"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (“Prufrock”) was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (“Poetry”). It was written by American-British poet T. S. Eliot (“Eliot”) (1888–1965). Eliot first started work on the poem in February, 1910. As the Overseas Editor of Poetry, Erza Pound (“Pound”) had instigated the whole business (n.a., n.d., “Bio,” 2014; and McCoy, 1992).
Prufrock has been studied by many, many talented scholars. In fact, what makes it such an outstanding piece of poetry is the fact that people can read so many meanings into it. For the purpose of this paper, I am employing the general definition of the character of Prufrock as follows: “Prufrock laments his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and lack of spiritual progress, and he is haunted by reminders of unattained carnal love with visceral feelings of weariness, regret, embarrassment, longing, emasculation, sexual frustration, a sense of decay, and an awareness of mortality.” (Bercovitch, 2003.)
I disagree. I believe the principle meaning—that is to say, the intention—of Prufrock is to paint a portrait of a man who is a voyeur.
Eliot used the “distinctly modernist style of Imagism” to construct his poem (n.a., n.d. “Imagery,” 2014). As such, I will slightly deconstruct his work down to a set of images, analyze their symbolic meanings, and support my theory from those patterns (n.a., n.d., “Imagery,” 2014).
The first stanza depicts an image of a man in the company of a woman that he does not want to be with. Broken down line for line, he actually means: Let’s go and get this over with; the night holds so many other possibilities; etherized we move like puppets; the streets are deserted because most people have better places to be; they sit in retreats filled with boring conversation; or copulating in cheap hotels; indulging in wanton lust; falling into boredom; regret for acting on the impulse; which makes you wonder; do not ask what I am really thinking and what I see in my mind when I think about these images; let’s go and visit your friends (Eliot, 1915).
The second stanza presents the repetitive stanza (or “chorus”) of Michelangelo. Some scholars have argued that Prufrock felt inferior and insecure to both Michelangelo and his sculpture of David (Tepper, 2004). I disagree. Given the fact that “the women come and go” (Eliot, 1915), Prufrock is thinking about the interaction of the women with the artist and his sculpture, not his own. The very act of their discussion is what interests him the most.
The third stanza paints a portrait of fog while discussing those things that are hazy. Although the fog and smoke are the color yellow, they define a gray area or what I believe to be possibility—the fog licking its tongue into the corners of the evening (Eliot, 1915), is highly sexual. It is almost as if he is imagining the scenes that the streets have seen. Again, Prufrock turns to the potential of the evening—until the reality of his location and his company is once again clear. Then, like the fog, his mind “curled once about the house, and fell asleep” (Eliot 1915)—from boredom.
His mind awakens again in stanza 4 and returns to “the yellow smoke that slides along the streets”. (Eliot, 1915.) Some argue that this is where Prufrock struggles with aging and death (Blum, 1957). I believe instead that he is conducting an internal conversation about moving closer to his world of visual fantasies. It is one that he can meet, murder, create, develop, mold and question, be indecisive about, imagine, and reimagine a hundred times (Eliot, 1915)—until he is once again interrupted by the women and Michelangelo.
In stanza 6 he returns to his internal conversation to ask himself “Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?” I believe at this point he becomes aware of the other people in the room. Instead of exposing himself as feeling insecure about his age and physical lacking, he is imagining how other people (the puppets) see him and the way that they chatter and gossip. He is speaking to their characters, not his own. “Do I dare disturb the universe?” (Eliot, 1915) is equivalent to his asking whether or not he should shatter their false sense of reality. He clearly decides not to do so and returns to his world of visual fantasies, which is followed through stanza 7 and alternates between the two worlds through stanza 10.
Short though it may be, he identifies his true nature in stanza 11 (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” Eliot, 1915) (Fleissner, 1988). He feels a low creature when he is exposed to reality, for in his visual world, he has no exposure. (Fleissner, 1988).
Stanzas 12 through15 portray the continued filtering of guilt (from reality) into his visual world. He speaks of being judged for his “wicked” thoughts and he defends himself and the closeting of his perversion. It is here that nearly line for line he battles between these two worlds as if he held good and evil in alternating left and right hands. Some have equated these words with regret and a sensation that he has wasted his life. I do not believe that this is the case. He sees this point in life as a turning point. It is an exit from reality and its responsibilities and an embrace of his visual world.
The ending stanzas 16-19 are the most beautifully written parts of Prufrock (in my opinion). I believe the portrait that he paints here is the most serene of his visual world. When he says to himself, “I grow old I grow old ” (Eliot, 1915), he is, again, speaking about finally having the ability to fully indulge himself in his visual world. The wording is indicative of a man in a place where he need not worry about his appearance for he has arrived in a place where he can indulge himself to the fullest—until he comes too close to the objects of what you think is his desire (the mermaids). In other words, he can see the peach, but doesn’t really want to eat it. As such, he desires to be close to them, without them seeing so as to not interrupt their singing. He desires to swim with them unnoticed in his visual world until reality interrupts, once again, and the “human voices wake us, and we drown.” (Eliot, 1915.)
In conclusion, I submit that Prufrock actually enjoys his “physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and lack of spiritual progress,” (Bercovitch, 2003)—these things have no place in a visual fantasy world, which is where he exists. He is anything but “haunted by reminders of unattained carnal love” (Bercovitch, 2003) as that is not the type of love or sexual gratification that he would crave and enjoy as a voyeur. “Visceral feelings of weariness, regret, embarrassment, longing, emasculation, sexual frustration, a sense of decay, and an awareness of mortality” (Bercovitch, 2003) only exist in reality. In his visual fantasy world, he is both Michelangelo and David combined with an unlimited supply of peachesall growing in his imagination.
n.a., n.d. (“Bio, 2014”), “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.
n.a., n.d. (“Imagery, 2014”), “Imagery in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.” Date
Accessed December 4, 2014. https://britlitwiki.wikispaces.com/The+Love+Song+of+J+Alfred+Prufrock.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. “The Cambridge History of American Literature”. Vol 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2003), p. 99.
Blum, Margaret Morton. "The Fool in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'." Modern Language Notes, Vol. 72, No. 6 (1957), pp. 424-426
Fleissner, Robert F., “Ascending the Prufrockian Stair: Studies in Dissociated Sensibility”. New York: Peter Lang, (1988).
McCoy, Kathleen, and Harlan, Judith. “English Literature From 1785”. New York: HarperCollins, (1992), 265–66.
Tepper, Michelle, "Nation and Eros. Gender, Desire and Sexuality in T.S. Eliot”. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.