Study Guide

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Time

By T.S. Eliot

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.

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