The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: Summary and Analysis

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       This poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock stands foremost in the poems Prufrock and other Observations (1917). It markes a complete break with the nineteenth century poetic tradition. It is urban in its theme and setting. It reveals the ugliness of modern civilization, the never ending streets of modern cities, smoking chimneys, yellow fog, dirty drains and smell of female bodies. The poem is not a love song in the traditional sense of the word. It is not a spontaneous outburst of feeling of the lover for the beloved, rather it is an analysis of the mind of the lover who is unable to take a decision about making the proposal to the lady he loves. In a series of paragraphs, the lover analyses the reason for a resolution and redecision and tries to justify his cowardice and lack of nerves, which make him completely incapable of formulating a proposal of love to his lady. Behind this mental state, is a disease of modern routine - the aimless life of the city-dwellers and the monotonous round of social parties.

Prufrock is an embodiment of split personality - a separation of head and heart, a paralysis of the will and too much worry regarding a love proposal.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


     "Overwhelming question" of Prufrock : It is evening time. Prufrock is conscious but conscious of nothing. Outside his consciousness, like a patient lying etherized upon a table. He is helpless, and has no strength left in him to act. Mentally, he wanders through the half deserted streets, till his mind reaches the most important question before him. He is afraid of mentioning it. It may be noted that this "overwhelming question" refers to his intended proposal to the lady he loves. He avoids discussing this question. He reaches the restaurant, where he finds the society-ladies discussing Michael Angelo. These ladies know practically nothing about the fine art but since it is a fashion to talk about the paintings of great masters, they discuss the works of this talented Italian painter.

      "Enough time to spare" (Prufrock's indecisiveness) : The fog outside is spreading on the window panes. It is dull October night. fog It reflects the inner foggy condition of the mind of Prufrock. Like the moving slowly, Prufrock is in no hurry to make a decision about his proposal. He feels that there will be enough time to decide about it. Meanwhile, the poem makes a sly comment on the hypocrisy of modern people, who keep up appearance as a matter of routine. Again, the poet shifts to the condition of the mind of Prufrock. This proposal is very important for, him, as important as murder (total failure of his life). Therefore, he must take time and plan it properly so that he may not fail in his endeavour. His mind is in a state of tension. It is full of a hundred indecisions, "a hundred visions and revisions." So, he wants to take some refreshment which may give enough vitality to make up his mind. Of course, he is well dressed, though of middle age, he cannot hide the marks of his face. Then he reverts to the important question and postpones the decision because there is no hurry about it.

      Not Daring: Prufrock's timidity : Prufrock has known many ladies and enjoyed sessions of tea and coffee with them. He has also been intimate with some of them. But he dares not speak out his mind. He is timid and cowardly, afraid of ladies' rebukes or taunts. In that case, he would be wriggling on a wall fixed with a pin. The trouble with him is, though he knows the ladies, he is afraid of making a proposal for himself. He would definitely feel embarrassed. The initial difficulty lies in brooding over the subject. His problem is how to begin.

      Mental fear of Prufrock : Prufrock now thinks of a plan to make a proposal to his lady. He would begin his talk with his fiance by mentioning his friends who are lonely, in need of companionship. They would like to marry and settle down. But he feels that he may not have the courage to talk about and mention his own name as one who needs a life-companion. Though he is lonely and bored with his mechanical life, and wants a change, still he may not be able to talk about his own case. He is afraid of death and the very idea of death makes him reject his expressing love to a lady.

      Cold response of the Lady : Prufrock takes refreshment to gather courage to make decision. Supposing he talked about it to that lady, she might turn round and tell him she had no idea of loving him. She had been polite and courteous to him, but that did not imply that she would be agreeable to marrying him. Prufrock, therefore, is extremely nervous. He thinks that if a magic-machine were to throw light on his inner feeling and display them to his lady, she may reject him.

      Not Hamlet, but Polonius : Prufrock denies are like Prince Hamlet, he is indecisive and inactive. He is like Polonius, middle aged, conscious of his position, though double headed and sometimes ridiculous. Though he is old, he wants to appear young with the latest clothes. Prufrock is unable to face the problems of life. He seeks an escape to a romantic world. While walking on the beach, he has seen mermaids singing to one another. He is dreaming about the mermaids and the sea-waves, when he is awakened by the human voices around. The realities of life cannot leave him although he is unable to face them. The poem ends where it began. There is no progress with the love affair of Prufrock. His condition shows the nervousness and tension of the modern man and the barrenness of urban civilization.

Critical Analysis

      Symbolism and Style of the poem : Eliot uses functional and compact imagery to clarify the neurosis and frustration of Prufrock. He borrows from Donne the metaphysical conceit. The very first line could have come through from Donne. The spreading fog represents the state of mind of Prufrock. He wishes to run away from realities, like "a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floor of the silent seas." There are literary images too, as for instance Prufrock is a kind of Lazarus, a sort of Prince Hamlet, also like John, the Baptist. There are ironic images as for instance. "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." His trivial personal matters appear to him as important as murder or creation or disturbing the universe or squeezing the universe into a ball. All these show the craftsmanship of the poet.

      Secondly, the versification is also modern and suited to the moods of Prufrock. The metrical base is iambic, but the lines vary in length and number of stressed syllables. The rime scheme is not regular. It is flexible to suit the turn of thought of lovers. The stanza pattern is also not irregular. The poem contains small interrogatory lines like "Do I dare." Or again, "how should I begin" which reflect the fear and hesitation of the protagonist. The most important thing about the poem is that "like the spider web" it weaves strands around itself but there is ro movement or development. This gives a singular unity to the theme of the poem. It rotates and revolves in a single orbit - the mind of Prufrock.

      Internal Monologue : Prufrock is an embodiment of split personality - a separation of head and heart, a paralysis of the will and too much worry regarding a love proposal. Prufrock refers to Hamlet and this enables us to understand Prufrock's psychological malady. This introspection is the result of emotional frustration. His irresolution is complicated by the fact that though he is middle-aged, bald in the head, he is not hot-blooded. He dresses smartly, smiles to ladies but he is unable to express his inner state. His excuses for postponing the making of the love proposal arise from neurosis and form his fear of rejection. The poem highlights the dilemma and indecisiveness as well as the squalor and barrenness of modern urban civilization.

      The first line of the poem "Let us go then you and I" may suggest that it is a dialogue between two persons but it is not so. Williamson suggests that it is an internal debate in the mind of Prufrock, between the two sides of his personality which thereby highlights the nervousness and neurosis. The poem can be best interpreted as an exposition of the moods and conflicts of the mind of Prufrock.

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