Study Guide

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Quotes

  • Love

    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.

    And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
    The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
    Then how should I begin
    To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? (lines 55-60)

    We don’t know whose "eyes" he means, but it’s likely they belong to one or several of the women he has loved. They intimidate him and make him feel like he is being examined like a scientist examines an insect specimen. He doesn’t want to have to tell the truth about himself ("my days and ways") to anyone, even someone he thinks he loves.

    And I have known the arms already, known them all –
    Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
    [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
    It is perfume from a dress
    That makes me so digress? (lines 62-66)

    Prufrock sounds really jaded, like a kid who has been on an amusement ride too many times. He’s seen so many arms it makes his head spin. But wait! Look at that arm over there, in the lamplight. That’s a mighty nice arm, "downed with light brown hair." And the "perfume" is making him ramble on and on. Here for about two seconds, he actually sounds like a man who might be in love, or at least lust. At this point, we would take lust over nothing.

    I do not think that they will sing to me. (line 125)

    Prufrock has already realized that his best days over, but now he finally comes to terms with the fact that no one will love him. And it’s all his own fault for not doing anything about it. He sees the beautiful mermaids singing in the water, but he has no confidence that they would even turn his way. Still, he doesn’t drop his guard and sounds pretty matter-of-fact about his total undesirability.

  • Manipulation

    S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
    A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
    Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
    Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
    Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
    Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo. (epigraph)

    Yes, we feel bad about using a quote in Italian, but if it makes you feel better, we’ll give the translation: "If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy." This is Guido da Montefeltro speaking to the poet Dante Alighieri in Hell (go back to the Detailed Summary if you need more info). The quote basically shows that Guido is only talking about himself because he thinks no one will find out. It shows us he’s pretty much a manipulative toad, which should raise our suspicions about the poem that follows.

    Streets that follow like a tedious argument
    Of insidious intent
    To lead you to an overwhelming question …
    Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
    Let us go and make our visit. (lines 8-12)

    Even the streets are trying to mislead us. They have an "insidious intent," which means they are wind all over the place and will likely make us lost…A lot like the poem. Come to think of it, all of Prufrock’s arguments are fairly "tedious," too. You could change the word "streets" to "verses" and it would perfectly fit this "love song."

    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)

    You’d think that Prufrock was narrating something that actually happened here, or that is actually happening: he wants to go tell someone something, but he chickens out and runs for the exit. But by putting the line, "And indeed there will be time" in front of this little story, he turns it into a hypothetical situation, one that may or may not have happened. This is one of the places we learn not to trust this guy.

    For I have known them all already, known them all: –
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons; (lines 49-51)

    When he says he has "known them all," he wants us to think that he’s an old hand at life. Been there, done that. He doesn’t need new or exciting experiences, because he has had them already. But what exactly is he claiming to have done? Lived through different times of day with the help of a lot of caffeine? Any exhausted student cramming for an exam can tell you what’s that’s like – and it’s hardly the time of your life.

    I grow old … I grow old …
    I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. (lines 120-121)

    He’s starting to run out of steam at this point. He’s like an actor who has to stay on stage even after the play ends. But that’s not going to stop him for convincing us that he’s "The Decider!" He even makes big decisions like rolling his pant-legs. Sounds like a super-hero to us.

  • Passivity

    In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Michelangelo. (13-14)

    Although these lines don’t add to Prufrock’s story (or lack thereof), the image of these women coming and going while talking about a famous Renaissance painter totally captures the passivity of the poem. It’s not like they are looking at paintings or taking a class or something. They’re just talking about old stuff in a room that isn’t described at all.

    And indeed there will be time
    For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
    Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
    There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
    There will be time to murder and create,
    And time for all the works and days of hands
    That lift and drop a question on your plate;
    Time for you and time for me,
    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
    And for a hundred visions and revisions,
    Before the taking of a toast and tea. (lines 23-34)

    Prufrock has big plans. BIG plans. And there’s plenty of time to accomplish them all before tea is served. He has time to spend an entire stanza talking about the fog. Also, he has time to get ready and "prepare a face" to meet other people. Kind of weird, but OK. We’re not so sure about "to murder and create," though. That could be hard to get done before tea, unless he has a getaway car planned already. But there’s definitely time for "a hundred indecisions." If anyone is capable of not making a decision, it’s our man Prufrock.

    So how should I presume? (line 54)

    This is just one of the many stall-tactics that Prufrock uses to put of asking his question or saying anything important at all. He justifies all his delays because he doesn’t want to "presume," or act like something is the case when it may not be. But what he really means is he doesn’t want to take a risk by sharing his thoughts or feelings.

    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.
    Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
    Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? (lines 75-80)

    Here he’s just lazing around, like a kid on summer holiday, eating sweet foods and trying not to "wake up" the afternoon/evening, which is being personified as a sleeping person. It’s hard to tell whether the evening is really tired, though, or if it’s just "malingering," or faking it to get out of doing something important. Kind of like Mr. Lazy Bones over there with his "tea and cakes." He’s like the kid who promises to do the dishes after dinner and then after dinner complains, "But I’m too tiiiired!" He doesn’t have the "strength" to do anything that make cause a stir.

    No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
    Am an attendant lord, one that will do
    To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
    Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
    Deferential, glad to be of use,
    Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
    Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
    At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
    Almost, at times, the Fool. (lines 111-119)

    In literature, Hamlet is a classic example of a passive character. He spends all his time thinking about whether to murder his uncle, and he never gets around to doing anything about it. But Prufrock is even worse than Hamlet. He’s more like an "attendant lord" who serves a king. Everybody is nice to him, but nobody respects him because he doesn’t want to cause trouble for anyone, including himself. In other words, Prufrock is saying that he’s not even the main character in his own story.

  • Time

    In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Michelangelo. (lines 13-14)

    These lines are the first clue that we might be in a timeless "Twilight Zone." The woman come and go, come and go, and they are always talking. Their repetitive motion is like listening to a broken record or watching the same scene over and over again. This is a lot like Dante’s Inferno, where characters repeat the same pointless motions endlessly as punishment for leading small, meaningless lives.

    And indeed there will be time
    For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
    Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
    There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
    There will be time to murder and create,
    And time for all the works and days of hands
    That lift and drop a question on your plate;
    Time for you and time for me,
    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
    And for a hundred visions and revisions,
    Before the taking of a toast and tea. (lines 23-34)

    Prufrock echoes Andrew Marvell’s poem "To His Coy Mistress," in which the poet tries to convince a woman to hop into bed with him because, he says, they don’t have eternity to sit around and play games. But Prufrock believes the opposite: he thinks he can keep stalling and delaying forever, and that there is plenty of time for games and "indecisions." He’s the ultimate procrastinator. Of course, if we imagine Prufrock as being trapped in something like Dante’s Hell, then he would actually have eternity to sit around and hesitate – but that’s not such a good thing.

    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. (lines 47-48)

    One minute he was about to say something really important to the woman he loves, the next minute he "revised" his decision and went back downstairs. Strangely, he uses his own failure to act as a reason to keep stalling. There’s plenty of time to not make a decision, he says, because you can always make it later on. Of course, if you keep insisting there is plenty of time forever . . . you get the point.

    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.
    Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
    Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? (lines 75-80)

    Prufrock keeps confusing the past and the future throughout the poem – maybe on purpose, to cover his tracks. Though the poem started in the evening, he pushes the "rewind" button and goes back to the "afternoon," which blend into each other to form a barren wasteland of boredom and inaction. But some time has passed in the poem, because earlier he was talking about having tea, and now it seems he has already had tea.

    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. (lines 84-86)

    More time passes in the poem, this time on a larger scale. He comes to realizes that "the moment of my greatness," the moment of his big chance at love, has come and gone. His best chance for happiness is over. Now he only has death, "the eternal Footman," to look forward to. This, he knows, is bad news.

  • Appearances

    With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
    [They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin –
    [They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!" (lines 40-44)

    Prufrock is one of those people who is really hard to give a compliment to. "I see you got your collar all the way up to the chin – good for you." "Way to be modest with your necktie – it really just shouts ‘mediocrity.’" "Your thin arms and legs make the rest of you look so buff!" In short, Prufrock wears the same clothes as everybody else, hoping to blend in and draw attention away from the rest of him. He is a superficial guy who is most concerned with what everyone else (the mysterious "they") will think.

    And I have known the eyes already, known them all –
    The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, (lines 55-58)

    When Prufrock looks at other people, he doesn’t see complete bodies; he only sees a collection of body parts. Here he sees "the eyes," which treat him like a scientists treats an insect specimen. He misses all the depths and subtleties of human emotion because he has a single-minded focus on the things that make him squirm.

    And I have known the arms already, known them all –
    Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
    [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
    It is perfume from a dress 65
    That makes me so digress?
    Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl. (lines 62-67)

    More body parts. Bring on the arms! We assume these are female arms because they have bracelets, and because Prufrock mostly spends his time thinking about women. But one arm actually catches his eye, and for a brief moment, it seems like it could belong to a real person. The arm is covered with a soft, "light brown hair" that is revealed in the moonlight. If only he could give that much attention to a full person, he might have a richer inner life. But he soon returns to his bored and tired tone.

    Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
    I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
    I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. (lines 122-124)

    Now that he has completely failed to speak up with his question, he is left to worry even more about pointless aspects of his appearance. He considers a change of hairstyle and puts on fancy new pants for his trip to the beach. He focuses on his superficial appearance to cover up for the absence of deep feelings and emotions. And the only beauty he can see is imaginary, like the "mermaids" in the water.