Lines 1-36 Summary:
J. Alfred Prufrock, a presumably middle-aged, intellectual, indecisive man, invites the reader along with him through the modern city. He describes the street scene and notes a social gathering of women discussing Renaissance artist Michelangelo. He describes yellow smoke and fog outside the house of the gathering, and keeps insisting that there will be time to do many things in the social world.
The title of the poem is Eliot's first hint that this is not a traditional love poem at all. "J. Alfred Prufrock" is a farcical name, and Eliot wanted the subliminal connotation of a "prude" in a "frock." (The original title was "Prufrock Among the Women.") This emasculation contributes to a number of themes Eliot will explore revolving around paralysis and heroism, but the name also has personal meaning for Eliot. He wrote the poem in 1909 while a graduate student at Harvard (though he revised it over the next few years, eventually publishing it in 1915 and in book form in 1917), and at the time he signed his name as "T. Stearns Eliot."
While it would appear, then, that T. Stearns Eliot was using J. Alfred Prufrock as an alter ego to explore his own emotions, this is not the case. Superficial differences aside - Eliot was a young man in 1909, while Prufrock is balding and probably middle-aged - Eliot disdained poetry that focused on the poet himself. He wrote in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that the "progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." He crystallized his ideas about how to achieve this extinction of personality in another essay, "Hamlet and His Problems": "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, which shall be the formula of that particular emotion." Simply put, the objective correlative - a tangible, concrete thing - assumes the emotional significance in a work of art; Eliot largely does away with abstract emotional ruminations. The examples and ramifications of the objective correlative in "Prufrock" will be discussed later.
Eliot first achieves the extinction of his personality by setting "Prufrock" in the poetic form of a dramatic monologue. In this form, the speaker addresses another person and the reader plays the part of the silent listener; often the dramatic monologue is freighted with irony, as the speaker is partially unaware of what he reveals. Robert Browning, the undisputed master of the dramatic monologue, exploited this possibility in his most famous dramatic monologue, "My Last Duchess"; the reader learns much about the Duke that he has not intended to expose.
The dramatic monologue fell out of fashion in 20th-century Modernism after its 19th-century Victorian invention. Eliot was a great believer in the historical value of art; in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," he argued that "the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past," especially the literary past. The epigraph is a quotation from Dante's Inferno (27.61-66), and translates: "If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement; but since none has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy." The speaker, Guido da Montefeltro, imprisoned in a flame in Hell, relates his shameful, evil life to Dante only because he thinks Dante will never go back to earth and repeat it.
Before we analyze the Dante quote, it is important to note that Eliot's brand of Modernist poetry sought to revive the literary past, as he argued for in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." His poetry, including "Prufrock," is peppered with allusions to the Greeks, Shakespeare, the Metaphysicals, and more. Eliot does not neglect the modern, however; it is often front and center, usually with unfavorable comparisons to the past.
The unpleasant modern world is where "Prufrock" begins. Prufrock, much like da Montefeltro in The Inferno, is confined to Hell; Prufrock's, however, is on earth, in a lonely, alienating city. The images of the city are sterile and deathly; the night sky looks "Like a patient etherized upon a table" (3), while down below barren "half-deserted streets" (4) reveal "one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants" (6-7). The use of enjambment, the running over of lines, further conveys the labyrinthine spatiality of the city. Although Eliot does not explore the sterility of the modern world as deeply here as he does in "The Wasteland" (1922), the images are undeniably bleak and empty. Often overlooked in the opening salvo is that Prufrock's imagery progresses from the general to the specific and, tellingly, from the elevated to the low. We go from a general look at the skyline to the streets to a hotel room to sawdust-covered floors in restaurants. This debasement continues throughout the poem, both literally in the verticality of the images and figuratively in their emotional associations for Prufrock.
Indeed, emotional associations are key, since Eliot deploys the objective correlative technique throughout the poem rather than dwell abstractly on Prufrock's feelings. The above images all speak to some part of Prufrock's personality. The etherized patient, for instance, reflects his paralysis (his inability to act) while the images of the city depict a certain lost loneliness. The objective correlative switches to the "yellow fog that rubs its back upon the windowpanes" (14) in the second stanza. Although Eliot said the fog was suggestive of the factory smoke from his hometown St. Louis, the associations with a cat are obvious. Though Eliot was arguably the greatest lover of cats ever to write poetry (he wrote a number of poems on them, and the musical "Cats" is based on Eliot's work), here the feline correlation seems undesirable.
The fog/cat seems to be looking in on the roomful of fashionable women "talking of Michelangelo" (13). Unable to enter, it lingers pathetically on the outside of the house, and we can imagine Prufrock avoiding, yet desiring, physical contact in much the same way (albeit with far less agility). Eliot again uses an image of physical debasement to explore Prufrock's self-pitying state; the cat goes down from the high windowpanes to the "corners of the evening" (17) to the "pools that stand in drains" (18), lets soot from the high chimneys fall on its back (since it is lower down than the chimneys), then leaps from the terrace to the ground. While Eliot appreciated the dignity of cats, this particular soot-blackened cat does not seem so dignified. Rather, the cat appears weak, non-confrontational, and afraid to enter the house. Moreover, Prufrock's prude-in-a-frock effeminacy emerges through the cat, as felines generally have feminine associations.
Regardless of what one takes from these images, the bewildering collage points to another technique Eliot and the Modernists pioneered: fragmentation. The Modernists felt their writing should mirror their fractured and chaotic world. Fragmentation seems to imply a disordered lack of meaning, but the Modernists resisted this instinct and suggested that meaning could be excavated from the ruins. Just as we can make sense of the seemingly chaotic combination of a 14th-century Dante allusion and a 20th-century dramatic monologue, we can draw meaning from the rapid-fire metropolitan montage Prufrock paints.
Images and allusions are not the only fragmented features of "Prufrock." The rhythm of the lines is deliberately irregular. At times in unrhymed free verse, Eliot occasionally rhymes for long stretches (lines 4-12) and then not at all; his rhyme scheme itself seems like the confusing "Streets that follow like a tedious argument" (8). He also twice uses the refrain of "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" (13-14, 35-36), and often begins lines with the word "And" (7, 23, 29 32, 33). As the word found in three of these lines implies - "time" (23, 29, 32) - the repetitions have something to do with Prufrock's relationship with time.
Prufrock indecisively cycles around even the smallest of concerns: "And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions, / Before the taking of a toast and tea" (32-34). He seems rooted in the present tense and this, according to Eliot and most Modernists, is an unhealthy approach to time. The opening image of the evening "spread out" (2) against the sky is an allusion to a metaphor frequently used in turn-of-the-century French philosopher Henri Bergson's work Time and Free Will (1889). Bergson was a great influence on Eliot; the latter attended the philosopher's lectures in Paris in 1910 and was influenced by his theories on consciousness. In Time and Free Will, Bergson argues that time is a single, continuous, and flowing "durée," or duration, rather than a succession of discrete steps with distinct tenses.
The only way to achieve this mental sense of duration, Bergson maintains, is through direct intuition rather than indirect analysis. While much New Age philosophy and theory has hijacked this idea - that one should feel rather than think is an appealing concept - the damaging effects to Prufrock are evident. He is clearly a thinker, not a feeler, and his indecisive thoughts contribute directly to his paralysis, perhaps the most important theme in the poem. As the image of the cat unable to penetrate the house suggests, Prufrock cannot make a decision and act on it. Instead of a flowing duration that integrates all of time, he is imprisoned in the present.
Prufrock's anxiety is rooted in the social world. Not only is he afraid to confront the woman talking of Michelangelo (whose most famous sculpture, David, is the epitome of masculine beauty, a daunting prospect for the flaccid Prufrock), he seems intimidated by the social posturing he must engage in:
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;
The "works and days of hands" is a reference to 8th-century B.C. Greek poet Hesiod's poem about the farming year, "Works and Days." Prufrock seems to resent the divergence between the blistered hands of hard-working farmers and the smooth ones of social players, just as he dislikes the masks people wear in the social arena ("To prepare a face"). His social anxiety assumes more importance in the middle part of the poem.