verbs of direct action in expressing the speaker's violent impulse to combat the forces of disorder: to murder and create, to disturb the universe, to spit out all the butt-ends, to force the moment.
The poem's linguistic and thematic strategy consistently opposes active verbs to the passive voice which causes things to be spread out, etherized, smoothed, and stretched. It sets these infinitives against present participles, which are constantly muttering, sprawling, rubbing, scuttling, and settling. Finally, it opposes these transitive verbs to intransitive verbs which lie, linger, malinger, lean, curl, trail, wrap, slip, and sleep. A relative lack of modifiers and the absence of plural forms further distinguishes the passage cited above. By contrast the language of disordered experience, of imprecision and aimlessness, abounds in modifiers and plurals: restless nights, one-night cheap hotels, visions and revisions, the sunsets and the dooryards, and the sprinkled streets.
The structure of the imagery at this point in the poem corresponds to the thematic role played by linguistic form. To have "bitten off" the matter, in addition to its hint of blunt force, would constitute a positive reaction against endlessly idle talk; squeezing the universe into a ball would counteract the world's tendency to fall apart and to spread itself out like yellow fog; finally, the act of rolling it toward some overwhelming question at least imparts direction to the movement of the universe, even if the actual destination, like the question, remains unclear. The idea of proclaiming oneself a prophet "come back to tell you all" implies a power of linguistic discourse equal in magnitude to the physical act of squeezing the universe into a ball. Once more the idea of language joins with images of purpose, only this time in such hyperbolic fashion that the ultimate failure of discourse strikes one as inevitable: "That is not what I meant at all."
The speaker's failure to master language--"It is impossible to say just what I mean!"--leads in this case not to a statement on the inadequacy of words themselves, but rather reflects upon the speaker's own impotence. In a poem so obsessed with problems of speech and definition, to have failed with words is to have lost the war on the inarticulate: the speaker as heroic Lazarus or Prince Hamlet is suddenly reduced to the stature of an attendant lord, "Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse." The old man with rolled-up trouser bottoms has shrunk from his former size. Paradoxically, this diminution of the outer self--the part of the mind concerned with imposing order on experience--brings about a corresponding expansion of the inner self.
In the same essay where Eliot locates the beginnings of a poem in an unknown, dark "psychic material" that is put into form by the conscious mind, he allows for a secondary resurgence of the unconscious that arises from the very process of poetic composition: "the frame, once chosen, within which the author has elected to work, may itself evoke other psychic material; and then, lines of poetry may come into being, not from the original impulse, but from a secondary stimulation of the unconscious mind." The mental forces at work in Eliot's description of the poetic process serve as an analogy to the conflicts besetting the speaker in Prufrock. The speaker is a failed poet in terms of his inability to "murder" existing structures in order to "create" anew; be finds it impossible to say what be wants to say. In the "secondary stimulation of the unconscious mind" that occurs at this point, he partly abandons and partly resolves the struggle of form and matter; the integration of the psyche remains at best incomplete.
From Conflicts in Consciousness: T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Prufrock's paralysis follows naturally from this subjectivizing of everything. If each consciousness is an opaque sphere, then Prufrock has no hope of being understood by others. "No experience," says Bradley in a phrase Eliot quotes, "can lie open to inspection from outside" (KE, 203). Prufrock's vision is incommunicable, and whatever he says to the lady will be answered by, "That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all" (CP, 6). The lady is also imprisoned in her own sphere, and the two spheres can never, like soap bubbles, become one. Each is impenetrable to the other.
If other consciousnesses exist only as opaque objects for Prufrock, he has an equally unhappy relation to time and space. One of the puzzles of the poem is the question as to whether Prufrock ever leaves his room. It appears that he does not, so infirm is his will, so ready "for a hundred indecisions,/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/Before the taking of a toast and tea" (CP, 4). In another sense Prufrock would be unable to go anywhere, however hard he tried. If all space has been assimilated into his mind, then spatial movement would really be movement in the same place, like a man running in a dream. There is no way to distinguish between actual movement and imaginary movement. However far Prufrock goes, he remains imprisoned in his own subjective space, and all his experience is imaginary. It seems to be some perception of this which keeps him in his room, content to imagine himself going through the streets, ascending the lady's stair, and telling her "all," like Lazarus back from the dead. There is no resurrection from the death which has undone him, and this is one meaning of the epigraph from Dante.
Time disappears in the same way. Space must be exterior to the self if movement through it is to be more than the following of a tedious argument in the mind. In the same way only an objective time can be other than the self, so that the flow of time can mean change for that self. But time, like space, has only a subjective existence for Prufrock. As a result, past, present, and future are equally immediate, and Prufrock is paralyzed. Like one of Bradley's finite centers, he "is not in time," and "contains [his] own past and future" (KE, 205). Memories, ironic echoes of earlier poetry, present sensations, anticipations of what he might do in the future ("I grow old . . . I grow old . . . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled" [CP, 71)--these are equally present. There is a systematic confusion of tenses and times in the poem, so that it is difficult to tell if certain images exist in past, present, future. Prufrock begins by talking of his visit to the lady as something yet to be done, and later talks of his failure to make the visit as something long past ("And would it have been worth it, after all,/Would it have been worth while" (CP, 61). Like the women talking of Michelangelo, he exists in an eternal present, a frozen time in which everything that might possibly happen to him is as if it had already happened: "For I have known them all already, known them all" (CP, 4). In this time of endless repetition Prufrock cannot disturb the universe even if he should presume to try to do so. Everything that might happen is foreknown, and in a world where only one mind exists the foreknown has in effect already happened and no action is possible. Prufrock's infirmity of will is not so much a moral deficiency as a consequence of his subjectivism.
From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965.