Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
- Time in the poem continues to play tricks on us. Now Prufrock talks as if he has already passed up on his opportunity to do that important thing.
- He starts this big long thought about whether "it would have been worth it," which he won’t finish until the end of the stanza, so just keep this thought in mind.
- It seems that even more eating and drinking have been going on, as well as "some talk of you and me," which suggests that "we" have been having tea with our dear Prufrock.
- He talks about "biting off the matter," as if it were something he could eat, like his precious marmalade (a kind of jam). "The matter," we assume, is the important thing that he meant to discuss so many lines ago.
- He compares the effort it would required to take on "some overwhelming question" to squeezing the entire universe into a ball. Sounds pretty hard, but do we believe him?
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"–
- Prufrock compares his task of asking the question to Lazarus coming back from the dead. Really, now, this is a bit much. It shouldn’t take a resurrection to tell someone how you feel.
- But there’s more to the story. In the Bible, a rich man named Dives dies and gets sent to Hell. Around the same time, a poor man named Lazarus dies and gets sent to Heaven. Dives asks the prophet Abraham to please send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers to mend their ways or they’ll end up in Hell. Abraham is like, "No way, man. If your brothers didn’t get the message already, what with all the prophets and such who have been running around, one dead guy coming back to life isn’t going to save them."
- Now, ahem: (Pointing our finger, Batman-style) to the Epigraph! The epigraph comes from a poem about another guy who, unlike Dives, did make it back from Hell to tell warn people about sin. His name was Dante Alighieri, the poet.
- But Prufrock is no Lazarus, nor is he a Dante. He’s more like Dives, the guy who never escapes from his terrible situation.
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."
- Now he finally completes the sentence, "Would it have been worth it, after all," from the beginning of the stanza. The sentence goes, "Would it have been worth it, after all, if one, settling a pillow by her head, should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.’"
- Clearly Prufrock thinks that, no, it would not have been worth it. So, he thinks, it’s a good thing he never tried or risked anything.
- Prufrock is imagining his worst-case scenario: he has asked her his big question – though we still don’t know what it is – and she replies that she has been misunderstood.
- But why would the woman with the pillow think she has been misunderstood?
- Maybe his question is something like, "I’m really into you, and when you did such-and-such thing, it made me think you were into me, too. Do you want to kick it with me?" But that’s just a wild guess.
- At any rate, he never asked the question, because he was too afraid of getting rejected. So he’ll never know if that’s what she "meant."