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The speaker of ‘The Love Music of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is trapped in his personal thoughts, so filled with hesitation and doubt that he’s unable to behave. Seamus Perry explores the poem’s portrayal of paralysing nervousness.

Who’s Prufrock?

T S Eliot wrote this poem whereas he was in his early twenties: he later recalled starting the poem whereas a scholar of philosophy at Harvard College in 1909–10, and he completed it whereas travelling for a yr in Europe, in Munich and Paris. However you possibly can not say that it was a younger man’s poem precisely: later in life Eliot, when requested, stated: ‘It was partly a dramatic creation of a person of about 40 I ought to say, and partly an expression of feeling of my very own via this dim imaginary determine.’[1] The poem is very unique, nevertheless it does have some anticipations. Of all of the poets of the Victorian interval, Eliot later remarked, the one one ‘whom our modern can examine with a lot revenue is Browning’: that’s Robert Browning (1812–1889), who was well-known for writing poems as monologues within the voices of assumed personae. Eliot’s poem shouldn’t be very very similar to a Browning poem, nevertheless it does develop from the instance of his dramatic apply: it’s via inventing a prematurely middle-aged persona, as he got here to see it on reflection at the least, that Eliot discovered a method of articulating one thing about himself.

He as soon as referred to that factor, in personal, as a ‘complicated’. Presumably with a point of levity, given the character of the authority upon which he was commenting, Eliot wrote ‘The Prufrock Advanced’ subsequent to those phrases from the report of a palm-reader: ‘when confronted with a private drawback, any extended contemplation of chances merely produces hesitancy and indecision’. Prufrock is among the nice innovations of the trendy literary creativeness: he has turn into an archetype for the ‘complicated’ of over-scrupulous timidity. He’s a person paralysed by an awesome nervousness about the potential for getting issues improper: his judgement has such nicety and fastidiousness that it by no means arrives at determination, not to mention motion. So there’s, because it transpires, a sure irony within the method through which the poem opens:

          Allow us to go then, you and I,

When the night is unfold out towards the sky

Like a affected person etherised upon a desk …

The language of the opening line is decisiveness itself, and includes a willpower to get going, together with a agency handle to a different particular person; however the sense of goal is rapidly dissipated because the speaker turns into absorbed in a lyrical evocation of the sunshine results of nightfall, which in flip then will get waylaid by the sheer oddity of the simile that appears to come back, unsolicited, to his thoughts to explain them. The play between the belated romanticism of a night ‘unfold out towards the sky’ and the incongruous modernity of ‘a affected person etherised upon a desk’ purposefully units differing types of world in juxtaposition: the poetical and the medical, the lyrical and the hospital; and this juxtapositional methodology would be the principal method the poem will get to work. The title of the poem declares that methodology because it braces the romance of ‘The Love Music’ towards the exact social formality of ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’. Eliot stated later in life that he selected the title as a result of it sounded ‘very very prosaic’, although it in all probability sounds extra eccentric than prosaic to most readers, even a little bit of a joke title; however Browning provided examples of characters with weird and even cartoonish names (Bishop Blougram, Mr Sludge, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau) who revealed inside their poems a seriousness of predicament that we’d not have anticipated to seek out. Eliot begins his poem with what’s by any requirements a linguistic misjudgement and may appear only a comedian stroke – to incorporate of all issues a pronominal preliminary within the title, as one may on an official type, within the title of a love poem; however he then goes on in his portrait of indecisiveness to make the fallibilities of such unsure judgement appear horrible in addition to comical. ‘No! I’m not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’, Prufrock declares in the direction of the top of his poem, distancing himself from the character in literature who has most frequently (rightly or wrongly) been seen as making dithering a couple of determination the supply of nice tragedy. Prufrock’s expertise of the ‘overwhelming query’ falls in need of that sort of grandeur.

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Going nowhere

‘Allow us to go’, Prufrock repeats, and once more, ‘Allow us to go’; however the actions of the poetry have already established by the top of the primary verse that we’re occupying a consciousness that’s destined to go nowhere very a lot. And actually the epigraph to the poem, which comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, has already launched the concept of going nowhere as a key theme within the poem’s orchestration. (It’s from Canto 27 of the Inferno.) Within the passage, Dante, who’s touring Hell, has begun to converse with one of many inhabitants, Guido da Montefeltro, who’s initially reluctant to reply; however on the affordable assumption that Dante should be in Hell for all eternity too, he begins to talk:

If I assumed my reply had been to 1 who ever may return to the world, this flame ought to shake no extra; however since none ever did return alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, with out concern of infamy I reply thee.

For Eliot to start his poem with a voice from the depths of Hell is to create one other of the poem’s formative juxtapositions, and invitations the reader to make out a connection: the world of the poem is nothing to do with medieval Catholicism, however quite genteel New England society – a spot of tea cups and low spoons, collar pins and neckties, musical soirées and perfumed night attire – however conceivably one other model of Hell for all that. The inescapability of social conventions and the stifling prescriptions of well mannered decorum represent a brand new sort of infernal entrapment.

For Hell is a spot you don’t depart: Dante was uncommon in coming again to inform the story. The opening urgency of Prufrock’s ‘Allow us to go’ dwindles within the quick second verse to the desultory-sounding to-and-fro of the unidentified ladies, who ‘come and go / Speaking of Michelangelo’. That couplet additionally comes and goes, returning about 20 strains later, however with no improved sense as to who the ladies are, not to mention what they imply to the speaker. Just like the cat-like fog that rubs itself lazily upon the cityscape, the poem curls about and about, its fantastically drifting, self-interrupting sentences repeatedly laying aside the second of coming to a full cease. Usually, as an alternative, they arrive to a query mark: ‘Do I dare / Disturb the universe?’ It could be improper to say that these questions are ‘rhetorical’; they’re genuinely expressions of perplexity: ‘So how ought to I presume?’

The type of the verse co-operates on this universe of non-ending by avoiding the differing kinds of progressiveness that will come from utilizing stanzas, or clean verse, or heroic couplets. Eliot’s poem has no common rhyme or rhythmical patterning: it’s in free verse, vers libre, although the impact right here is something however a launch into untrammelled freedom, as among the proponents of vers libre initially of the 20th century appreciated to say. ‘Vers libre’, wrote Eliot in 1917, the yr that ‘Prufrock’ was revealed within the quantity Prufrock and Different Observations, ‘is a battle-cry of freedom, and there’s no freedom in artwork.’ Vers libre includes abandoning the ‘comforting echo of rhyme’, he stated; however his poem doesn’t do with out rhyme in any respect, simply with out common rhyme, as in a rhyme scheme. Eliot wrote fantastically concerning the potentialities of this, as if in indirect commentary on his personal poem: ‘There are sometimes passages in an unrhymed poem the place rhyme is needed for some particular impact, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of temper.’ You would discover examples of all of these within the poem, and different results in addition to, created by rhyme’s interruption into an unrhymed or unpredictably rhymed area: ‘Ought to I, after tea and desserts and ices, / Have the energy to pressure the second to its disaster?’

Eliot is drawn, too, to leaving Prufrock caught up in rhymes which are no rhymes however merely repetitions, enacting the way in which he’s victimised by the insistently reiterative actions of his personal anxious thoughts – as, say, when he can’t dislodge the accusation of being too ‘skinny’:

(They are going to say: ‘How his hair is rising skinny!’)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie wealthy and modest, however asserted by a easy pin—

(They are going to say: ‘However how his legs and arms are skinny!’)

Prufrock and the ladies

‘They’ are in all probability ladies: Prufrock’s anxieties revolve partly across the imponderabilities of time, however mainly round a concern of girls, and a fretfulness concerning the humiliations of social encounter that rises right here and there to a sort of suppressed hysteria: ‘When I’m pinned and wriggling on the wall …’. In a Browning monologue there’s often an implied interlocutor (whom, in fact, we don’t hear) with whom the speaker is interacting in a method or one other; however simply to whom Prufrock is addressing himself shouldn’t be so clear. The ‘you’ addressed within the first line appears to evaporate fairly quickly, as if he (is it a ‘he’?) by no means had been in actual life; and the ‘you’ of ‘you and me’ that comes later – ‘right here beside you and me’ and ‘some speak of you and me’ – doesn’t really feel like the identical addressee, or certainly an addressee who is admittedly current in any respect. Prufrock is speaking to a ‘you’ inside his personal thoughts, and he or she is part of some back-story to the poem’s annoyed erotic life which is stored nearly fully underneath wraps. The poem has moments of wealthy sexual response and, as if not realizing what to do with them, they no sooner come up than they’re diverted into the sidelines of a bracket or an apart: ‘Arms which are braceleted and white and naked / (However within the lamplight, downed with mild brown hair!)’ The closest we come to disclosure is the studiedly impartial double reference to ‘one’: ‘one, settling a pillow by her head’, and once more, ‘one settling a pillow, or throwing off a scarf’. In his portrait of this ‘one’, she seems unimpressed by his efforts to ‘say simply what I imply’; however he’s utilizing her imagined indifference as a cause for abandoning an effort within the first place.

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The poem involves an in depth with Prufrock lapsing gratefully again into a beautiful fantasy of ‘sea-girls’ singing their mermaid songs within the deeps: Prufrock eavesdrops upon them, momentarily comfy, it will appear, now that the fulfilment of his need is totally out of the query. However the final line conveys that there isn’t a escape from the poised chat over the tea cups: ‘Until human voices wake us, and we drown.’ The poem doesn’t mock Prufrock’s dreamy romanticism, which it voices very fantastically; and whereas it may hardly be known as a resolute ending, it’s the proper one. The poem ‘doesn’t “go off on the finish”’, protested Ezra Pound, Eliot’s good friend and early champion, to an editor who had wished one thing extra: ‘It’s a portrait of failure, or of a personality who fails, and it will be false artwork to make it finish on a notice of triumph.’[2]


[1] Poems of T. S. Eliot, i. 374.

[2] Ibid., i. 366.


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