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Aug 17, 2013

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: Eliot

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky        
Like a patient etherized upon a table    
                             —Dante’s Inferno (Canto 27; Lines 61 – 66)
Ezra Pound published  Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or "Prufrock" or "Prufrock Among the Women" (1915),   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. ( Kathleen McCoy and Judith Harlan’s English Literature From 1785.)"
The epigraph heightens Prufrock's frustration. It refers to the torture of Guido da Montefeltro in the eighth circle of Dante's Inferno.
In the first part of the poem, the man—who thinks “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”—believes people should take the time to choose well thought out decisions, when he says “To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”. He further explains:
 “And indeed there will be time  
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and,    
‘Do I dare?’ …Do I dare Disturb the universe?…” (pg. 110-111).
In contrast, the wise old man’s has another view in the second part of the poem. He reviews his past life by considering other decisions he would have made. He states:
“Would it have been worth while, To have bitten off the matter with a smile, To have squeezed the universe into a ball…”(page 112).
In the famous opening, “the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table," and the simile makes an equation between being spread out and being etherised that continues elsewhere in the poem when the evening, now a bad patient:
 "….. malingers,    
 Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me."
There it "sleeps so peacefully! / Smoothed by long fingers . . . ." This suspension is a rhetorical as well as a spatial and emotional condition:
"…streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent"
lead not to a conclusion but to a question, a question too "overwhelming" even to ask. Phrases like the "muttering retreats / Of restless nights" combine physical blockage, emotional unrest, and rhetorical maundering in an equation that seems to make the human being a combination not of angel and beast but of road-map and Roberts' Rules of Order.
In certain lines, metaphor dissolves into metonymy before the reader's eyes. "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes" appears clearly to every reader as a cat, but the cat itself is absent, represented explicitly only in parts—back, muzzle, tongue—and by its actions—licking, slipping, leaping, curling. The metaphor has in a sense been hollowed out to be replaced by a series of metonyms, and thus it stands as a rhetorical introduction to what follows. The people in the poem also appear as disembodied parts or ghostly actions. They are the:
"Faces that you meet,"     
"Hands / That lift and drop a question on your plate,"        
"Arms that are braceleted and white and bare,”        
"Eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase."
Prufrock himself fears such a reduction, to use Kenneth Burke's term for the effect of metonymy. The dread questions "How his hair is growing thin!" and "But how his arms and legs are thin" reduce Prufrock to certain body parts, the thinness of which stands in for the diminution caused by the rhetorical figures. What Prufrock fears has already been accomplished by his own rhetoric.
The physical and psychological enervation of Eliot's early personae may be read in part as correlatives of his literary situation; this is the way Prufrock, for example, states his problem:
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?
Prufrock does not know how to presume to begin to speak, both because he knows "all already"—this is the burden of his lament—and because he is already known, formulated. His consciousness of the other's eye—I haunts his language at its source: "Let us go then, you and I." An "I" who addresses a "you" becomes subject to the laws of communication, and his voice is subsumed by expression. 
In this poem the horror of sex seems to come in part from its power to metonymize. This is seen with this example:
In the room the women come and go   
Talking of Michelangelo.
Like Augustine, Eliot sees sex as the tyranny of one part of the body over the whole.
An oddly similar relationship of part to whole governs Prufrock's conception of time. In a burst of confidence he asserts, "In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse." Yet he seems to quail before the very amplitude of possibility contained in time, so that all these decisions and revisions are foreclosed before they can be made. Thus Prufrock's prospective confidence in the fullness of time becomes a retrospective conviction that "I have known them an already, known them all: -- / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons. . . ." To know "all" already is to be paralyzed, disabled, because "all" is not full of possibility but paradoxically empty, constituted as it is by pure repetition, part on part on part. In a figure that exactly parallels the bodily metonymies, time becomes a collection of individual parts, just as the poem's human denizens had been little more than parts: "And I have known the eyes already, known them all"; "And I have known the arms already known them all." The instantaneous movement from part to whole, from eyes, arms, evenings, mornings, to "all," expresses the emptiness between, the gap between dispersed parts and an oppressive whole made of purely serial repetition. The very reduction of human beings to parts of themselves and of time to episodes makes it impossible to conceive of any whole different from this empty, repetitious "an." As Burke says, metonymy substitutes quantity for quality, so that instead of living life Prufrock feels "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
Prufrock's paralysis follows naturally from this subjectivizing of everything. If each consciousness is an opaque sphere, then Prufrock has no hope of being understood by others. "No experience," says Bradley in a phrase Eliot quotes, "can lie open to inspection from outside" (KE, 203). Prufrock's vision is incommunicable, and whatever he says to the lady will be answered by, "That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all" (CP, 6). The lady is also imprisoned in her own sphere, and the two spheres can never, like soap bubbles, become one. Each is impenetrable to the other.
One of the puzzles of the poem is the question as to whether Prufrock ever leaves his room. It appears that he does not, so infirm is his will, so ready "for a hundred indecisions,/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/Before the taking of a toast and tea" (CP, 4). In another sense Prufrock would be unable to go anywhere, however hard he tried. If all space has been assimilated into his mind, then spatial movement would really be movement in the same place, like a man running in a dream. Memories, ironic echoes of earlier poetry, present sensations, anticipations of what he might do in the future ("I grow old . . . I grow old . . . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled" [CP, 71)--these are equally present. There is a systematic confusion of tenses and times in the poem, so that it is difficult to tell if certain images exist in past, present, future. Prufrock begins by talking of his visit to the lady as something yet to be done, and later talks of his failure to make the visit as something long past ("And would it have been worth it, after all,/Would it have been worth while" (CP, 61). Like the women talking of Michelangelo, he exists in an eternal present, a frozen time in which everything that might possibly happen to him is as if it had already happened: "For I have known them all already, known them all" (CP, 4)
 The general fragmentation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is obvious and notorious. The poem seems a perfect example of what Terry Eagleton calls the modern "transition from metaphor to metonymy: unable any longer to totalize his experience in some heroic figure, the bourgeois is forced to let it trickle away into objects related to him by sheer contiguity." Everything in "Prufrock" trickles away into parts related to one another only by contiguity. Spatial progress in the poem is diffident or deferred, a "scuttling" accomplished by a pair of claws disembodied so violently they remain "ragged." 

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