Love Song of Alfred Prufrock Summary Written by T. S. Eliot

Love Song of Alfred Prufrock Summary Written by T. S. Eliot.

Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – ‘Prufrock,’ as it is more commonly known, is definitely one of the best of T.S.Eliot. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Summary has become so prevalent and as such, a must-read by poetry lovers.

There are several outstanding things you will love to know about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock which I assure you that you must get to know after reading this article. 

The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock Summary

Although initially hated, it has since gone one to be considered by scholars as to the onset of Modernist poetry, replacing the Romantic and the Georgian rhymes that had dominated Europe, and perhaps one of the most exclusive American methods of writing.

T.S. Eliot started writing ‘Prufrock’ in 1910. It was published in the 1915 issue of ‘Poetry: A Magazine of Verse,’ one of the leading monthly poetry journals in the English-speaking world, which was founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe and remains in circulation today.

The Original draft of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’

The original draft of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ had an interesting section that was cut out of the final version.

A 38-line section, titled ‘Prufrock’s Pervigilium’ (after the ‘Pervigilium Veneris’, a late Latin poem about the Roman goddess Venus), was originally meant to be part of the poem but was excised by Eliot before ‘Prufrock’ appeared in print.

You can read the lines Just Below

Prufrock’s Pervigilium

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And seen the smoke which rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirtsleeves, leaning out of windows.
And when the evening woke and stared into its blindness
I heard the children whimpering in corners
Where women took the air, standing in entries
Women, spilling out of corsets, stood in entries
Where the draughty gas-jet flickered
And the oil cloth curled up stairs.

And when the evening fought itself awake
And the world was peeling oranges and reading evening papers
And boys were smoking cigarettes, drifted helplessly together
In the fan of light spread out by the drugstore on the corner
Then I have gone at night through narrow streets,
Where evil houses leaning all together
Pointed a ribald finger at me in the darkness
Whispering all together, chuckled at me in the darkness.

And when the midnight turned and writhed in fever
I tossed the blankets back, to watch the darkness
Crawling among the papers on the table
It leapt to the floor and made a sudden hiss
And darted stealthily across the wall
Flattened itself upon the ceiling overhead
Stretched out its tentacles, prepared to leap

And when the dawn at length had realized itself
And turned with a sense of nausea, to see what it had stirred:
The eyes and feet of men –
I fumbled to the window to experience the world
And to hear my Madness singing, sitting on the kerbstone
[A blind old drunken man who sings and mutters,
With broken boot heels stained in many gutters]
And as he sang the world began to fall apart . . .

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

– I have seen the darkness creep along the wall
I have heard my Madness chatter before day
I have seen the world roll up into a ball
Then suddenly dissolve and fall away.

By T.S. Eliot.

‘Prufrock’s Pervigilium’ was not published until 1996, when Eliot’s early, previously unpublished poetry appeared, under the title Inventions of the March Hare: T.S. Eliot Poems, 1909-1917, after the name Eliot originally gave to the little notebook of poems he compiled in his early years.

Analyzing ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ can only take us so far towards a ‘firm’ interpretation of the poem: it is constantly slipping out of our grasp. This is partly why the poem signaled the arrival of such a strikingly new voice in Anglophone poetry.

But the original print run of 500 copies of Prufrock and Other Observations would take five years to sell out. Brian Eno once said that only 300 people bought the Velvet Underground’s first album, but everyone who bought it went out and formed a band.

T. S. Eliot’s influence may have centered at first on a small group of people, but they included Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and E. M. Forster, each of whom would help to champion Eliot as the most exciting new voice in English verse.

Let’s read the poems before we delve into its summary.

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 percioche 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 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.

By T.S.Eliot

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: Summary

It’s difficult to summarise what happens in Eliot’s poem, since it’s not a narrative poem and more a collage of thoughts, wishes, fears, meditations, and images – spoken to us by Prufrock himself – than it is a coherent speech, as we find in earlier dramatic monologues or in (where characters often mull over a situation, debating the various aspects of it with themselves, before deciding upon a course of action).

Instead, in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Eliot offers us a portrait of a middle-aged man, named J. Alfred Prufrock, who is attending social events (almost certainly in New England, such as in the Massachusetts area which Eliot knew well from his time studying at Harvard)

Probably in the hopes of finding a woman he can court and then marry.

Prufrock talks of an ‘overwhelming question’ but does not state what this is (he tells us, or his unseen companion, not to ask ‘What is it?’, so we’re left to ponder what this ‘question’ might be – perhaps ‘popping the question’, i.e. asking a woman to marry him).

He is indecisive, anxious, self-conscious (he worries that the women are muttering behind his back about his thinning hair) – perhaps a bit like the famously indecisive and delaying Prince Hamlet from Shakespeare’s play.

Except that Prufrock doesn’t consider himself important enough to be compared to Hamlet (‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet …’). He’s a bit-part actor or walk-on part … even in his own life.

He also dreams of escaping the suffocating social world he inhabits, of tea parties and pretentious chatter about art (‘Talking of Michelangelo’).

See the metaphors he uses to describe himself: he doesn’t just wish he’d been born someone else, but that he’d been born a completely different species, a crab or pair of ragged claws that roam the ocean bed.

At the end of the poem, this oceanic imagery returns, with Prufrock hearing the song of the mermaids but thinking that they would not sing to him, only to each other.

Even in his fantasies, he sees himself as inadequate, such is the crippling social anxiety of the early twentieth-century New England world (somewhat prudish and even puritanical in its attitudes).

He lingers in this ‘happy place’, the chambers of the sea until the human voices chattering around him in some drawing-room return him to the less pleasant reality of his life.

And he ‘drowns’ again in the social pressures of those tea parties and the knowledge that society expects him to follow convention, marry one of the women he seems to find so intimidating, and settle down.

Curiously, many biographers of T. S. Eliot, including Lyndall Gordon, have located the origins of this poem in Eliot’s own shyness around women as a student at Harvard.

But if the poem did have a personal root, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ transcends this and becomes a much more universal statement about not fitting in, and about feeling social pressures to behave in a way we find uncomfortable.

The Meaning of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

But what is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ about? It’s a dramatic monologue, but utterly unlike those written by Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the previous century.

Tennyson and Browning virtually invented this new form of poetry in the 1830s and 1840s, and their names were synonymous with it.

But Prufrock is a modern-day, urban speaker, who talks frankly about his failures: chiefly, his failure to ‘grasp the nettle’ or ‘seize the day’, his lack of sexual fulfillment, and his overall sense of failure.

We cannot always be sure that what he is confiding to us is actually being uttered: we may instead have a direct line to his thoughts, to the inside of his head.

This means that ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is far trickier to analyze than earlier examples of the dramatic monologue, given the way Prufrock’s thoughts dart about the place, without explaining his train of thought or why.

For instance, we have skipped from talking about something as small and seemingly inconsequential as cakes and ices to the momentous Biblical scene of the head of John the Baptist being brought in on a platter for Salome.

And this is before we even begin to analyze the significance of Prufrock comparing himself to John the Baptist…

Who is Prufrock? Middle-aged, perhaps around 40 (his head has ‘grown slightly bald’ and Eliot himself said he had this age roughly in mind), socially awkward, living in a world he considers stifling and unsatisfying, his own place in that world not clearly defined.

So, he is not a prophet like John the Baptist; nor is he Prince Hamlet, but ‘an attendant lord’ or ‘the Fool’ – in other words, a bit-part actor rather than the starring role, even in his own life.

He is perhaps slightly pretentious and affected, given the styling of his name in the title as J. Alfred Prufrock (rather than, for instance, John Prufrock or James Prufrock).

He has perhaps been tempted to approach prostitutes (see the reference to bare, braceleted arms in ‘the lamplight’, suggesting women he encounters in the street), but how much experience he’s ever had with women is doubtful.

Prufrock also seems reluctant to grasp the nettle and proposition any of the women he meets at the social functions he attends – those women who talk of Michelangelo, for instance. But we cannot advance much more than this with real confidence.

These gaps are deliberate on Eliot’s part. Many of the utterances in the poem remain enigmatic (why does Prufrock think he ‘should have been a pair of ragged claws’, for instance?), which is a key part of its effectiveness: we cannot ever arrive at a final analysis of the poem.

Like all great works of art, it remains open to new interpretations and can mean lots of different things to different readers.

Significance of Epigraph to ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’

For this reason, there are many aspects of the poem which resist easy analysis. What is the significance of the opening half-dozen lines, the epigraph, taken from Dante’s Inferno? The Italian original can be translated as follows:

If I but thought that my response was 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.

Note that Eliot doesn’t attribute or translate these lines from Dante’s poem himself: he is relying on his reader to identify them.

This is another key feature of much modernist poetry: literary allusion, often to very specific texts which only a highly educated reader would be able to recognize.

And even once we’ve translated them, that does not necessarily help us in interpreting their significance to Eliot’s poem.

Is Prufrock like Guido da Montefeltro, the thirteenth-century Italian military man who speaks the lines above, in Dante’s poem?

Guido is in Hell (the Inferno), addressing these lines to Dante himself and telling him that the only reason he feels comfortable in confessing his deepest, darkest sins to the poet is that he knows that nobody who is in Hell alongside him can go and tell everyone back in the land of the living about them.

So, with that in mind, we might surmise that Eliot wishes us to see Prufrock as somehow confessing something, as confiding something which he feels shame about (his difficulties with girls, perhaps).

Alternatively, we might place the emphasis on where Guido utters these lines, and suggest that, for Prufrock, modern-day society is a form of living hell.

Perhaps both interpretations are relevant here. Eliot doesn’t tell us, and it’s worth remembering that he himself said, in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, that:

‘what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning – or without forgetting, merely changing.’

The best way to go about analyzing the significance of such patterns of allusion is to see how much corroboration for them we find elsewhere in the poem: for instance, the idea of being in the afterlife (like Guido) and coming back from there is applicable to the lines about Lazarus coming back from the dead which we find later in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Lazarus was famously brought back from the dead by Jesus.

The initial reception to ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, by T.S. Eliot, can be summed up in a contemporary review published in The Times Literary Supplement, on the 21st of June 1917.

The anonymous reviewer wrote: “The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry.”

There appears to be a trend among the literary elite of bashing poetry that will later become to be renowned as innovative in its field or heralding change within the realm of poetry.

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