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 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 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 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.

Footnotes

  1. Eliot alludes to John the Baptist, a Biblical proponent of chastity who was supposedly beheaded at the request of King Herod’s wife, who displayed his head on a platter. Notice how Prufrock continues to denigrate himself by unfavorably comparing his own bald head to that of John the Baptist, stating that he is no such heroic figure, and his situation “no great matter.”

    — Jules, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Eliot references “Works and Days” by the Greek poet Hesiod. In this didactic poem written in the 8th-century BCE, a farmer instructs his brother in how to live his life, urging him to work as hard as he himself does. Prufrock imagines other hands working harder than his own, leaving him time for a “hundred indecisions” and “visions and revisions” before he must ask the “overwhelming question.”

    — Jules, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Eliot uses the ancient Egyptian religious symbol of the scarab beetle, which rolls its excrement into a ball and was said to roll the sun across the sky, to create an intricate image compounded of the vulgar and the divine--a combination which precisely describes Prufrock's view of his situation.

    — Jules, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. Lazarus of Bethany, aka Saint Lazarus, was purportedly raised from the dead by Jesus, who was a great friend of his. In the context of the poem, this allusion suggests that Prufrock either thinks or once thought of himself as a dead man, but that his love interest changes that. This unfortunately doesn't help with his social anxiety.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  5. This is one of the most famous lines from the poem. It picks up on the previous water imagery ("silent seas," "pools") and adds a fantastical element. The mermaids of the poem are foils for the woman at tea, whom Prufrock disdains because he thinks he knows them already. He prefers women with a sense of mystery, he implies, but he doesn't think he can actually attract one.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  6. Eliot uses personification here to make the yellow fog into a cat-like figure that rubs up against the window panes and lingers in the shadows. This results in a familiar, comforting image that stands in stark contrast to the reality of the fog, which is that it's likely very polluted.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  7. This epigraph is taken from Dante's Inferno (XXVII, 61–66)) and may be translated as:

    "If I but thought that my response were made to one perhaps returning to the world, this tongue of flame would cease to flicker. But since, up from these depths, no one has yet returned alive, if what I hear is true, I answer without fear of being shamed."

    Since the traveler through Hell believes that no one will ever report his story, he feels free to tell it without shame. Similarly, Prufrock doesn't believe that anyone will care about his story, so he feels equally free to admit his embarrassments, awkwardness, and alienation.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  8. One of the most famous lines from the poem, "Do I dare to eat a peach?" is an example of Prufrock's inability to allow himself to feel pleasure or engage in a pleasant social activity. In the course of the poem, he makes himself sound as unattractive as possible, indicating that he has low self-esteem, in spite of his literary ability.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  9. he Fool here refers to the character as well as to the tarot card with that character on it. Eliot's fascination with tarot is displayed both here and in his masterpiece "The Waste Land" and is an attempt to access archetypal iconography with psychological underpinnings. In tarot, the Fool is a card with unlimited potential, but great naivete, and is prone to squandering his opportunities, much as Prufrock squanders his chances at real human connection.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  10. Prince Hamlet is the titular character of Shakespeare's famous play. In spite of his melancholy and his tendency toward dramatic monologue, Prufrock does not believe himself to be worthy of a starring role in life, instead relegating himself to a supporting, subservient role as an attendant lord.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  11. Death personified. A regular footman is a servant who generally admits and waits on guests--the suggestion being that if Death is holding your coat, then you've entered a place where either you're not likely to come out or are on Death's doorstep.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  12. This idea of being pinned to a wall recalls the imagery of crucifixion, in which Christ was nailed (or "pinned") to a cross. It's also reminiscent of butterfly and bug collections, where specimens are "pinned" to display boards. As a whole, this phrase is meant to suggest social anxiety and discomfort, which Prufrock feels whenever he's made to account for himself (his "days and ways").

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  13. Though Prufrock's assumes that other people will belittle him and speak with disdain of his bald spot and his clothes, these lines suggest that he actually has a grandiose opinion of himself, likely stemming from his intelligence and his belief in his intellectual superiority.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  14. One of the poem's central themes is social anxiety and how it affects Prufrock's ability to interact with those around him. This line, like the others in the tea scene, is indicative of the discomfort Prufrock feels in social situations and his belief that he needs to put on a "face" or mask in order to fit in or hide his true self from those around him. This also fits into the theme of otherness presented throughout the poem.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  15. Michelangelo was a famous Renaissance painter and sculptor whose most famous works include the "Statue of David" and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That these women are discussing Michelangelo suggests that the poem's speaker has left the red-light district.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  16. Notice how Eliot uses repetition in the poem to emphasize Prufrock's intellect. He wanders through the poem much as he does the dirty streets of the red-light district, bringing in images and allusions that aren't organic to the setting but are organic to his experience of it.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  17. These are establishments that have thrown sawdust over the floor to soak up spilled beverages and liquids. They're inherently seedy or low-class restaurants and are associated with "cheap hotels" and their sundry clientele. This walk indicates that the poem's speaker is familiar with the red-light district, either because he lives nearby or because he frequents it for other reasons.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor
  18. These first two lines of the poem form a rhyming couplet. Though the rest of the poem makes heavy use of rhyme, there's no distinct rhyme scheme. Nor does Eliot write in any particular meter, instead varying his lines and his stanzas for enhanced musicality. Literary Devices

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor