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

Sound Check

Read this poem aloud. What do you hear?

Eliot was kind enough to provide us with the perfect metaphor for the sound of this poem. It’s the cat-like fog that pads around the city in endless circles (lines 13-22). Eliot’s verses are very cat-like, and they keep circling around Prufrock without ever letting us see him head-on. Sometimes the verses rub their "muzzle" or "back" against the real Prufrock, but we only see him faintly, as through a fog.

Like a Siamese cat, Eliot is an exceptionally athletic and agile poet. He can go from rhymed to unrhymed verses without you even knowing it. With feline slyness, the poem slips in and out of blank verse, and it also makes "sudden leaps," like when it suddenly transitions from Prufrock to the women talking of Michelangelo and back again.

The circling pattern is both obvious and maddening. The poem repeats the same refrains over and over and, like "how should I presume?" and "there will be time." You could find yourself dizzy from all this circling. Sometimes we think we’re getting close to the center of the circle, like when Prufrock wonders, "Do I dare?" But then the poem just leads us back out again, and the motion continues.

The poem’s simple rhymes, like a nursery song, create a foggy confusion that distracts us from the sinister or "insidious" intent of the speaker (line 9). Watch how all these tricks come together in the following verses: "In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse" (lines 47-48). The first line leads us to an expectation – time for what!? – which the second line "reverses." The ridiculously obvious internal rhyme of "decisions" and "revisions" blinds us to the fact that the poem has not told us what has been decided and what has been revised. Every time you try to get your hands on this quick little cat, it slips away from you. This is a poem where you should keep your eyes open to what’s really going on – otherwise, you could get lost in the fog.

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