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The Unreachable Prufrock

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“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is at once a comic poem as well as a trenchant satire on the low aspects of urban life. Its speaker, a man going bald and self-conscious about his every gesture, represents a sexual as well as spiritual sterility that, by the end, the audience realizes is impossible to overcome. The poem proceeds not in a logical fashion, but in a stream of consciousness, where ideas are only loosely connected and there seems to be no beginning or end. This lack of direction and lack of a coherent time sequence continues until the line “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”, in which the tone of the speaker becomes more assertive but nevertheless does not provide a sense of finality. Even the metaphors in the poem compare vaguely related things, and forces images into each other to create an overall sense of disjunction and chaos. T.S. Eliot’s judicious use of slant and internal rhymes further convince the audience that the character of J. Alfred Prufrock, a character with but “a name and a voice” (Bergonzi 17), is immutably unreachable, despite his carefully groomed exterior.

From the very beginning, the audience is reminded that there is no way out of the world they are in Prufrock’s world despite attempts to reach beyond this social bubble. The epigraph is a quotation from Dante’s Inferno XXVII, the words spoken by Guido da Montefeltro, “If I thought my answer were to one who ever could return to the world, this flame should shake no more; but since none ever did return alive I answer thee” (Bergonzi 15). The indelible first line then follows this ominous warning: “Let us go then, you and I” (Eliot 276). This powerful yet apprehended invitation reflects the passages in which Virgil gently urges Dante on their journey through the Inferno and Purgatorio (Bergonzi 15). By emphasizing that the audience has now entered a point of no return, Eliot persuades us of the immutability of Prufrock’s situation.

The next two lines of the poem epitomize the style of figurative language employed in the poem, “When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table” (Eliot 276). The first line creates an aura of brooding brutality, which is confirmed in the following line by the transfixing image of a corpse on a dissection table. The combination of “lyricism and brutality, of soft words and harsh ideas,” is exemplified in these lines and will become a dominant element in the rest of the poem (Raffel 26).

In this same simile, Eliot employs the concept of “indeterminacy”. This type of rhetoric appears vague because it assumes that readers will understand all the allusions, and that they will be able to construct an entire idea out of a few words or one phrase (Raffel 29). The simile in lines 2-3 makes a comparison between two vastly unrelated figures, the sky and a patient. This loose connection ties in with the intense triviality of Prufrock’s own well-bred existence. Prufrock is not really living his life actively; rather, he contemplates on situations where he could have acted or thought a certain way. His discursive narrative serves to emphasize his incapability for warmth and emotional attachment. The greatest indeterminacy in this poem is in the underlying “‘overwhelming question’, which is never expressly formulated” (Raffel 31). It is safe to assume from the context that the “overwhelming question” which Prufrock cannot formulate is, “What is the meaning of this life?” (Raffel 31) He realizes that life consists of more than simply toast, tea, and cuffed trousers; however he will never be able to pose that question explicitly. Although the speaker never gives a defined outline of his thoughts the ideas are mostly jumbled and topsy-turvy through the context, readers are able to formulate this encompassing question without too much difficulty. Indeterminacy is a key element to understanding the purpose of Prufrock’s train of thought, and the significance of his metaphors to the poem as a whole.

Along with indeterminacy is the idea of parts representing a whole. Eliot never gives us tangible visual images, but rather forces us to make the most unlikely comparisons, for example comparing the sky to a stretched out patient, or associating “the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes” with a cat (Eliot 276). He also never presents the woman whom Prufrock dreams of encountering, “except in fragments and in plurals eyes, arms, skirts synecdoches we might well imagine as fetishistic replacements” (Christ). The poet presents a somewhat concrete image of Prufrock himself, “My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin “, only to proceed to deconstruct it “by the watching eyes of another into thin arms and legs, a balding head brought in upon a platter… The poem, in these various ways, decomposes the body, making ambiguous its sexual identification” (Christ). The following passage demonstrates Eliot’s tendency to use the French style of using the definite article with parts of the body, removing the sense of any personal identity:

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?

(Eliot 277)

The fragmentation of the body also illustrates the horror of sex and its power to dissect. Eliot sees sex as “the tyranny of one part of the body over the whole” (North). Prufrock’s sexual desires end up pulling his body apart. Eliot’s mentioning of scattered members evokes a horrifying image of the “violence of sex [that] robs the individual of the integrity necessary to action” (North). However, there also arises an element of pity to Prufrock’s sexual sterility. Although he is capable of expressing desire, he is insufficiently sexual to do anything about it. He is able to contemplate and appreciate the sensuality of “Arms that are braceleted and white and bare” and the “skirts that trail along the floor”, but he will not be capable to consume his fantasies (Raffel 24). Eliot’s language also concisely presents an element of shock. The seemingly lyrical lines, “There will be time, there will be time” leads to the ominous statement, “There will be time to murder and create.” (Eliot 276). This contrast is also present in the transition from the serious “hundred indecisions…hundred visions and revisions” to the mocking tone of, “before the taking of a toast and tea” (Raffel 26). Prufrock’s dreamy and exotic observation of “mermaids singing” is darkened by the hopelessness of his following statement, “I do not think they will sing to me” (Eliot 278). He is very much a hopeless romantic, and this poem is passionately ironic. The title itself is a prime example of this irony. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is constructed like one of Eliot’s metaphors, the sweetness and delicacy of a Love Song undercut by the bizarre and uptight name of Prufrock. “In the full title of the poem the conventional expectations of ‘Love Song’ are instantly and sharply counteracted by the absurd proper name that follows” (Bergonzi 14).

Moreover, the varied usage of rhyme and meter serve to emphasize ironic aspects of the poem. For example, the regular (but imperfect) iambic pentameter in the lines. “In the room where the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo”, as well as its blatant end rhyme, mark it as an undercutting or mocking feature. This tone passage is also ironic because it derides the very objects that Prufrock is finding to seduce: women. Overall, the use of rhyme is scattered, just as the length of stanzas and lines are varied. The rhyme in /I, sky/ in lines 1 and 2, as well as /argument, intent/ in lines 8 and 9 present an off-key sound, that reflects the discursiveness of the monologue. The persistent over-rhyme in /dare, stair, hair/ in the following passage evokes a kind of insistence that quickens the pace of the poem and adds suspense:

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

(Eliot 276277)

Eliot uses this method to build suspense and to heighten the shock effect when it comes. The stanza beginning with the line “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes” is an example of this kind of “soft” passage, which leads to the next, more substantial and vehemently worded stanza beginning with a similar line (Raffel 28). The structure of the stanzas, the rhyme and meter all contribute to enhance the idiosyncrasies of Prufrock’s speech, which makes us pity and scorn him. The last lines of the poem have the power to almost transcend the worldly society Prufrock is permanently a part of: We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown

(Eliot 279)

The possibility of both “drowning and waking offers an eventual possibility of escaping…from one of the most intense, yet controlled, immersions in extreme experience in modern literature” (Bergonzi 18). Because of the hopelessness described previously, the possibility of flight becomes all the more tempting. However, this will never happen, because the dire predicament set by the epigram at the very beginning of the poem is inescapable. Eliot’s poem presents indirectly through the use of metonymies, metaphors, rhyme and meter, a character and situation that are as volatile as the speaker’s will to change his life. By reducing himself to “an attendant lord” (“not Prince Hamlet”), Prufrock agrees to play the secondary character, and not take charge (Eliot 178). His whole discourse lacks strength, and even when he firmly quotes Lazarus: ” ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’ “, he weakens his statement with the apologetic ” ‘That is not what I meant to say at all. / That is not it, at all’ ” (Eliot 278). The elusive metaphors depict a strong motif: Prufrock’s character and situation. Furthermore, they confirm his incapability to transcend a life of triviality and immutability.

Bibliography

Bergonzi, Bernard. Master of World Literature: T.S. Eliot. Ed. Louis Kronenberger. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972. 14 19.

Christ, Carol. “On ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ “. Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/prufrock.htm (2 April 2004)

North, Michael. “On ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ “. Modern American Poetry. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/prufrock.htm (2 April 2004)

Raffel, Burton. T.S. Eliot. New York: Fredrick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1982. 24 31.

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