The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by T. S. Eliot, first published June 1915


Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
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.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

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.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

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 —
(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!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

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;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

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?
And how should I presume?

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!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

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?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
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.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

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.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

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.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

 


“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, commonly known as “Prufrock”, is the first professionally published poem by American-British poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Eliot began writing “Prufrock” in February 1910, and it was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse at the instigation of Ezra Pound (1885–1972). It was later printed as part of a twelve-poem pamphlet (or chapbook) titled Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917. At the time of its publication, Prufrock was considered outlandish, but is now seen as heralding a paradigmatic cultural shift from late 19th-century Romantic verse and Georgian lyrics to Modernism.

The poem’s structure was heavily influenced by Eliot’s extensive reading of Dante Alighieri and makes several references to the Bible and other literary works—including William Shakespeare’s plays Henry IV Part II, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet, the poetry of seventeenth-century metaphysical poet John Donne, and the nineteenth-century French Symbolists. Eliot narrates the experience of Prufrock using the stream of consciousness technique developed by his fellow Modernist writers. The poem, described as a “drama of literary anguish”, is a dramatic interior monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action that is said “to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual” and “represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment”.

Prufrock laments his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and lack of spiritual progress, and he is haunted by reminders of unattained carnal love. With visceral feelings of weariness, regret, embarrassment, longing, emasculation, sexual frustration, a sense of decay, and an awareness of mortality, “Prufrock” has become one of the most recognised voices in modern literature.


 

T. S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888–1965) was a British essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic, and “one of the twentieth century’s major poets”.  He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888 and lived in St. Louis during the first eighteen years of his life and attended Harvard University. In 1910, he left the United States for the Sorbonne, having earned both undergraduate and masters degrees and having contributed several poems to the Harvard Advocate. After a year in Paris, he returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but returned to Europe and settled in England in 1914. The following year, he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood and began working in London, first as a teacher, and later for Lloyd’s Bank.

Eliot attracted widespread attention for his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), which was seen as a masterpiece of the Modernist movement. It was followed by some of the best-known poems in the English language, including The Waste Land (1922), “The Hollow Men” (1925), “Ash Wednesday” (1930), and Four Quartets (1943). He was also known for his seven plays, particularly Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”.

He eventually became a British subject in 1927 at the age of 39, renouncing his American citizenship. Eliot died of emphysema at his home in Kensington in London, on 4 January 1965, and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were taken to St Michael and All Angels’ Church, East Coker, the village in Somerset from which his Eliot ancestors had emigrated to America. A wall plaque commemorates him with a quotation from his poem “East Coker”, “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”

Poetry

Collected Poems (1962)
The Complete Poems and Plays (1952)
Four Quartets (1943)
Burnt Norton (1941)
The Dry Salvages (1941)
East Coker (1940)
Ash Wednesday (1930)
Poems, 1909–1925 (1925)
The Waste Land (1922)
Poems (1919)
Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)

Prose

Religious Drama: Mediaeval and Modern (1954)
The Three Voices of Poetry (1954)
Poetry and Drama (1951)
Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1949)
The Classics and The Man of Letters (1942)
The Idea of a Christian Society (1940)
Essays Ancient and Modern (1936)
Elizabethan Essays (1934)
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)
After Strange Gods (1933)
John Dryden (1932)
Thoughts After Lambeth (1931)
Tradition and Experimentation in Present-Day Literature (1929)
Dante (1929)
For Lancelot Andrews (1928)
Andrew Marvell (1922)
The Sacred Wood (1920)

Drama

The Elder Statesman (1958)
The Confidential Clerk (1953)
The Cocktail Party (1950)
The Family Reunion (1939)
Murder in the Cathedral (1935)
The Rock (1934)
Sweeney Agonistes (1932)

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