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.
The original title of this poem wasn’t "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." It was – ready for this? – "Prufrock Among the Women." We’re glad Eliot changed his mind about this original title, which sounds like a terrible 1950’s musical. But it does tell us that Eliot thinks Prufrock’s relation to the fairer sex is at the center of this poem. "Love Song" makes a similar point, but not as directly.
The title is actually the only place where Prufrock’s name is mentioned – in the poem he talks about himself in the first person. Eliot is clearly poking fun of himself with this title – as a young man he signed his name "T. Stearns Eliot," but that doesn’t mean the poem is biographical. For one thing, we’re pretty sure Eliot didn’t drown in the ocean. The other thing to know about the title is that it’s completely ironic in light of the poem, which is not so much a "love song" as the depressed ramblings of a lonely and cowardly man. If you have ever seen The Daily Show or one of the other "fake news" programs, then you know the kind of irony that’s at work here. The title of the poem is only pretending to be serious, while the poem itself is more like a "fake love song."
We start this journey in a dark, smelly neighborhood of London. It’s October. Steam is rising from the streets, and a sick yellow fog circulates around the crooked houses. Drunks are stumbling out of the "sawdust restaurants" and sloppy-looking couples argue outside of "cheap hotels." A woman with bright clothes and too much makeup is leering at you from her doorway. And all the while Prufrock is there besides you, gesturing for you to follow him further down this rabbit-hole of squalor and darkness . . . Pretty soon you’re both lost, which was just what he intended.
Part of the poem takes place in this obviously hellish part of the big metropolis. But the poem’s other setting is just as bad, though it looks nicer on the surface. This is the London of the tired and bored middle-class, sitting in their cramped rooms drinking tea and coffee all day. All anyone seems to do is lie around and grow older. In other parts of the house, people are talking and laughing and music is playing, but we’re not allowed to go in there…Prufrock offers you yet another cup of coffee, and you don’t even know what time of day it is. If you eat one more "cake" you think you’ll explode. Prufrock is getting older before your eyes – his hair turns white and his arms get even thinner.
Out of nowhere, he takes us to the beach. (Finally! Our skin was getting pasty from all that staying indoors.) Look, mermaids! This is the nicest thing we have seen all day. But suddenly things get all disoriented and the world turns upside down. We’re at the bottom of the sea, surrounded by girls wrapped in seaweed. We hear voices, wake up, and…uh-oh.
There are at least three sides to our speaker, Prufrock. On one side we have the sneaky trickster, who invites us on a romantic walk only to lead us down windy roads and point out that the evening looks like a patient about to undergo surgery. He keeps stalling and leading us away from the main subject (his "overwhelming question"), as if he had something to hide. And he constantly confuses the time of day and even the past versus the future, like a casino manager who removes all the clocks from the building so customers won’t realize they have someplace else to be.
On the other side we have Prufrock the Fool, whose desperate attempts to make us think he’s a cool, confident ladies’ man is comically transparent. Really, who is this guy think he’s kidding?
Finally, we have the sad, honest man who realizes the jig is up and can’t even convince himself of his own stories. This Prufrock, who only lets his mask drop for a few lines at a time, is the one who admits that he should have been "a pair of ragged claws" and that he has seen "the moment of [his] greatness flicker" (lines 72, 84). Like a juggler, the poem keeps a delicate balance between these three personalities, so that one never gets an upper hand other the others.
Our speaker is an average middle-class man. In fact, we think that if you put a bunch of Prufrocks together in a room, you would have "The Man," that mysterious killjoy who secretly controls the world. He doesn’t want to rock the boat, and he is most concerned with keeping the status quo, which means nice clothes, fine tea, and utter boredom all the time. He wields power in society but has no power of his domestic life. He kind of suspects that he’s a "ridiculous" and a "Fool" but could never fully admit it to himself (lines 118-119). This is a poem where we get to put "The Man" under the microscope and watch him squirm.
There’s one part of the poem, however, that isn’t in the voice of Prufrock. This is the Epigraph. We think the Epigraph is Eliot’s little joke on Prufrock, and a warning to those who have read Dante (or who care to look up the reference) that we shouldn’t trust everything we hear.
Eliot frightens people more than almost any other poet. Like other modernists, he sometimes uses foreign language in his poems, and here we get an Epigraph in Italian. He also slips in sly references to writers from Shakespeare to Hesiod. But, seeing as this poem is about deception, being confused is part of the point. If you read it slowly, Eliot gives all the clues you need to figure out Prufrock’s little game.
In poems like "The Waste Land," Eliot takes the time-honored principle of literary name-dropping to a whole new level. The poem has footnotes, for Pete’s sake! "Prufrock" gives only a sample taste of Eliot’s encyclopedic knowledge of literature. The Epigraph is from Dante’s Inferno, and references to several other works, from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Hamlet to Hesiod’s Works and Days, to Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress," are inserted so casually into the text that you could easily miss them. Which is OK. Eliot was a playful thief of the words and ideas of other poets, and he would probably be amused to know the extent to which stuffy scholars have taken these allusions as the "key" to understanding his works. As with all poetry, there is no "key."
A dialogue is a conversation between two people, but a monologue is just one person talking. ("Mono" means "one). But "Prufrock" is a "dramatic" monologue because the person talking is a fictional creation, and his intended audience is fictional as well. He is talking to the woman he loves, about whom we know very little except for the stray detail about shawls and hairy arms.
A good dramatic monologue gradually reveals more and more about the person speaking, without them intending to reveal so much. At the beginning Prufrock is just a slightly creepy guy who wants to take a walk. As the poem goes on, we learn about his personal appearance, his love of food and fashion, and his desire to be a pair of crab claws. The impression we get about him is exactly the opposite of the one he wants to give. He wants us to think that he’s a decision-maker, a "decider," if you will, who dresses well and seizes opportunities when they come. But he’s just a big fraud. He never decides anything, and when he misses his big opportunity, he tries to pretend it’s no biggie.
So, the overarching form is the dramatic monologue, but if you look closer at the poem, you’ll find that Eliot is experimenting with all kinds of forms and meters. For example, there are a lot of rhyming couplets, like the first two lines, and the famous verse about the women and Michelangelo.
We think that Eliot is making fun of Prufrock by using this old-fashioned form. The rhyming couplets are sometimes called "heroic" couplets, but our title character is anything but heroic. The rhymes also have a singsong quality that makes them seem childish. He rhymes "is it" with "visit"? Come on. But this is Prufrock’s song, and Eliot is just pulling the strings to make him look bad – quite masterfully, we might add.
Other lines don’t rhyme and sound more like free verse, which has no regular meter. Occasionally we’ll get a couple of lines of blank verse, which have no rhyme but a regular meter, usually iambic pentameter, where an unstressed syllable is followed by an accent. This is the meter that Shakespeare used most often, and Eliot was a huge fan of Shakespeare. Thus, "I SHOULD have BEEN a PAIR of RAG-ged CLAWS."
Shakespeare also used rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter, and, lo and behold, this it the form we get in lines 111-119, which discuss Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Using Shakespeare’s verse to talk about Shakespeare? T.S., you clever man.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The poem begins with Prufrock inviting us to take a walk with him, but we soon learn that this isn’t some romantic tree-line avenue by the river. Quite the opposite, it seems to be the seediest part of town. True to Prufrock’s circular and evasive style, the poem returns several times to the imagery of these gritty streets, with contrast with the prim and proper middle-class life he seems to lead. Just like our narrator, the streets are misleading and go nowhere.
Have you ever seen one of those PBS shows or period films where British people sit around and sip tea and eat finger foods? "Prufrock" offers a parody of this easy-going tradition, as Prufrock thinks constantly about what he has just eaten, what’s he’s about to eat, or what he may or may not eat in the future. Especially tea. He’s a total caffeine junky, which may explain why he seems to talk so much. It’s one of those small daily pleasures he just can’t live without.
Prufrock is very concerned about his reputation, and he doesn’t want to stick out in a crowd. He’d rather people not notice him at all, which is why he seems uncomfortable with doctors and scientists, whose jobs involve examining and taking things about. But he’s also like a scientist himself in the way that he "cuts people up" (yikes) in his mind, reducing people, and especially women, to a collection of body parts. He loves to use the "synecdoche," which takes one part of an object and uses it to represent the whole. He talks about "faces," "eyes," and "arms," but never full human beings.
Prufrock suggests that he might be better suited to living in the deep, cold, lonely ocean than in the society of other people. We think he’s on to something. But when he ends up in the ocean through some crazy, dream-like turn events at the end of the poem, he doesn’t do very well. In fact, he drowns.
Prufrock spends most of the poem cooped up in rooms, eating, drinking, and overhearing other people’s conversations. He also fantasizes a lot about entering rooms – perhaps bedrooms – where the woman he loves can be found. Always the pessimist, he images a woman leaning on a pillow who rejects him. At the end of the poem, he just might have found the perfect room for him: at the bottom of the ocean.
Prufrock spends much of the poem acting like the notoriously indecisive Hamlet. But, in the end, he decides that even indecision is too decisive for him. No, he’s more like an assistant to a lord – a guy who does nothing but follow orders and generally acts like a tool.
Things start off racy as we walk through what appears to be a red-light district or some other seedy neighborhood, but Prufrock is too afraid of bodies to show us anything more than a hairy arm.