Study Guide

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Love

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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.

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