The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Stanza XII Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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.
- Prufrock continues to confuse the past, present, and future. He winds the clock back to the afternoon and then plays it forward to the evening, which is when we started the poem.
- The afternoon and evening are "sleeping," much as the cat-like fog was asleep outside the house in line 22. He’s wondering if he should "wake" the day up somehow, say, by asking (cough, cough) a certain question? But he’s hesitant because the day seems so peacefully asleep, as if it were being "smoothed by long fingers."
- This image of the fingers makes us think of petting a cat, but it may remind you of something different. The evening is "asleep" and "tired" – nothing is happening. But it might also be "malingering," or pretending to be tired.
- At any rate, it looks pretty comfortable stretched out there on the floor – and, hey, there’s "you" again! We haven’t seen the second person for quite some time. Nice of you to mention us, Prufrock.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
- Well, some time must have passed in the poem, because "tea" is over. In line 34, he hadn’t had tea yet, but now he’s digesting all the sweet and tasty things he consumed.
- It must be a pretty easy life for Prufrock, what will all the eating and doing nothing.
- He’s feeling so lazy, in fact, that’s he’s not sure he has the "strength" to ask the "overwhelming question," which would produce a big decision or a "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;
- Prufrock doesn’t want to be confused with a prophet. (We want to tell him: "Don’t worry, no danger of that!") Even though he weeps, fasts, and prays like a prophet, he isn’t one. Even though, um, he has seen his head on a platter – what’s that about?
- In the Bible, the prophet John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus, dies after the stepdaughter of a powerful king asks for his head on a platter.
- We’re not sure what Prufrock is trying to say – he may just be feeling sorry for himself.
- He doesn’t want us to think he feels sorry for himself, though – he says it’s "no great matter." But if we lost our head, we would probably beg to differ.
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.
- He continues to mope around and feel sorry for himself. He already feels as if his best days are behind him, like a candle that flickers and goes out.
- In the old days (even older than Eliot’s poem), a "footman" was like a butler who would help rich people do things. One of the things a footman would do is to hold your coat as you got in a carriage or entered a house.
- But this footman isn’t so friendly. He’s the eternal Footman – "death" – and if he’s holding your coat, it means you are probably about to enter some place that you won’t come out of again.
- Prufrock has another rare moment of honesty when he admits to being afraid. It’s pretty uncommon for him to say anything "in short" like that.