Analyzing a well-written story or poem is like going on a treasure hunt. It helps us find hidden gems—symbols and allusions, for example. These translate into messages or story itself. What we learn through analysis can help us hone our craft. We can learn how to bury gems in our own works or do it better than we have been. We may be more apt to recognize treasures in the works we read or critique. The following is a brief analysis of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
In 1915, T.S. Eliot wrote the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” According to Norton Anthology of American Literature (9th ed, 2017), the poem reflects Eliot’s move from “traditional poetry” to associative, oblique free verse.” Inspired by Arthur Simons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) (828), this transition reflects a modernist approach. Instead of logical exposition, Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms points out, Eliot conveys ideas through a collage of fragmented images and allusions (see “modernism” entry).
I won’t get into the allusions, although they can help with interpretation. However, I will focus on elements that strike me, sound and imagery. And I’ll attempt to interpret parts of the poem. (Please note: I center block quotes for lack of a better way to do it with the tools I have.)
Music to my ears
Rhythm, rhyme, and dynamic imagery glue loose construction and foster abstract ideas of Prufrock’s psyche. I don’t understand all the terminology and concepts of poetry. However, I know what my ears tell my brain. And it’s pretty basic: this poem sounds good. Here is one of many examples:
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. (31-4)
The syllable counts of the lines don’t match. Nevertheless, repetition and rhyme hold the verse together and create a smooth read. Narrator doesn’t state exactly what goes on in his head. But with these four lines, he tells us that as he walks, his mind stirs. This alerts us to what we can expect of the poem.
Animating the ordinary
Eliot animates the ordinary in this poem. Vivid imagery sets the tone of the poem and symbolizes Prufrock’s state of mind. He seems to be a lost soul—who knows exactly where he’s headed.
Narrator, who, I assume, is Prufrock, wanders the streets as if “etherised” (3), knowing they could potentially lead him to danger: “Streets that follow like a tedious argument / of insidious intent” (8-9).
Prufrock is in a mental fog, given the ether comment. Images of fog contribute to that theme.
Smoky fog comes to life in “Prufrock”: “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, / The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes” (15-16).
Narrator seems annoyed by the fog. The repetition of yellow, rubs, and window-panes hints at that. So does his clarifying the fog as being smoke. But at the same time, the fog, or smoke, emits an erotic vapor. This could represent the lust Prufrock seeks to satisfy: The smoke “Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, / Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains” (16-17).
The words “licked” and “lingered” are seductive innuendos. The “l” repeatedly forces the tongue, sensual imagery that hints at why he lingers in such a cloudy, sooty area.
I wonder if the fog symbolizes Prufrock himself.
Although Prufrock frequents the apparent whorehouse, he’s uncomfortable there—so uncomfortable he needs “[t]o prepare a face to meet the faces [he meets]” (27).
On one hand the place is socially beneath his white-collar identity. On the other hand, he feels inferior there. He wears a “rich and modest necktie…asserted by a simple pin” (43) and describes himself as “meticulous,” “cautious” (116), and highly esteemed in society—“[f]ull of high sentence…” (117). Yet, he wants to leave because of his physical appearance.
He’s reluctant to speak. He’s unsure of how to express himself: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” (104). Although he’s attracted to women, he doesn’t seem to understand them. He worries if it’s worth it to speak if what he says is a misinterpretation of the what a woman tried to convey to him:
Would it have been worth the while,
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That’s not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all. (106-10)
For a mature man, he’s as intimidated by women as a shy, inexperienced young man would be.
As I mention above, imagery projects Prufrock as a lost soul. He’s insecure and struggling through an identity crisis. (At least, that’s how I see it.) J. Alfred Prufrock has likely played it safe his whole life. Now, he’s drawn to the bad side of town, where he can act out on his sexual impulses.
The contrast between his daytime and evening routines indicates Prufrock’s double life. By day he holds an honorable position. By night he wanders the streets that reflect his insidious behavior (9). This symbolizes an emotional battle between the light and dark of his being. At the same time, it cues the reader in to battle that affects his self esteem and highlights his identity confusion:
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas (73-4).
With this metaphor, Prufrock projects himself as a bottom-feeder, scurrying through unspoken emotions, probably not discussed openly in his day.
Prufrock pursues women in a shady part of town. Yet, he’s an “attendant lord,” not a “Prince Hamlet” but one who advise[s] the prince.” At the same time, he describes himself as “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous” and “the Fool” (111-12,114, 117-19). This explains his behavior.
By going into a bad part of town, he takes a risk. He takes the reader on a jaunt through “Streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent” (8-9). He could be too insecure to be with women of his social status. Or maybe he prefers the women here, the reason for which a reader could extract through deeper analysis.
Despite his presumed superior social rank, Prufrock fights the urge to leave this smoky place that lures him in. He fears women will notice his balding head, which he obsesses over:
I wonder, ’Do I dare’ and, ‘Do I dare’
Time to turn back . . .
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say, ‘How his hair is growing thin’) (38-41)
Prufrock continues to reveal his negative body image when he worries what the women will say about his arms: “… ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’” His insecurity is also evident in his beach fantasy, where he expects the mermaids to not be attracted to him (125), and in line 120, where he acknowledges repeatedly he’s growing old.
Women’s influence over Prufrock’s body image
By confessing his insecurities, he admits women have power over him. He never states what the women actually say or how they feel about him—their mere existence has a grip on his ego. Yet, despite his reluctance to expose himself to them, he’s drawn to them.
Prufrock nudges inner demons when he visits this place filled with women. Why would he continually subject himself to such self-scrutiny? What’s the appeal of this place?
He’s attracted to the scent of perfume on the women’s dresses and their “braceleted” and “bare” arms, wrapped around shawls (65-67). Such descriptions starkly contrast the smoke stacks and soot the city offers, symbolism reflective of his daily routine reflect his desire for simplicity. As well, the descriptions might also contrast what he sees during the day. Women of his era may cover up their arms and who, like him, may hide their inner truths.
Prufrock subjects himself to painful self-deprecation to satisfy a basic need—a physical contact with woman. It’s as if women are an antidote to his mundane existence if not reminders of his inadequacies. (Does this indicate a love-hate relationship with them?)
Eliot holds a loosely constructed poem together with literary devices. These devices set tone and tell a story whose message may be as unique as the person interpreting it. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the narrator is insecure—over the way he looks, over the way he speaks, over himself as an individual. Women trigger his insecurities. Yet, they still lure him to the bad side of town like bait.
The poem’s modernistic style can turn messaging into a treasure hunt while delighting the ear. The latter, at least, makes the poem worth the read for writers. Eliot’s wordsmithing—the repetition, the rhyming, the image-evoking word choices—exemplifies how a writer can make lines sing.