The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – by T. S. Eliot

Modern British Poetry

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

(Prufrock and Other Observations)

By T. S. Eliot 

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche 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 upon a table;
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
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.

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,
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,
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 towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, 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 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, 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.


Introducing T. S. Eliot:

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

The rise of Modernism in literature in the first half of 20th century saw the emergence of two major poets in British literature – W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), an Irish poet and T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), an American who made England his home. The contribution of both the poets to English literature is of immense value, leaving behind them a wealth of literary works in criticism, prose, drama and especially, poetry. However, while Yeats poetry concentrated more on symbolism and myth, it was Eliot who surviving the debris of the two World Wars and a series of personal misfortunes, was effective in rendering modern English poetry a new type of rhetoric, structure and poetic diction that echoed the sentiments of Great Britain that was living in the cross-currents of the disturbing images of the Industrial Age and settled assurance of the Victorian past. Eliot, heavily influenced by the changing literary scene and the cultural trends of his times and the French imagist and symbolist poets produced a poetry that has all the essence of a true ‘Modernist’. (Read more…)

A Critical Note:

One of Eliot’s earliest and major works, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was composed sometime in 1910-11 but was not published until 1915. On insistence of Ezra Pound, Eliot finally got it published in ‘Poetry: A Magazine of Verse’, in June 1915. In 1917, the poem was re-published as a twelve poem pamphlet as ‘Prufrock and Other Observations’. Initially, ‘Prufrock’ was received by the readers as unconventional and slightly ‘idiosyncratic’ verse but now it is widely read and appreciated by the critics as a paradigm that represent the cultural shift of the late 19th century from the Romantic verse to rise of early Modernism in Europe. The poem also brought Eliot into focus as a major poet of the 20th century.

While writing Prufrock, Eliot was avidly reading Dante, Shakespeare, the Metaphysical poets, especially Donne, the French Symbolist Poets and was also studying Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit. All of this together made such a vivid impression in the poet’s mind that it finally led to the composition of Prufrock. It was particularly in the works of the nineteenth century French Symbolist Poets like Baudelaire, Mallarme, Laforgue and Verlaine, Eliot found the potential that was unknown to English poetry and it also rendered him the verse, form, structure and theme for Prufrock. Following the French Symbolist and early Modernist poets, Eliot wrote ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ using stream of consciousness technique and its verse depicts a “drama of literary anguish”. The speaker, an urban and modern man, educated and conscious of his incapacity to “disturb the universe” depicts his feelings of isolation and anguish. The epigraph of the poem is taken from Dante’s ‘Inferno’, a character from hell in whom Prufrock finds his ideal listener. Since he cannot come out from hell and repeat his story to the others, Prufrock can confide in him. It is an intense and interior dramatic monologue of a modern man who is emotionally sensitive and a potential lover, but at the same time he is also neurotic and eccentric who lacks the decisive force to start a conversation with the object of his attraction. In his urge to visit the ladies in the room, Prufrock vacillate in his moments of decisions and indecisions – “Time for you and time for me, /And time yet for a hundred indecisions, /And for a hundred visions and revisions…” his desire thwarted in his many moments of “revisions”. In his self-examination of himself, Prufrock is repeatedly reminded of his many lost opportunities in life, his unattained carnal love, lack of spiritual and physical inertia and at the end, his knowledge that he is not the same neurotic Browning lover who can “dare” to end their carnal lust in their most passionate moment in this journey of life in order to attain salvation in their other journey of life. Unlike “Porphyria’s Lover”, Eliot’s Prufrock is a modern prophet driven by his feelings of isolation and lack of decisive power and epitomizes the “frustration and impotence of a modern individual” living the trance of modern disillusionment. The scattered images of the drab city life, the repeated but vague mention of the women coming and going out of the room taking of Michelangelo, the indistinct mention of the dark interiors, “coffee spoons”, “lamplights”, “fireplaces” juxtaposed with the allusions from the past in a sporadic manner convey the fragmentation and irregularity of the modern life, anti-aesthetic and nihilistic, where nothing fits in. The dramatic force is again gained by Eliot through his use of free verse and scattered imagery. The rhyme scheme presents irregularity in verse and structure. However, it is not completely random. Eliot has carefully drawn all the poetic forms and deliberately put them together in bits and pieces in order to manifest the tortured psyche of the speaker. The refrain, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo”, and the repeated question, “And how should I presume?” not only interrupts the continuous stream of thought of the speaker but also recalls the earlier poetic tradition of the chorus interrupting the dialogue in between the scenes. Another noted feature of the poem is breakdown of the sonnet form at the concluding lines of the poem. “I do not think they (the mermaids) would sing to me,” not only presents a pessimistic, anti-romantic and contrasting picture of modernity but also asserts a bleak acceptance of modern life that won’t befit into the romantic verses of the Petrarchan sonnet. At one point, the speaker gains some confidence and imagines him to be Lazarus or John the Baptist but then again in his acute moments of anxiety he questions his own worth, Would it have been worth while,” and finally disintegrates himself into caricature afraid “to meet the faces that you meet”. Although sensitive and intellectual, Prufrock is aware of his ugly self, “blad” and “thin”, and finally acknowledges his second-rate status in the world, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;”. He is a modern prophet made from the ruins of time and hence, reticently accepts his rejection even without a trail. He is rather happy to be old Polonius, the Lord’ Attendant, an old man and a figure of ridicule who reflect the shattered images of reality than a hero. Thus Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ stands as a modern tragic hero and his tragedy is that, though a tragic hero, unlike Hamlet, Prufrock doesn’t possess any of heroic qualities that will evoke either pity or fear for him in the audience. He is rather a second-rate Polonius whose drama ends even before it begins. In the end, Eliot;s ‘Prufrock’ is the preface to all of his major works, ‘The Waste Land’, ‘Four Quarters’, ‘Preludes’.


  1. Epigraph: The opening epigraph is a passage from Dante’s Inferno (Canto XXVII (27), lines 61-66). The lines were spoken by Guido da Montefeltro to Dante whom Dante has condemned in the Eighth Circle of Hell. Guido speaks these lines as a response to Dante’s questions as he thought him to be dead (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.”
  1. Allusions:
  • “Time for all the works and days of hands”: The phrase ‘works and days’ is the title of a long poem, a description of agricultural life and a call to toil, by the early Greek poet Hesiod.
  • “I know the voices dying with a dying fall”: Orsino’s first lines in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’.
  • “There will be time to murder and create”: Biblical allusion from Ecclesiastes 3.
  • “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter / I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter”: John the Baptist, whose head was delivered to Salome by Herod as a reward for her dancing (Matthew 14:1–11, and Oscar Wilde’s play Salome).
  • There will be time, there will be time” and “To have squeezed the universe into a ball”: Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’
  • “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, /Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all:” This allusion may either refer to Lazarus (John 11) whom Christ raised from death or Lazarus, the beggar (Luke 16), returning for the rich man who was not permitted to return from the dead to warn the brothers of a rich man about Hell.
  • “Full of high sentence”: Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Description of the Clerk of Oxford in the General Prologue.
  • “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/ Am an attendant lord,: Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Prince Hamlet and Polonius, the Lord’s attendant.


Originally published in: Poetry (June 1915).


Also Read:

T. S. Eliot – The Author
Preludes- T. S. Eliot 
Rhapsody on a Windy Night
Morning at the Window
Portrait of a Lady

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