>Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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Contributions from me to this site will likely look like undergraduate reading responses, and that is because they likely are. For today, the poem by T.S. Eliot. I haven’t recieved my grade on this one yet (ha!) The internet has versions of the poem available, so follow along on a separate tab!

Prufrock is Stuck

In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the movement remains suspended between the ordinary and the extraordinary as Prufrock’s commentary travels through many subjects and objects by way of periphery, but carries very little direct action. The poem is ironic when it declares, “let us go,” because there is no going that happens. In the midst of the towering ordinariness and extraordinariness of Prufrock’s disappointed, imagined existence, his sense of movement is a stark track of modifiers that ultimately go nowhere: “Through…half-deserted streets” and “muttering retreats” “that follow…to lead…to an overwhelming question.”

The first part of the poem carries the paralysis of movement into the consideration of time. An action as simple as “the taking of a toast and tea” exists impossibly on the other end of an epoch of possibilities within time (“for rubbing…to prepare…murder and create…for a hundred indecisions…visions and revisions”). Prufrock’s consideration of time is the placeholder for his actualization; into undefined time, he can place the breadth of his insecurities without exposing himself to the ridicule of what “they will say”.

Because he uses time in this way, to ‘go’ means to “disturb the universe.” Prufrock lacks the audacity to disturb this solidified potentiality of time, and so he casts his energy into the past to further justify his immobility. Languishing in the impenetrable ordinariness of his life, he draws forth his many disappointments, but he remains unmoved. The verbs he uses exist either as recollection (“I have…measured my life with coffee spoons…known…the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase…known the arms already…”) or as his certainty of the future based from the conclusions of those recollections, (“I know the voices dying…when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall…”) or as abject unknowing (“how should I presume?): Prufrock never takes personal responsibility for these verbs.

Because this poem is a “Love Song,” what might be immobilizing him is the fear of loving. He places his finger on this fear for a second: “Is it perfume from a dress that makes me so digress?” Yet because he does not take responsibility for his digression, as he moves on in his consciousness, he moves further from his love: He regrets abstractly that he “should have been a pair of ragged claws;” he materializes the afternoon and he projects his complacency onto it, afraid to “force the moment to its crisis;” he admits his failure: “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker…” and he could not face death because he was afraid. Here, he is at the totality of his existence, but he is still immobile. From there the constancy of his consciousness can only speculate.

He speculates in terms of the extraordinary in an attempt to reconcile his self with what could be if he took the step into love. He inflates mythos to describe the shadow of his fear, but he can not follow the mythos past the shadow into the truth they contain. He tries to describe his concept in terms of Lazarus, but is afraid of being wrong and so he steps back. He tries to explain his feelings by describing himself with Shakespeare, but he casts himself as Polonius, and settles his place with the fool. He tries to envision liberation from his imprisonment in terms of mermaids that lead him through the sea and here, he is deep beyond the ordinary. Still, he is immobile. Never actualizing, he follows the realms of the extraordinary far beyond his unaddressed humanity. Thus, when his humanity again possesses him, at last takes hold of a verb: “and we drown.”

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