The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
How we cite our quotes:
LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table; (lines 1-3)
The first two lines sounds line a tender invitation, perhaps to take a moonlit stroll or a walk on the beach. Then BAM! the third line totally explodes the romance, and we realize this is not an ordinary "love song." Prufrock compares the evening to a patient that is about to undergo a painful surgery. For an audience in Eliot’s time, this must have been a shocking way to start a poem. The grim tone fits the times, however: "Prufrock" was published in 1915, when the bloodiest war in history up to that point, WWI, was well underway, and "ether," an anesthetic, was in high demand for use on injured soldiers.
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 – (lines 37-40)
It seems like Prufrock is oh-so-close to asking his question, as he wonders "Do I dare?" We imagine he’s standing by a door, on the other side of which is the woman he loves. He’s pacing back and forth, deciding whether to knock and enter. In the end, though, he’s too afraid, and he heads back downstairs. He tries to play it cool and claim "there will be time" for all his indecisiveness, but, in reality, this was his big chance, and he blew it.
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume? (lines 52-54)
Prufrock lives through other people, so he only "knows" love by listening to the voices of people in other rooms, which get muffled by music. By using the phrase "dying fall," he echoes Count Orsino, one of the great lovers from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. If Prufrock hadn’t "turned back" in line 39, it could have been his voice whispering sweet nothings on the other side of the wall. But he was too worried about "presuming," or reading too much into the situation with the woman he loves.