Arguably the best known English poem of the 20th century, "Prufrock" is an interior monologue. Readers eavesdrop on J. Alfred's stream of consciousness, which flows forward, backward, and sideways as musings trigger other associations not logically but psychologically.
The "Love Song" of the title is ironic since the eponymous character is isolated, timid, anti-heroic, middle aged, and unromantic. A natural tendency is to assume that Prufrock is T. S. Eliot, even though Eliot was 27 years old when the poem was first published. The pronouns of the "Let us go then, you and I" are sometimes interpreted as two different parts of Prufrock's personality: one that urges him to take action and participate in events; the other, a feckless dilettante who fears involvement and rejection. Or perhaps the "you" is the generalized reader.
Images of involvement and action oppose images of paralysis and fear and such is the conflict that defines the thinker whose musings we share. An educated and highly intelligent man, he precedes his monologue with a quotation from Dante's Inferno. Dante, while journeying through hell, encounters Guido da Montefeltro, who is wrapped in flame and suffering eternal torment for sins he committed on earth. He confesses his sins on the assumption that Dante, a fellow prisoner of hell, cannot return to earth with the damning information he is hearing and besmirch Guido's reputation.
Prufrock's "song" is a similar confession of a soul in torment, though Prufrock's sins are errors of omission and inaction rather than of commission. If hesitation, inadequacy, and a lack of self-assertiveness are mortal sins, Prufrock deserves a place in Hell among those who fail to do either good evil; or maybe Eliot considers him a purveyor of false counsel (In Prufrock's case, self-counsel) and deserving of a spot in the 7th ring next to Guido.
The time is evening, and the "you" is invited to make a visit involving traverse of a slum area. In a metaphysical conceit, the evening is compared to "a patient etherized upon a table." The idea of sickness or paralysis is imported along with a suggestion that the world is twilit due not merely to the time of day but to a realm between the brightness of life and the darkness of death. The etherized patient is both modern man and the modern world.
The surgery will be diagnostic and will attempt to answer the "overwhelming question." (And we continue to wonder just what that question is.) Eventually we enter a room of some elegance where "women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo." Their subject is a person as unlike Prufrock as a man could be: an artist of epic scale and outspoken opinions - a Renaissance man.
To sum up the plot of the meandering poem, Prufrock has paid a visit to a woman whom he loves but to whom he is incapable of asserting his emotions and desires. He reviews his life prior to the crucial meeting, a life that can be epitomized by "a hundred indecisions." His "hundred visions" - the noun, connoting the epiphanic magic of mystics, saints and artists - is deflated by the noun "revisions," which return us to the indecisive man who worries so about getting things just right that he never asserts himself, never asks the overwhelming question.
Self doubt and hesitation color this milquetoast's interrogation of himself. "Do I dare?" "How should I presume?" "How should I begin?" "Shall I part my hair behind? "Do I dare to eat a peach?" How much derring-do is such a man capable of? He can't risk eating a peach for fear of upsetting stomach or bowels. He imagines the women exchanging comments not on his heroic virility and assertiveness but on his thinning hair, the absence of masculinity betrayed by "how his arms and legs are thin!"
Prufrock's life of cultured propriety and empty affectation echoes hollowly in "For I have know them all already, known them all:- / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." This is in stark and sad contrast to Duke Orsino of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night - a man in love with love, a man who begins his life drama by telling the musicians,
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
Prufrock's proper behavior in his drawing room society has been measured out in discreet coffee spoons, and the "voices dying with a dying fall" are music from a farther room into which he dare not intrude.
His subsequent repetitions of "known" exclude the Biblical sense of carnal knowledge. We hear his disaffection for carnality in his parenthesis about women's arms that, unlike the limbs of marble statues, are "downed with light brown hair!" He wishes he could have been a manifestation of raw appetite - "a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." But forcing "the moment to its crisis" is ironically rhymed with but excluded from the refined taking of "tea and cake and ices." There is a similarly ironic allusion to Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress. Marvell's amorous speaker invites his love object to
Roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
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 toward some overwhelming question
Earlier (line 29) in his procrastination Prufrock drops the phrase "works and days," the title of a poem by Hesiod that is a call for action and toil issued by the goddess Strife to stir the shiftless. Prufrock's mention of his "head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter is a reference to St. John the Baptist, "who wept and fasted, wept and prayed," who rejected the amorous enticements of Salome. Again, Prufrock is no prophet burning with faith and duty but an object of scorn and derision whose flicker of accomplishment will be snickered at by Death, the eternal Footman.
In line 94, he compares himself to Lazarus, the name of two biblical characters who rise from the dead. But there will be no return for Prufrock from the spiritual grave that is his meaningless existence. He is not Prince Hamlet, who also hesitated and temporized but finally took heroic action. He is more like Polonius, a bumbling, sententious fool; he is educated but lacks achievement and fulfillment. He will never be more than a minor character in the world's drama.
Our final image of this archetype of anti-heroism is of Prufrock walking along the seashore, trousers rolled to prevent their being splashed. His hair is carefully combed over his bald spot. The thinness of his legs and arms cannot be concealed by morning coat and trousers. Michelangelo, Hamlet, Lazarus, Orsino, the speaker of "To His Coy Mistress" would have plunged into the waves to hear the song of the mermaids and to drown in the pleasures that comes with life's embraces. Prufrock is awakened from his dreams only to "drown" in the dry sterility of a wasted existence.
Ezra Pound's enthusiastic endorsement of T. S. Eliot and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" awakened the literary world to a previously unknown genius. "Eliot's work rests apart from that of the many new writers who have used the present freedoms to no advantage, who have gained no new precision of language, and no variety in their cadence." Directly referring to "Prufrock," Pound mentions Eliot's "men in shirt-sleeves, and his society ladies, [who} are the stuff of our modern world, and true of more countries than one. I would praise the work for its fine tone, its humanity, and its realism. . . . confound it, the fellow can write."