The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Questions: Do you think this work actually is a love poem? Are there any life lessons that can be exacted from examining Prufrock’s life?
The poem has themes that revolve around self-doubt and a rather pessimistic view of the future. The poem itself is a lyrical representation of the life of a middle-class person who addresses the reader to relieve his experiences in the city. As the poem progresses, the lyrical description of the street becomes vivid and the mood of pessimism becomes more pronounced. The title itself is ironic, as the word ‘love song’ is somehow a misleading concept of love. The poem however, does not try to implicate a romanticized view of love but rather a realistic and ironic view of life. T.S. Eliot uses a style that puts life as it is. The representation of life in his writings are beautiful and suggestive but “the representation does no pretend to embrace the whole of life and what he says is memorable for its admitted incompleteness” (Moody, 109).
The poem starts with a reference to the reader “Let us go then, you and I” (Eliot 5) as the author intends to take the reader to an experiential journey over lyrical irony. Pessimism is the first theme that meets the reader head on, as Eliot utilizes a idyllic comparison of an evening sky to a “patient etherized upon a table” (Eliot, 5). The first two stanzas present a complete contrast of emotions for the reader, presenting a rather realistic or aesthetic metaphor for an evening sky. What Eliot refers to this passage is more of the feeling of being ‘etherized’ that he compares to the night. It is more of a feeling of deep content, but not entirely happiness or elation. The passage implies a brooding sense of melancholy, which is trascient in the further passages. Eliot then describes the city streets at that time of night: “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats, of restless nigh in one-night cheap hotels” (Eliot, 5). He invites the reader to move on, to rid of the fantasies portrayed by the usual evening sky as he tries to give a more hard and descriptive feature of the city, which is reality. The mention of ‘one-night cheap hotels’ and ‘half-deserted streets’ is a continuation of the pessimistic theme from the second line of the poem. The tone however, is portrayed as it is, as Eliot tries to convey a more realistic message rather than a dim view of society. This shares some reference over Dante Alghieri’s Inferno where the character travels to the many circles of hell. On the poem however, the character Prufrock’s hell is the city as referenced in the aforementioned passages.
Prufrock’s character is melancholic and self-pitying as found in the passages, as he tries to avoid contentment with ignorance. His detachment from the world is his only hope as the city’s description become more detailed and vivid as the poem progresses. In addition, there is a constant reference to a room where women ‘come and go, talking of Michangelo.’ This passage implies Prufrock’s further social alienation from society, as he tries to think of women but does not know how to think or act. Consequently, Prufrock’s character always tempts himself to go back and completely ignore his curiosity. “And indeed there will be a time, to wonder, Do I dare? And Do I dare? Time to turn back and descend the stair” (Eliot, 6). As the poem progresses, there are several allusions to the characters of Lazarus and Hamlet: “Too roll it tward some overwheliming question, to say: I am Lazarus, come from the dead, come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” (Eliot 8). Prufrock does not believe himself to be the tragic figure of Prince Hamlet from Shakespeare. He considers himself only as a secondary character, which further intensifies his personal debasement. Though he mentions the characteristics of Hamlet’s servant; meticulous, careful and politic, he still consider himself to be a “bit obtuse, at times indeed, almost ridiculous, almost at times, the Fool” (Eliot 9). This summarizes Prufrock’s pessimistic view of his life as he purposefully denies himself happiness, continually questioning his actions which alienates him more in the ‘city’ he lives in. The mention of the last lines in the poem: “We have lingered in the chambers of the seas, till human voices wake us and we drown” (Eliot 11). Prufrock forces us, the reader, to accompany him to his version of Hell, as a final allusion to the poet Dante. The human voices represent reminders of the social world and Prufrock hopes, when he hears such, damns himself to his watery Hell where he will be unable to repeat his story.
Prufock’s love song is probably a more detached and realistic perspective of love. The poem presents vivid descriptions of reality as it is and what Prufrock wants to imply to the readers is more of a greater appreciation of the various intricacies of the modern city. The modern city, filled with dark and gloomy images is an alternate representation of character or mood. The depressing state of the city contributes to Prufrock’s alienation to the community as he continues to live in a world he tries to form by himself, seeing that there is no joy in the ‘real’ world. There is also the mention of women in Prufrock’s life. The love song in the title, may be at first, interpreted as a song or ode to a beautiful woman. But contrary to the poem’s theme, the love is apparently not directed to a woman. Indeed, Prufrock states his frustration on women as he tries to intoxicate himself with the presence of a woman. But Prufrock, before doing anything else, contemplates immediately on rejection and wonders whether it would be worthwhile to act decisively. Though the theme of pessimism may seem tantamount in the last few passages, what Eliot wants for the reader to feel is not of pitying love or irritation for Prufrock but rather a clear and direct acceptance of what life is portrayed ‘as it is’.
Prufrock’s love song is probably aimed for himself, as he continues to wallow in his own problems, separating himself from the simple pleasures of life. He regards the city he lives in as a Hell and he is brave enough to undertake a journey by experiencing the city itself. Pessimism comes in the form of his own subjected view of his life, though without any previous references to what caused his negative view of life. But because of the deep messages brought about by realism, it encourages the reader to have a more positive outlook rather than being imposed of a depressing ideology. The theme of realism is used heavily that it encourages new avenues of thinking; to think of more scenarios or perspective for Prufrock – what could have happened if he lived his life differently, and such. In its altruistic sense, Prufrock tries to impress upon the reader reality as it is. That even if a reader had a positive or negative view of life, reality remains the same. Prufrock on one hand, chooses to view his own life filled with depression, neglect, and alienation. On the other hand, Eliot offers the reader redemption in the part of Prufrock’s case. He presents life how it is and a man subjected to a pessimistic view. Eliot offers an alternative view, way of thinking, and perspective. The life lessons learned from this poem is more of a striking emotional perspective – that whatever choice we make, there always follow certain consequences of our actions even when we choose to view life in a rather depressing way. But from the transgression of the poem, Eliot offers an alternative world-view by presenting the harsh realities of life as they are and we have the option of choosing our own perspective and making our own lives better. In addition, even if life may seem daunting at times, full of depression and hardship, our escape does not come from physical or emotional death but rather a choice-oriented future. As implied in the poem, Prufrock tries to end his life when he hears the worldly voices – a reminder of the society he lives in. He goes to hell with the intent of not repeating his story again. This implies that the author gives redemption for Prufrock, able to distance himself from his experiences in the real world, to be a better person, to associate himself more with people, and recognize the aesthetic importance of human life.
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Eliot, Thomas Stearn. Prufrock and Other Observations. [Charleston, S.C.]: BookSurge Classics, 2002.
Langbaum, Robert. The Mysteries of Identity: a Theme in Modern Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Moody, Anthony. The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.