The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Summary and Analysis
by T.S. Eliot
Annotations from B.C. Southam's A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot and The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Title: Orginal title: "Prufrock Among the Women." "J. Alfred Prufrock" parallels Eliot's signature - "T. Stearns Eliot" - at the time of writing (1909-1911).
Epigraph: Lines are from Dante's Inferno, spoken by the character of Count Guido da Montefeltro. Dante meets the punished Guido (a false counselor) in the Eighth chasm of Hell, where Guido is imprisoned in a flame. Guido says he is speaking freely to Dante about his evil life only because he thinks Dante is dead and cannot return to earth to report it. Translated from the original Italian: "If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy."
spread out (2): This metaphor occurs many times in Henri Bergson's Time and Free Will (1889) to bolster the idea of "duration." While at Harvard, Eliot frequently referred to this book in his writings about Bergson.
In the room the women come and go...Michelangelo (13-14, 35-36): French Symbolist (and heavy influence on Eliot) Jules Laforgue has a similar line about the masters of the Sienne school. Eliot parodies Laforgue but creates a realistic scene of intellectual gossip. Michelangelo: Renaissance Italian sculptor, painter, and poet.
Fog (15): According to Eliot, the smoke from the factories of his hometown St. Louis.
And indeed there will be time (23): Cf. "Had we but world enough and time," from Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." The speaker of the poem argues to his "coy mistress" that they could take their time in courtship games only if they were immortal; ironically, Prufrock deludes himself into thinking there will be time to court his lady or ladies.
works and days of hands (29): "Works and Days" is a poem about the farming year by Greek poet Hesiod (8th century B.C.). The ironic divide is between utilitarian farm labor and the "works and days of hands" in empty social gestures.
dying fall (52): In Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" Duke Orsino asks for an encore of melancholy music: "That strain again! It had a dying fall" (1.1.4).
sprawling on a pin (57): Insect specimens are pinned into place for scientific study. Prufrock's comparison to an animal of some kind is the second of three in the poem (the first is the cat in the third stanza, the third is the crab claws [73-74]).
butt-ends (60): The ends of smoked cigarettes.
Arms that are braceleted white and bare (63): Cf. "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone" in John Donne's "The Relic." Eliot admires the line in his essay "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921).
a pair of ragged claws (73): Self-pitying remark that he would have been better as a crab at the bottom of the ocean. Cf. "Hamlet" 2.2.205-206, Hamlet mocks the unwitting and aging Polonius, saying that Polonius could become young like Hamlet only if he somehow went back in time: "for you yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if, like a crab, you could go backward."
Though I have seen my head...brought in upon a platter (82): Matthew 14:3-11, Mark 6:17-29 in the Bible; the death of John the Baptist. A dancing girl named Salome requested the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter from King Herod. Prufrock's observation of his "(grown slightly bald)" head parodies the event and gives it the flavor of mock-heroism found throughout the poem.
To have squeezed the universe into a ball (92): Cf. Andrew Marvell "To His Coy Mistress" (41-44): "Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball, / And tear our pleasures with rough strife / Thorough the iron gates of life." The imagery is suggestive of phallic penetration of the hymen.
Lazarus (94): Luke 16:19-31 in the Bible. In the parable, Lazarus, a beggar, went to Heaven, while Dives, a rich man, went to Hell. Dives wanted to warn his brothers about Hell and appeased to Abraham (unsuccessfully) for Lazarus to be sent back to tell them. The parable is perhaps suggestive of the Dante-Guido da Montefeltro allusion in the epigraph; both concern themselves with the possibility of returning from the afterlife.
Prince Hamlet (111): Shakespeare's most famous character, from "Hamlet." Hamlet, like Prufrock, is indecisive and anxious about future consequences. Prufrock echoes Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" (3.1.66) at the end of this line ("nor was meant to be"), a line that is about wondering whether it is worth existing ("to exist or not to exist") and couches itself in the passive tense ("to be").
attendant lord (112): Prufrock does not believe he is a hero, like Hamlet, but an "attendant lord" (in this case, the implication is doddering father Polonius from "Hamlet"), a mere auxiliary character.
To swell a progress (113): An Elizabethan state journey made by a royal or noble person. Elizabethan plays sometimes showed full-blown "progresses" crossing the stage.
Full of high sentence (117): Older meanings: "opinions," "sententiousness."
Fool (119): Standard character in Elizabethan drama, such as a court jester who entertains the nobility and speaks wise nonsense (the Fool in "King Lear" is perhaps the best example).
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. / Shall I part my hair behind? (121-122): At the time, both styles were considered bohemian; the middle-aged Prufrock pathetically wonders if he can reverse his aging by embracing such youthful fashions.
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