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Alexander Gonzalez on T. S. Eliot

Literary Criticism for "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
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Thomas Stearns Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock lives up to its name, as it expresses its protagonist’s indecision and troubled relations with the opposite sex.  Characteristic of Eliot, it does not let the reader determine this easily or early on, but rather leads the reader through a complicated and altogether engrossing verbal maze while revealing bits and pieces of his intent.  He begins with an epigram from Dante’s Inferno, which, roughly translated from the original Italian, means that the speaker (a condemned soul) speaks only because he does not believe his audience (Dante) will escape the pit (Lozano).

 

Prufrock, the narrator, approaches the women that fascinate him intellectually more than emotionally, which is strange, considering his bizarre sentence structure and certain other aspects of the piece.  Imagery is omnipresent, and typically takes the form of simile, such as in the first verse after the epigram: “Like a patient etherized upon a table.”  Very frequently, imagery is used to assign to an inanimate object or an abstract concept a range of motion foreign to it, such as in the following line: “[the yellow fog] Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap….”  This type of imagery blurs the distinction with personification, and lends a peculiar, animated quality to the entire piece.  It is as if the entire world is a thinking, living entity, which Prufrock observes wistfully, wishfully.

 

The indecision and cynical disgust which characterize Prufrock’s thoughts, and therefore most of the poem, emerge with the fourth verse after the epigram.  Here, he utters these lines: “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.”  Later in the poem, he expresses his own indecision with lines as obvious as “That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant at all.”  He has a very cynical view of his own inability to act with haste and drive, and the preponderance of deliberation and slowness in his being, and this cynicism drives the next several verses of the piece.  That Prufrock’s expression of his own disgust takes a deliberate, lengthy, and roundabout form only underscores the message his words attempt to articulate—that he resents himself for his inability to act with speed and energy.

 

 For all of this cynicism and unhappiness, and apparently against the usual incomprehensibility of modernist poetry, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock proceeds with a definite elegance and grace.  The variations in meter and rhyme between lines complement each other in ways that the regimented verse of other forms cannot match; this is evident in the following verse: “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?”  Many of the verses in Prufrock exhibit a characteristic common with Keats and other romantic, lyric writers, which is the use of a much shorter final line in each verse, which breaks up any metrical patterns found in earlier lines and forces the reader to note the anomalous line more than the conformist ones.  While no real pattern exists in Prufrock, the shorter final lines draw attention to themselves nonetheless.

 

The total effect of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is to describe, in marvelous detail, the complicated mental processes of a terminally shy and uncertain, well-educated and highly observant individual.  The cadences of this work of T. S. Eliot course musically, belying the distinctions between verses and allowing the entire disparate piece to flow with unexpected ease, especially when read aloud.  Rightly regarded as one of Eliot’s finest works, this piece should be a welcome read for anyone interested in poetry.

 

Works Cited

Lozano, Amy. The T. S. Eliot Prufrock Page. 07 2002. 03 Mar. 2005 <http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/5616/prufrock.html>.

 

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
 

S'io credessi che mia risposta fosse

a persona che mai tomasse al mundo,

questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma per cio che 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 etherised 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 care? ' 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,

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 towards 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 two,

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 that 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

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

 

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