Summary of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was published in 1917. It is a dramatic monologue. It presents the thoughts, fears and resolutions of a typical modern man. It reveals his inability to love and sing in a brash urban society. The title of the poem suggests it is a love song of Prufrock which is a sad song of failure.
Who are this ‘I’ and this ‘you’? We don’t know. But we know that the ‘I’ is the speaker and he is persuading the ‘you’ to go some where. ‘You’ may refer to an aspect of the speaker’s own personality.
The speaker is going to a social gathering. He wishes to propose formally to the woman he loves. The ‘I’ leads ‘you’ through “half-deserted streets”, “muttering retreats and winding streets”. The ‘I’ leads him to ‘overwhelming questions’. What are these overwhelming questions? Maybe, these are the questions of doubts, of love.
Prufrock is going towards the room where the women are talking about the art of Michelangelo.
“In the room, the women come and go, Talking of Michelangelo”.
Are these lines satiric? If so, what is the point of satire? Prufrock reaches there in imagination and comes away without having done what he set out to do. He feels etherized. The poet uses various images to express Prufrock’s mental state:
The yellow frog that rubs its back upon
The window-panes, (like a cat)
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle
On the window-panes (again like a cat)
Prufrock suffers from indecisions. So he postpones his visit. He seeks time to prepare himself for the visit and for meeting other faces.
But Prufrock is, now, suffering from signs of old age. He is incapable of love –physically and spiritually. His weakness and debility is exposed through the images of ‘descending stair’, ‘bald spot on the head’, ‘hair growing thin’ etc. He is becoming pre-maturely old. Yet he shows his mock-heroic behaviour through the images of ‘collar mounting firmly to the chin’, ‘necktie rich and modest’ and in his thought of disturbing the world.
Prufrock is culture –conscious and fashionable. But he is tired and disillusioned. He needs some more time to pluck up courage. Further, Prufrock says that he has already known the women, their evenings, afternoons and mornings. But he says, “I have measured my life with coffee spoons”. What does this line suggest?
Prufrock finds himself uncomfortable in the crowded parties. He is a man of introvert type. He is unable to communicate with other people. He is troubled but his own confused desires. He recognizes his passion but cannot rise to it. But if he decides to meet the women, he thinks, how should he meet them? How should he begin talking with them? He is quite helpless and undecided.
Prufrock gathers his courage. It is his mock-heroic trial of strength. He is conscious about his incapability, weakness, failures, inferiority and timidity. He is neither Lazarus nor Hamlet. Prufrock has no heroic qualities. He is ‘Politic, cautious and meticulous’. But suddenly he is arrested by his thought of old age he says,
‘I grow old …….. I grow old …… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’
Notice the ironic juxtaposition of the serious and the trivial.Prufrock falls back into trivial speculations whether he shall eat a peach or part his hair behind.
Notice the comic-ironic effect of the scene. He says that he will be under the sea of senses till the spirit within himself lifts him up. He escapes into the world of fantasy into a world of unreal love with mermaids. There is his symbolic ‘drowning’ with the sea-girls ‘till human voices wake’.
This is what he can ever achieve. The poem registers modern man’s frustrations anguish and despair. It satirises ‘love’ as well as the present social set up.
Eliot uses a method of dramatic opposition. Prufrock is opposed to Michelangelo St. John, Lazarus, Hamlet in order to contrast the great values of the past with those represented by Prufrock.
The poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was published in 1917.
The famous critic, F. R. Leavis said, “The poem represents a complete break with 19th century tradition and a new start”.
The title is strangely ironical. The love song has romantic echoes but Prufrock suggests absurd name. The poem is a dramatic monologue. The ‘you’ and the ‘I’ are the objective and subjective selves of Prufrock. The poem depicts his psychological turmoil, his confused mind. Eliot gave the form a modern touch. The dilemma of Prufrock becomes the dilemma of the modern man. The pre-maturely old Prufrock is culture- conscious and fashionable but tired and disillusioned. He is troubled by his own confused desires.
The poem, ‘The Love Song….’ is a mock –love poem. It makes fun of the conventions of the romantic love. Prufrock is a hero without having heroic qualities. In fact, he is an antihero. His inability to love and sing in a brash urban society is reflected throughout the poem. And yet he shows his mock-heroic behaviour through wearing “collar mounting firmly to the chin”, “neck-tie rich and modest”. However, he is incapable of love, physically and spiritually. He is aware of his ordinariness. He is bald-headed and wears the trousers with rolled bottoms. Prufrock is opposed to Michelangelo, St. John, Lazarus and Hamlet. He is conscious about his inability, weakness, failures, inferiority and timidity. For him, love is a violent tempest in the self that ends in a state of deprivation.
Escape from reality is also the idea reflected in the poem. It opens with the reference that Prufrock is going towards the room where the women are talking about the art of Michelangelo. He reaches there in imagination and comes away without proposing the woman he loves. His journey is not actually taking place. It is being enacted in his imagination. At the end, he escapes into fantasy. He prefers to live into a world of unreal love with mermaids- the ‘otherworldly creatures’. Finally, there is symbolic ‘drowning’ with sea-girls. It suggests his surrender to the ‘otherworldly forces’
The poem is rich in the use of imagery. According to Eliot, imagery is an integral part of poetry. He thought the poetry cannot be expressed without imagery. Eliot’s images are ‘images of awareness’. Image is an ‘outer’ form of an ‘inner’ reality. ‘The poem, ‘The LoveSong …..’ presents before us a sequence of images which creates a single impression. The epigraph describes the speaker’s visit to the Hell. The image of hell suggests the hell-like life of a modern man. The poem opens with the images of ‘you’ and ‘I’. The mysterious identity of the ‘you’ refers to the speaker’s own personality. Eliot uses startling similes to describe the urban atmosphere.
‘The evening ….. like a patient etherized upon a table’
‘Streets ….. like a tedious argument….’
Through the imagery, Eliot suggests the gloominess of modern life of metropolis. The images of the ‘half-deserted streets’, ‘one –night cheap hotels’, ‘saw-dust restaurants’ point out the urban atmosphere. Eliot satirises a typical 19th-century mentality:
‘In the room women come and go Talking of Michelangelo’
The references of ‘yellow for’ and ‘yellow smoke’ refer to the weak, diseased city life. The images of ‘descending stair’, ‘bald, spot on the head’, ‘hair growing thin’ etc expose Prufrock’s weakness and inability to express love. The ‘morning coat’, ‘collar’ and ‘necktie’ suggest his fashionable appearance. The frequent reference of ‘morning’, ‘evening’ and ‘afternoon’ indicate the dull routine life.
Eliot uses a every funny analogy. He says that Prufrock measures out his life with ‘coffee spoon’. Eliot uses the ‘prosaic’ images as against to the ‘poetic’ images in romantic poetry. This indicates Eliot’s ‘anti-romantic’ attitude. The ‘music’, ‘The voices dying with a dying fall’ refer to the party–culture in city life. Repetition of ‘dying’ may refer to the pessimistic attitude of urban people.
In the next stanza, there is the reference of ‘eyes’ which indicate the ‘vision’ the spiritual vision. The metaphor, ‘And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin’ is very startling. The repeated reference of ‘pin’ suggests ‘fixity’. The image of ‘built ends of my days’ refers to Prufrock’s sufferings, his indecisiveness.
Then there is reference of ‘arms’. The beauty and the tenderness of the female arms are suggested by ‘Arms that are braceleted and white and bare’. This shows Prufrock’s thirst for female companion.
The image of ‘ragged claws’ suggests animal-like instincts in Prufrock which are suppressed. The ‘sea’ image indicated mystery in life. The images like ‘Tea’, ‘cakes’, ‘ices’, refer to the party scene. ‘Prophet’ and ‘eternal Footman’ refer to Profrock’s vision of future. The images like ‘The sunsets’, ‘ the dooryards’, ‘sprinkled streets’, ‘novels’, ‘tea-cups’ and ‘the skirts’ again show the party scene. The image of ‘pillow’ and the ‘shawl’ suggest the presence of female members.
The reference of ‘Hamlet’ is contrasted with Prufrock. Prufrock is an anti-heroic figure. The image of ‘Fool’ shows wisdom in Hamlet’s madness. Prufrock is ‘politic’, ‘cautious’ and ‘meticulous’, but suffers from indecision. He plucks up the courage but suddenly arrested by the thought of ‘old age’. The ‘bottoms of my trousers rolled’ indicates his physical decadence.
Finally Prufrock escapes into a world of unreal love with mermaids Prufrock has realizations of the spiritual. But the spiritual can enter into only temporarily, ‘Till human voices wake us and we drown’. The image of ‘mermaids’ and Prufrock symbolic ‘drawing’ with the ‘sea-girls’ suggest his thirst for the ‘other-world’. The image of sea-creatures symbolise total freedom and vitality. Like Prufrock, modern man lives in the world divested of mythical connection between the seen and the unseen.
Regarding the rhythmic uniformity, Williamson remarks, “The singing lyric has not proved to be Eliot’s strength; the freer forms have given him more haunting expression”. Eliot seems to avoid rhythmic uniformity. The stanza – like units of the poem, ‘The Love Song….’ are varied from unit to unit. Some are short and others are long.
The poem consists of irregular refrain. We find the lines in the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo repeated twice. But the refrain discontinued in the latter part of the poem. In the last part the lines. ‘I grow old….. I grow old/ I shall wear the bottoms of trousers rolled’ look like a ‘refrain but they are not repeated. But we find the close ‘formal’ and ‘rhythmic’ link between these two refrain-like units.
The lyrical quality in the concluding lines are relevant. In the couplet ‘old rhymes with ‘rolled’. The words ‘peach’, ‘beach’, and ‘each’ rhyme with each other. The next tercet with its submarine imagery relaxes the mood. Here, the rhyme pattern again varies. The last two lines rhyme with each other. Though the rhyme pattern is irregular, yet, a lyrical tone is created.
There is a remarkable lyric piece which has a special soft melody :
“And the afternoon, the evening Sleeps so peacefully/smoothed
By long fingers/Asleep….tired….or it malingers”
Eliot also employs the device of repetition of words to create music. In ‘The Love Song….’, the word ‘time’ occurs eleven times in just twenty-six lines. The expression ‘Do I dare occurs thrice. The words ‘have known them’ are repeated thrice in two consecutive lines. The perturbing question ‘how should I presume?’ occurs thrice. The expression “That is not what I meant at all” is repeated twice. And the line ‘And would it have been worth it, after all’ repeated twice.
Combination and repetition of certain sounds is another feature of the rhythm. Look at the repetition of the ‘o’ sound in the following lines and its combination with ‘m’ ‘n’ and ‘L’ sounds.
In the room, women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.
Note the combination of sounds in the word ‘Michelangelo’ which is musical in itself. This repetition and combination echoes in the following lines:
“I grow old…. I grow old….
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”.
You will find many such combinations in the poem. Find them out and enjoy them.
Though Eliot uses free-verse in ‘The Love Song…..’, yet, the conventional iambic pentameter can be traced behind it. The musical effect is created in free verse by the use of prose rhythm.