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The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock -- T S Eliot

I've been meaning to run this poem for a long time now, but I was put off by its
length. No matter; I'm sending it anyway - you can (and should) take your time
reading it.
(Poem #193) 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 perciocche 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.

   The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

   And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

   In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

   And indeed there will be time
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---
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin---
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

   For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

   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?

   And I have known the arms already, known them all---
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

   Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?...

   I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

   And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep...tired...or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon
      a platter,
I am no prophet --- and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

   And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
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 toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say, "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

   And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor
And this, and so much more?
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

   No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or to
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous---
Almost, at times, the Fool.

   I grow old...I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

   Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

   I do not think they will sing to me.

   I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

   We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Til human voices wake us, and we drown.
-- T S Eliot
Certainly one of the most important poems of the twentieth century - Prufrock
rewards multiple readings and patient study. I certainly can't even begin to
analyse all that makes this poem great; I think that's a task best left to you,
gentle readers.

Without further ado,


... At first reading this great poem may strike one as a mixture of evocative
but disjoint fragments. The difficulty in sorting out the central point of the
poem lies in Eliot's use of what Hugh Kenner in The Invisible Poet calls 'a
central consciousness' rather than a recognisable, individualised speaker...
... Eliot makes a number of breaks with the tradition ef the dramatic monologue
as used by Browning, but at the same time draws on some of its familiar devices.
Prufrock is being presented as a mentally enervated, middle-aged, frustrated man
thinking about his present life and the current state of the world, and carving
his thoughts into the form of a love song.... he comes across more as an
atmosphere, a consciousness, than as a character or a personality. He seeems in
a way to be a group of thoughts connected in mood and rhythm though not by
narrative thread or an underlying personality...
    -- George MacBeth

[More Discussion]

For Eliot, form is the largest difficulty facing the modern poet, who must find
"a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the
immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history" (Eliot,
"Ulysses, Order and Myth"). This sense that the modern world defies traditional
structure and that the poet must somehow find a way of creating order amid chaos
is a driving force in Eliot's work, and each poem can be seen as offering a
distinct solution to the problem of form.

Structurally, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a dramatic monologue
loosely bound together with a rambling psychological coherence. Its central
persona is paralyzed by indecision and extreme self-consciousness which makes
him hesitant to "dare/ Disturb the universe" (presumably by instigating
conversation and/or a relationship with a woman), consoling himself with the
thought that "[t]here will be time, there will be time." While "Prufrock" is
widely recognized as the most brilliant of Eliot's early poems -- J. C. C. Mays
claims that it "dominates the 1917 volume in which it appears" (Mays, 111) -- it
is also one of the most approachable of his poems since structurally it takes
fewer risks than his later poems. As an internal dramatic monologue it is part
of a long-standing tradition, and although it modifies the tradition by
incorporating a more disjunctive narrative structure and a heavy reliance on
allusion, which highlights the ironic contrast between past glories and modern
inadequacy, it still remains squarely within that tradition. The poem's value
doesn't lie in its structural innovation so much as in the fact that its themes
-- the disintegration of the modern world, "the tone of effort and futility of
effort which is central in Eliot's writing" (111), the failure to act, to
"disturb the universe," as Prufrock puts it -- were to preoccupy Eliot
throughout his career.

    -- from the Web,

[Minstrels Links]

An Eliot bio can be had at poem #107
For the canonical example of the dramatic monologue, read Browning's 'My Last
Duchess', Minstrels poem #104.

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