T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” is a melancholy poem of one man’s frustrated search to find the meaning of his existence. The speaker’s strong use of imagery contributes to the poems theme of communion and loneliness.
The Poem begins with an invitation from Prufrock to follow him through his self-examination. The imagery of this invitation begins with a startling simile, “Let us go then you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table.” This simile literally describes the evening sky, but functions on another level. Prufrock’s description of the “etherised” evening indicates an altering of perception, and an altering of time, which creates a dreamlike quality throughout the poem. This dreamlike quality is supported throughout the poem with the “yellow fog” that contributes to the slowed-down-etherised feeling of the poem. Time and perception are effectively “etherised” in this poem. It is almost as if the poem is a suspended moment of realization of one man’s life, “spread out against the sky”. The imagery of the patient represents Prufrock’s self-examination. Furthermore, the imagery of the “etherised patient” denotes a person waiting for treatment. It seems this treatment will be Prufrock’s examination of himself and his life.
Prufrock repeats his invitation and asks the reader to follow him through a cold and lonely setting that seems to be the Prufrock’s domain. The imagery of the journey through the city is described as pointed to lead the reader (and more accurately Prufrock) to an overwhelming question. Prufrock’s description of the urban city is quite dreary: ” 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.” This is the lonely setting that Prufrock lives out his meager existence. This city is suspended under the same anesthesia that spreads the evening like an “etherised patient.”
Prufrock moves his attention from the city to his final destination; “the room the women come and go/ Speaking of Michealangelo.” This couplet contrasts with the previous urban landscape and adds anticipation to the ominous tension surrounding the event. This line also is about time. The couplet suggests that Prufrock has been around to see these women “come and go,” implying Prufrock has been situated in the high societal environment for some time. The line also implies that while others have come and gone from the social circles Prufrock is a part of; Prufrock has stayed stagnating. On the way, Prufrock deliberates on whether he can find value in the cold superficial environment, and ask the overwhelming question, “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?”. He feels if he can muster the courage to ask the question, he may at last find value in his life: “would it have been worth while/ To have bitten off the matter with a smile,? To have squeezed the universe into a ball.” Ultimately, he fails at both tasks.
Throughout the poem, the themes of time’s passage and age continue to illustrate the unhappiness of Prufrock’s life. Prufrock reveals the measured out portions of life he has lived: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” This phrase shows Prufrock’s inability to seize the day. He also employs subtle devices, such as thinning hair and resulting bald spot, as indicators of age and the importance he feels now that he is past his prime: “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’)” This shows Prufrock’s fear of being laughed at. Furthermore, this line shows Prufrock’s desire to “disturb the universe,” and his fear that he will be scoffed at for not acting his proper age. When he speaks of time it is in a contradictory fashion. On one hand, he feels a sense of urgency as he travels to the party, because must decide if he will ask his question. Yet, while he agonizes over whether to attempt a change in his life, he tells us time is plentiful, explaining “there will be time for you and time for me/ And time yet for a hundred indecisions / And for a hundred visions and revisions/ Before taking of the toast and tea” This seems to be Prufrock trying to escape his conviction of asking the question through rationalization.
Prufrock’s growing indifference towards his sophisticated social circle, where time is suspended, reflect his aging weariness. Ironically, he has catered to the proprieties of high society for years, and remains unaware of how time has ingrained the same emptiness into his own nature: “For I have known them all already, known them all/ I know the voices with a dying fall/ And I have known the eyes already, known them all/ And I have known the arms already, known them all” In this line, Prufrock shows that he is part of the societal circle, and has shared the shallowness of living he finds repulsive in his peers.. Prufrock understands the his inability to “disturb the universe” when he considers how he will approach his intended romantic interest, but realizes his leisurely way of life has left him ill-prepared to deal with the responsibilities that accompany change: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
Not Surprisingly, after declining to “dare disturb the universe,” he becomes resigned to his unchanging fate in superficial, sophisticated style. He imagines himself walking along a perfect beach, wearing fine “white flannel trousers,” He has not lost or gained anything, the labor of his decision has added up to nothing of consequence.
Prufrock talks compulsively of the party scene, but actually speaks to no one. Even as the scene unfolds in his mind, he is rendered practically speechless by the scrutiny of the cultured society matrons as they “fix” their gazes upon him: “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?” From this line, we see that Prufrock is reduced to a bug under the scrutiny of his peers; there approval pins him down and renders him unable to ask his question. He is tense and excited at the prospect of his question changing his life , but knows he will feel horribly self-conscious , and it frightens him. He is certain if he asks his question and reveals his feelings, he will not be understood. Surely, he would be made the fool. He decides it is not worth the effort after all: “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.”
In this line, Prufrock’s fears betray his desires. He knows the approval he covets comes from a frivolous, futile, class of people. He has heard them talk for years and knows only fashion, appearance, art, and style are deemed worthy of discussion. In fact, he listened so long he can’t hear their voices anymore. He can only hear “voices dying with a dying fall,” not unlike the indistinguishable hum of music playing in another room. But this is fine with him, because he and his world are once again at a comfortable place.
Finally and permanently, Prufrock accepts that he will never be a prophet like Lazarus or a prince like Hamlet, and he slips into the safety of a fantasy world.