who someday might return to see the world,
most certainly this flame would cease to flicker;
but since no one, if I have heard the truth,
ever returns alive from this deep pit,
with no fear of dishonor I answer you:”
Dante’s Inferno: Canto 27 1
At this point in Dante’s journey to hell, he and his companion Virgil, have made their way to the eighth pit, filled with the flickering souls of famous deceivers. After a brief chat with Ulysses, a flame flickers nearby having recognized Virgil’s Lombard accent and asks after the civil unrest in his home of Romagna. Dante jumps in, after a nod from Virgil, and tells this flickering flame that his Romagna “Is not now and never was without war in her tyrants’ heart…” and then begs the flame to reveal his identity. The above quote, is the answer to this question, and the epigraph to Eliot’s poem: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock".
And so our poem begins in the depths of hell, where the inhabitants are forced to remain indefinitely, their inability to proceed is ultimately what coaxes Guido da Montefeltro to reveal his identity and his narrative of the journey that led him there. There is the opening theme of going nowhere, of being stuck; while simultaneously asking for information from an infamous deceiver. The characters are mired in the tension of being trapped, both physically and psychologically being unable to proceed without the stability of truth to tether them to the real world.
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
Within the opening lines of the first stanza, Eliot begins his exercise in confounding the readers expectations. The first line seems to suggest a pleasant walk with a friend or lover, as the evening turns to dusk and is “spread out against the sky”, but the simile that follows is shocking and unexpected. An etherized patient spread out on a table…conjures up all the fear and anxiety of medical procedures, of being alive and yet unconscious while at the mercy of the masked “others” hovering above your prone and lifeless body.
Eliot is creating a juxtaposition between the romantic and the modern; the beautiful and yet sublime juxtaposed with the terror of isolation. In fact the opening line is the high point of the stanza…the perambulators are in for an evening of “half deserted streets”, “muttering retreats”, the detritus of low class dining and tedious arguments. We find ourselves in a different kind of hell than Guido da Montefeltro, the hidden recesses of the modern city.
(Side note about oysters: “In 1909 [about when this poem was written], oysters cost half as much as beef per pound. Oysters were used to add bulk to more expensive dishes such as meat pies.” 3 Ostensibly oysters were the food of the working class, cheap, inexpensive and full of protein.)
By the end of the first stanza the narrative voice has urged the journey to continue with the repeated refrain of “let us go…” and yet, as the first stanza comes to a close, women are overheard talking of Michelangelo and a cat-like fog of inaction creeps over the authorial voice. It pauses to “lick” and “linger” and then “Curled once about the house and fell asleep.”
This will not be a poem about actual “going.” While initially the obstacles are presented from the surrounding physical world, by gradation they reveal the inner turmoil of our angst-ridden protagonist, caught in a net of indecision, hemmed in by his own self-loathing.
The next stanza begins with a change of pace, contrasted to the “let us go” now we have time to spare and ponder. Over the next twenty lines (23-49) we see this refrain repeated seven times: “And indeed there will be time”…
The action of the poem seems to come to a halt at the end of the first stanza, when the narrating voice is revved up to go out “Let us go and make our visit” when he happens to hear women chatting about Michelangelo….and this eavesdropping halts the momentum and throws our hero into an existential crisis.
(Side note: The women seem to be intellectuals, trapped “coming and going” but always talking of Michelangelo…while to Prufrock these women represent high culture, they also allude to Dante’s Inferno, where intellectuals and important people were trapped for ever, muttering to themselves in their little flickering fires. So our narrator is misreading the situation and, like Guido da Montefeltro, is suspiciously unreliable.)
Now, twenty lines later, caught in the indecision of moving forward, these same women resurface. Still talking of Michelangelo…and the crisis culminates in a four line rhyme scheme that encapsulates the anxiety of the speaker:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare? and ‘Do I dare?”
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.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is written in free verse, with unpredictable meter and rhyme schemes, the lines that rhyme stand out and make a statement. Here the two line rhyme scheme, dare and hair, begins the descent into madness, followed by the four line rhyme scheme of: thin, chin, pin, thin. One can almost see the narrator surrounded by bottles of his own urine, a sombre unshaven Howard Hughes type, muttering “the way of the future” on repeat for the rest of his life.
The tempo has slowed yet again. What was a declamatory statement of: “And indeed there will be time” has now slowed to “In a minute there is time”…but first, the hopelessness of never being quite cultured enough to riff off a conversation about Michelangelo has thrown our hero into a quagmire of self-loathing, which we incrementally get to.
Line 49 begins with a hint at the futility of stepping out: “For I have known them all already, known them all…” what is presented as a type of wisdom, slowly by description discredits itself. His knowledge is based on basic survival and coffee drinking. He has measured out his life in coffee spoons…he doesn’t need to venture into the next room, he knows what’s there already and plus…how should he presume?
Eliot was famously the most read author/poet of the twenty-first century and is constantly hiding references to other works. There seems to be a reference in line 30 to Hesiod: “And time for all the works and days of hands” In Works and Days Hesiod writes a didactic poem to his younger brother about the necessity of hard work. Hesiod’s little brother has stolen his inheritance and now has the audacity to come back asking for more money to bail him out of whatever scrape he finds himself embroiled in. What a contrast to Prufrock, who seems to lack the volition to even find himself in the midst of an indiscretion.
The stanzas have tightened up now, and are shorter and three times in succession end with “How should I presume?” By lines 55-61 we have arrived at the middle of this three stanza apex of Prufrock’s self loathing:
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?
This stanza reminds us of the opening lines of the etherized evening, spread out upon the table. Now in contrast, he is the object of study, but there’s a cruelty implicit in the language, he's “wriggling” and awake…unlike the evening, Prufrock is cognizant of his “physicians” judgment and displeasure, pinned and wriggling beneath the formulated phrase.
This three stanza commemoration to self loathing ends with a digression about women and the futility of beginning, or maybe the enormity of deciding where to begin? Figuratively he has divided each of the three stanzas into a specific body part that he has come to “know”: voices, eyes and arms. All of which have eluded him, he has known them but still remains unloved. The body part that is missing is the heart.
The last “body part” stanza seems the most evocative of having pleasure just outside your grasp: he has known all the arms, white and bare, all the perfumed dresses and it has still led him here, to this place. This reminds me of the greek hero Tantalus, damned to Tartarus, forced to spend eternity standing in a pool of water with luscious fruit hanging just above his head, perpetually out of reach; the water, cool and refreshing, always receding before he can take a drink.
At the end of the “arms” stanza we have a two question crescendo:
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
We’ve come full circle, to the moment before the poem opens, and now our protagonist is unsure of how to start. Where did he go wrong? He takes us back to dusk, back to the narrow streets of the beginning, back to the textual labyrinth, where Prufrock (Guido) searches for the right path, the right winding street that will lead him out of this hell.
The poem’s stanzas shorten as if in a stutter of doubt, ending with a two line culmination of more animal equated self loathing:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
There’s a pause. A structural ellipsis between these lines and the next. Almost as if Prufrock, has gotten lost for a while in this crustacean daydream of silence and an impenetrable shell of self preservation. But, he’s back now, and so, for the first time since the opening lines are we/ “you”…(“you” was mentioned in the semi-ecclesiastical stanza: “Time for you and time for me”…but it seems like at that point Prufrock was somewhere else, “we” may have been holding hands on this imaginary walk…but Prufrock was miles away.)
But now his reverie is over, and we realize this whole time he has been lying next to “you”!
And in 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.
And it is here for the first time the reader is confronted with the total depth of cowardice that has consumed Prufrock. He hasn’t been alone and lost for this entire poem, “you” has been silently tethering him to humanity, to the potential of offered love…and yet, while coming up with his fictitious day plan, he remembers all those intellectuals that haunt him, all those women that have assessed him and found him wanting, whispering disapprovingly about his thinning hair.
The last section of the poem is devoted to ‘misunderstanding', with the refrain being: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.” Our triplicate metaphors are this time: John the Baptist, Lazarus and Hamlet, all of which share their significant deaths in common, while Prufrock recognizes his own insignificance. They also share the ability to see; a type of prophetic vision, and yet all are equally disbelieved, a fate Prufrock assumes will inevitably be his as well.
The reference to Lazarus, coming back from the dead, to “tell you all” alludes to the story Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 of the rich man and the poor man.
“In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”
[Luke 16: 25-26 NIV]
Abraham refuses to send comfort, and when the rich man begs that Lazarus be sent back to his brothers to tell them of the reality of the life after death, again Abraham refuses the request.
He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
[Luke 16:31 NIV]
And once again we find ourselves at the beginning with Dante and Guido. Dante has asked Guido to “tell him all” and Guido agrees only because he assumes he will never leave the confines of the underworld. For Prufrock, he’s the living amongst the dead, met with the everyday futility of speaking truth to a world that is too saturated with the consumption of life to care. It’s impossible to say what he means…and he wonders if it’s even worth while to try…
He’s equated himself with prophets and visionaries, but like Hamlet is fated for disbelief and madness. And as the poem stutters to its conclusion, he grows old and begins to ruminate on his pants, and peaches and mermaids, but even the fantasy of the phantasmagoric isn’t a safe place. The waves are white capped with age, even the waves are exhausted by the monotony of the tides and the mermaids refuse to sing to our hero, and he is once again left eavesdropping on conversations swirling around him.
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.
The thing that is shocking and also terrifying about this ending, is that somehow we went from taking a stroll through a foggy October afternoon with a chronically depressed, independently wealthy tea drinker…to the chambers of the sea, where potentially we’ve been the whole time! And then we drown! The end! We’ve been tricked into watching his life slip away, one minor inaction followed by another, while his self-loathing transforms itself into a consuming fear of rejection. Like Dante we have been waiting for the answer to a question, a question that refuses to be asked and then is fated to never be answered, and while we wait we realize it is too late. Unlike Dante, who has another circle of hell to tour, we end our journey here, with the sea-girls and mermaids and now the reference to “scuttling claws” making their way across the silent sea…has a different connotation. What we took for self loathing, is maybe closer to envy. The proprietor of the “claws” has volition, something forever eluding our hero, just outside his grasp like hanging fruit or one drop of refreshing liquid to cool the burning tongue.
1. Musa, Mark, editor. Dante’s Inferno, The Indiana Critical Edition. Indiana University Press, 1995.
2. Eliot,T. S., “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The Waste Land and Other Poems, HBJ Publishers, 1930.