T. S. Eliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1919)


Eliot was born in St. Louis and educated at Harvard University, but most of his adult life was passed in London. In the vanguard of the artistic movement known as Modernism, Eliot was a unique innovator in poetry and The Waste Land (1922) stands as one of the most original and influential poems of the twentieth century. As a young man he suffered a religious crisis and a nervous breakdown before regaining his emotional equilibrium and Christian faith. His early poetry, including "Prufrock," deals with spiritually exhausted people who exist in the impersonal modern city. Prufrock is a representative character who cannot reconcile his thoughts and understanding with his feelings and will. The poem displays several levels of irony, the most important of which grows out of the vain, weak man's insights into his sterile life and his lack of will to change that life. The poem is replete with images of enervation and paralysis, such as the evening described as "etherized," immobile. Prufrock understands that he and his associates lack authenticity. One part of himself would like to startle them out of their meaningless lives, but to accomplish this he would have to risk disturbing his "universe," being rejected. The latter part of the poem captures his sense defeat for failing to act courageously. Eliot helped to set the modernist fashion for blending references to the classics with the most sordid type of realism, then expressing the blend in majestic language which seems to mock the subject.

What makes this poem different from a normal love song?


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. (1)


Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized (2) upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust (3) 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. (4)

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, (5)
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, (6)
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, (7) 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 (8) 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, (9) 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.


(1) A passage from Dante Alighieri's Inferno (Canto 27, lines 61-66) spoken by Guido da Montefeltro in response to the questions of Dante, who Guido supposes is dead, since he is in Hell:. The flame in which Guido is encased vibrates as he speaks: "If I thought that that I was replying to someone who would ever return to the world, this flame would cease to flicker. But since no one ever returns from these depths alive, if what I've heard is true, I will answer you without fear of infamy."
(2) Anesthetized with ether; but also suggesting "made etherial," less real.
(3) Cheap bars and restaurants used to spread sawdust on the floor to soak up spilled beer, etc.
(4) The great Renaissance Italian artist.
(5) Cookies and ice cream.
(6) Like John the Baptist (see Matthew 14: 1-12)
(7) A man raised from death by Jesus (see John 11: 1-44). Eliot may also have had in mind the Lazarus in the parable told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31, in which case the poetical Lazarus would have returned to deliver a message which the Biblical Lazarus could not.
(8) Early form of slide projector.
(9) Shakespeare's sensitive hero known for procrastination.


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