The Dilemma of J. Alfred Prufrock

Do I dare? and, Do I dare? that is the question J. Alfred Prufrock asks himself in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. In this article I’ll be looking at the reasons behind this question and attempt to understand a little more about the character of J. Alfred Prufrock and what he represents.

Written by Eliot in his twenties and published in 1917, this poem takes the form of an internal monologue narrated by a middle-aged, emotionally impaired, intellectual. A man who has reached a point in his life where he has dramatically underachieved and yet still yearns for so much more.

The introductory quote from Dante seems to draw a parallel and suggests that we find Prufrock lost in his own personal hell. And Eliot’s descriptions of neurosis and sexual frustrations can be viewed as anticipating the rise of twentieth century psychoanalysis.

The poem concerns Prufrock and, we presume, his lover (or somebody who he is attempting to court — hence the Love Song of the title) going to a party. Throughout which his anxieties render him incapable of asking a simple question. We never discover what the question is, however it is evident that, for Prufrock, it is of great importance and yet he cannot bring himself to ask it.

Eliot’s use of the term Love Song in the title is ironic. Prufrock is anything but poetic or romantic. In fact, he struggles so much with his articulation that he declares, in a moment of despair, towards the end of the poem that  ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean!’.

Like a patient etherised upon a table

The poem starts off fairly romantic: ‘Let us go then, you and I, | When the evening is spread out against the sky.’ Prufrock declares. But then, his articulation lets him down as he compares the sky to ‘a patient etherised upon a table’. In describing the sky in such terms Eliot highlights Prufrock’s morbidity and struggle with romantic, poetic language; and, how he perhaps feels like an etherised patient, paralysed by his own anxieties.

Prufrock and his companion walk through a threatening urban landscape which is described as ‘muttering’, ‘half-deserted’, ‘tedious’, and ‘insidious’ (a recurring Eliot theme). They pass some fog which, in Prufrock’s imagination, takes on feline characteristics. The personification of the fog here represents Prufrock’s desires to escape the banality of his life by slipping into fantasy.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

As they travel to the party where the ‘women come and go | Talking of Michelangelo’ (the bathetic rhyming mirroring Prufrock’s sense of boredom), he debates how he should ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’? How exactly should he act and present himself in public?

But, before he even arrives, he knows his fears will get the better of him. Prufrock worries about his self-image, imagining all the women fixated on his balding head and thin arms and legs and therefore renders all his determination useless, because he will only change his mind and renege on his resolve anyway — ‘In a minute there is time | For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.’

Once at the party, he feels helpless, paralysed by his panic as he feels ‘pinned and wriggling on the wall’ by the eyes that ‘fix you in a formulated phrase.’ How then, he asks himself, should he handle this, what should he say about his life? A life that has been filled with a dreadful sense of banal urbanity and terrible underachievement. And in that moment, Prufrock wishes to escape from the room, drowning in his own insignificance he declares, ‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws | Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.’

“That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

And after ‘tea and cakes and ices’, after all the pleasantries he wonders whether he has the ‘strength to force the moment to its crisis?’ Does he, he asks himself, possess the courage to take this chance with his lover? To squeeze ‘the universe into a ball’ and ‘roll it towards some overwhelming question’?

He imagines his sense of dramatic empowerment, feeling reborn through his resolve — “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, | Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” he exclaims. And yet tragically, he knows his lack of eloquence will only result in pitiful misunderstanding as — ‘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 so he says nothing. His own paralysis is once again strengthened by his own sense of worthlessness.

He curses his lack of spirit and alludes to Prince Hamlet, who was also torn with his own dilemma, but only to distance himself from the Prince’s greatness — ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’ he says. Instead he compares himself to an ‘attendant lord’ or a fool, and therefore reduces himself to a position of a small, insignificant part in the theatre of his own life.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each

And now towards the end of the poem, having already ‘seen the moment of my greatness flicker’, he resigns himself to remain in his crippling, hellish state of mediocrity. Silenced by his anxieties he reflects, rather mundanely: ‘I grow old… I grow old… | I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’.

And where Prufrock struggles with language and eloquence in real life, in a rare moment of beauty, he talks about mermaids and waves ‘riding seaward’, ‘Combing the white hair of the waves blown back.’ Although in an ultimate act of self-defeat, he believes even his imagined mermaids would not speak to him.

Just as he escaped the banal urban streets by imagining the fog as a cat slinking among the houses, Prufrock now escapes the room and the boring chat about Michelangelo, imagining he has escaped into ‘the chambers of the sea’ until he is drawn back into the room and his tedious life when ‘human voices wake us, and we drown.’

Prufrock is a man consumed by his sense of underachievement and yet crippled by self-doubt and social anxiety that he is condemned to remain trapped in frustrating unhappiness; a man whose struggle with language renders him almost speechless. His life it appears is like the poem, a series of stutters and starts and asides. In some ways, Prufrock represents that part of our own internal voice which sometimes struggles with self-belief, that part which seeks to become our own worse enemy at times.

Eliot drew inspiration from Dante and French symbolist poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire in the creation of this poem, however, his brutal view of urban life and the neurotic internal struggles of the individual was strictly modern and, in many ways, ahead of its time.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was poorly received when it was first published but has since become one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century by one of its greatest poets. Its themes of urban despair and yearning, powerlessness, and neurosis are ones that would continue to preoccupy Eliot throughout his career, themes he would later perfect in his epic masterpiece: The Waste Land.

© 2016 Occasional Dreams
In response to daily prompt: Dilemma

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6 Replies to “The Dilemma of J. Alfred Prufrock”

    1. That’s wonderful to hear. I think everybody should read The Wasteland at least once. It’s very heavy and multi-layered though compared to Prufrock. Have a read of Prufrock when you get the chance. It’s one of the pieces I always seem to refer back to.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s very sweet and kind 🙂 But I’m just a hopeless lover of words whose glad to help share that love and perpetuate it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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