© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
If Rilke and Yeats can both be seen as transitional figures between conventional nineteenth-century poetry and modernist poetry, the American ex-patriate poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) was one of the first poets to have emerged as a full-blown modernist from the very beginning of his career. Eliot, like his close friend and fellow American expatriate Ezra Pound (1885–1972), was horrified by the changes they saw going on around them in the fast-changing modern world and felt that modern tendencies toward the democratization were leading to an overall decrease in the quality of culture. Such modernists were largely in accord with the revulsion toward the masses expressed in such works as José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses (1930), which viewed the rise of mass culture as a form of debased mob rule and longingly looked back to the earlier status of a sophisticated intellectual elite as the arbiters of modern thought and culture. Eliot and Pound responded by producing complex, esoteric poetry that resisted the turn toward popular literature and was thus accessible only to an educated elite.
Other modernists, though, were not so sure that the collapse of the traditional culture was necessarily a bad thing. Woolf came from a privileged, upper-class English background and had her own elitist tendencies. It was, in fact, Clive Bell’s Civilization (1928), which begins with a letter of dedication to Woolf, that probably did more than any other single work to create the image of modernism—and especially the Bloomsbury Group—as snobbishly elitist. However, Woolf also found that her status as a woman nevertheless placed severe limitations on her rights and opportunities, and she aimed much of her writing at gender-based inequalities in British society.
The Irishman James Joyce (1882–1941) was born a colonial subject and was thus regarded as inherently inferior by Ireland’s British colonial masters. Both Woolf and Joyce thus occupied positions that made it seem to them that the breakdown of older cultural forms might be a potential opportunity to develop new cultural forms that might help to win more equitable treatment for women and for the Irish, respectively. Thus, when they developed new experimental forms of writing, the point was not to exclude the masses but to break free of literary forms that had worked in complicity with the traditional power structures that had held women and the Irish in subaltern positions for hundreds of years.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot’s first professionally published poem, appeared in 1915, five years after Eliot began writing it—and only then at the instigation of Ezra Pound, who was much impressed by this new poetic voice. The poem perplexed many readers when it was first published, but it is now considered a classic of modernist irony, beginning with its title: Prufrock neither gives nor receives love in the poem, and his life is devoid of the music of romance. It is also a poem that is entirely contained within an urban space, as is much modernist literature. The nature that was so dear to the Romantic poets has been entirely effaced from the world of the poem, leaving only dirty and hostile city streets, though vague echoes of a longing for nature remain. And yet, the interiors of the city offer no sanctuary from these streets. They are merely rooms inhabited by strangers, barren and empty, no matter how filled with meaningless trinkets. The poem is thus also a classic modernist expression of the experience of alienation, of the feeling of never being at home anywhere in the world, never truly communicating with any of the other people one encounters in that world, always suspecting that somehow those people are less lost than you are.
Prufrock, as a lone alienated individual who feels cut off from those around him (especially) women, also stands alone at the center of this poem. It is a first-person poem in which Prufrock relates his feelings as the speaker, and it is clear from these feelings that he has a great deal in common with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and with Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of “The Metamorphosis” (first published in the same year as “Prufrock”). Thus, Daraiseh and Booker have placed “Prufrock” very much in the tradition of the “abject hero,” of which the Underground Man is the first modern example, founding a tradition that stretches through Prufrock to postmodern examples such as Arthur Fleck in the film Joker (2019).
“Prufrock” is essentially the title character’s interior monologue, but it is rhetorically vague. Is Prufrock merely thinking to himself? Is he talking to someone else? A mixture of the two? Despite such confusion, despite the Italian epigraph, despite the literary allusions, despite the sometimes vague and abstract phrasing, “Prufrock” seems a relatively straightforward poem. And, on one level, it is. Prufrock is a lonely, alienated, middle-aged man looking for love but not expecting to find it. But this simplest level of the poem has, for some readers pointed toward higher levels in which Prufrock conducts a critique of Edwardian society or attempts to solve important philosophical questions. Indeed, various interpreters have found many different things in the poem in the more than a century since it was first published. Close readings of Eliot’s grammar and syntax are legion, as are explications of the poem’s numerous allusions, from the obvious to the obscure. William Malcuit, for example, sees it as a rather political poem that represents a rejection of individualist liberalism—and especially of liberalism as expressed in the American poetic tradition represented by Walt Whitman. For Malcuit this rejection essentially clears the ideological decks for the young Eliot (who was only twenty-two when he started writing the poem), opening the way for his move to a more right-wing position later in his career. David Trotter sees “Prufrock” as a poem largely about technology—as driven partly by Eliot’s rejection of the new medium of cinema, whose technological basis he found dehumanizing. On the other hand, Trotter sees The Waste Land as a sign of Eliot’s growing acceptance of the new medium.
But let’s do a more straightforward, basic reading of the poem, section by section. It begins in a way that immediately suggests Eliot’s concern that, as the levels of education among the lower classes were rising, so too were the levels of education among more sophisticated modern readers falling. Further, he felt that, in order to appeal to the vast new readership made available by rising literacy levels, literature was all too often lowering its standards in order to be accessible to these new readers. Eliot’s response was to refuse to compromise and to refuse to lower his own level of discourse to that of the new literary marketplace. In a famous essay on the metaphysical poets, Eliot himself explained the difficulty and complexity of his poetry in terms of the complexities of modern life:
Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. (Eliot 65)
In this mode, Eliot thus begins “Prufrock” (in a mode that some might find pretentious and elitist) with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno (Canto XXVII, lines 61–66), unapologetically left in the original medieval Italian, which (as Eliot was of course well aware) few of the poem’s modern readers could actually understand. That, of course, was partly the point:
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
The presence of these lines makes an important statement, even if one has no idea where the lines come from or what they mean. Moreover, recognizing that the lines come from Dante, a key forerunner of the Italian Renaissance, makes it clear that they look back to a time when Western culture, in the view of Eliot (and many others) was about to experience a period of explosive growth into one of its richest periods—as opposed to the early twentieth century, when Eliot felt that most people were no longer equipped to appreciate the glories of the Renaissance and the period that followed it. (This of course ignores the fact that most people during the Renaissance and after were also not really equipped to appreciate the glories of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and the like, either.) In any case, the actual content of the epigraph illuminates the following poem quite usefully, providing a suggestion of just how much one might miss by forgetting the classics. In English, this epigraph can be translated as follows:
If I but thought that I were responding
To one who might someday return to the world,
This flaming tongue would cease to flicker.
But from these depths, no one has yet
To return alive, so, if this is true,
I can answer without fear of suffering shame.
These lines suggest the reticence with which Prufrock, the speaker in the poem itself, is about to share his inner feelings with us. One of the most striking exemplars of the central modernist theme of alienation, Prufrock is extremely hesitant to reach out to others, feeling that there is little chance he will be able to make himself understood, both because of what he regards as his unique individual peculiarities and because of the inherent limitations in language itself. The poem proper then begins with what seems like a conventionally poetic Romantic invitation, perhaps issued to a lover:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
It then proceeds with a sudden shift that undermines this poetic beginning and yanks us forcefully back into a tawdry modern world with there is no place for the poetry of past eras. Indeed, the poet John Berryman has stated that modern poetry begins with the third line of “Prufrock.” Of course, sudden changes of tone often occur in “Prufrock,” a poem that, as Anne Stillman notes, often “hovers between the whimsical and the menacing” (49). Prufrock at several points in the coming poem will gesture toward a conventional form, as when he occasional experiments with rhyme. But it never sticks. This world is fallen, dystopian. It is not an exciting, hustling, bustling modern world, but an old, tired, broken modern world. It is also clearly urban, making its setting a typical one for modernist literature:
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.
Meanwhile, Prufrock imagines a group of women in a room, chatting pretentiously of a Renaissance artist of whose works they likely have little or no real understanding or appreciation. These women will reappear many times, images of a feminine threat that is often found in Eliot’s poetry, reminders here of Prufrock’s infelicity in dealing with his women and of the status of women in his mind as mysterious, foreign, and inscrutable:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Prufrock then makes another gesture toward a conventional poetic mode, personifying the “yellow fog” (suggesting that the air in the city is polluted) as a sort of cat-like animal—anticipating the fact that cats would often recur in Eliot’s poetry:
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.
Unfortunately, the modern world cannot sustain such poetic flights, and Prufrock immediately slips back into a mode of hesitation and anxiety, worrying about preparing a face to present as he goes out into a world of strangers, a process that acquires a dark tint due to the mention of murder:
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;
Prufrock then slips back into the second person mode with which he began the poem, as if he is addressing someone he knows, but remaining in a mode of radical indecision as he anticipates a simple moment like tea time as a momentous event that must be extensively planned and thought out:
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.
All the while, those mysterious women are still trying to impress each other with their knowledge of Renaissance art:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Then, Prufrock seems to be anticipating a potential romantic encounter, though—feeling inadequate and terrified of rejection—he anticipates the encounter with little relish, feeling that his balding head and unimpressive physique might expose him to rejection and scorn. So he wonders if he dares make an overture, as if to do so would be a momentous undertaking that might disturb the universe. Surely, though, he here speaks with self-deprecating irony: he knows that his social interactions are of little concern to the universe and mocks himself for fretting so extensively over a potential event that is of no true import in the larger scheme of things:
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.
Try as he might to heroize his efforts, Prufrock feels that he is a prosaic figure in a prosaic world. He is not a conquering knight, but an ordinary man who lives in a routinized world where life is measured out as if in coffee spoons:
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?
Still contemplating his potential social encounter, Prufrock is obviously terrified of the scrutiny to which he might be exposed, self-consciously imagining all those eyes that might be looking at him like an entomological specimen pinned to a wall. It is, after all, scientific observation that has tamed the world and stripped it of magic, making human subjects like himself into objects. But he is also afraid of all those “I’s”—all those other subjects that might, being so different from himself (especially if they are women), also objectify him:
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?
Here, Prufrock imagines himself in the form of an insect, recalling all the insect imagery in Notes from Underground and paralleling even more closely the central conceit of “The Metamorphosis.” Prufrock, though, inserts what might be taken as a bit of a boast—he has actually had his share of experience with women, or so he claims, but it never really amounted to much (perhaps because he seems to objectify women into collections of body parts and bits of clothing and jewelry):
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?
He then proposes an alternative formulation, envisioning his past romantic adventures in the most mundane way possible, stripping them of all romance:
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? …
Finally, in exasperation, Prufrock concludes that he might have been better off to be some primitive sea creature living on the floor of the ocean (and thus free of all the social games and maneuvers that, for him, make up human interactions:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
Having reached a seeming low point, Prufrock returns to his theme of anticipating a possible upcoming encounter, wondering if he will have the courage to go through with making a romantic advance (or if it even matters). Far from being a mythical hero, he is somehow so unimportant that his adventures can hardly constitute more than a joke on the cosmic scale of things:
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
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.
Moreover, continues Prufrock, again poking a bit of fun at his tendency to make mountains out of social molehills, would it really be worth risking the embarrassment of making an overture, only to have his courageous gesture rebuffed as a mere miscalculation:
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.”
Prufrock continues his attempt to explain his predicament and why he is so worried about his upcoming encounter but finds that language simply does not serve him. He ends up simply repeating his concern that he has perhaps misread the situation:
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
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.”
Prufrock now turns to literary allusions to produce another self-deprecating suggesting that he is no one special. He is no protagonist of a grand drama, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Were he in a play, he would merely be a member of the supporting cast. Perhaps he would be an advisor, but possibly such a bad one that he would border on being the king’s fool:
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.
Alas, concludes Prufrock, he is growing old. If he has achieved nothing special at this point, he is not likely to do so. It is perhaps time for him to stop even fantasizing about doing great things. Perhaps eating a peach is about as big a challenge as he is likely to overcome. No romance will be coming his way; no mermaids, those images of exotic romance, will be singing to him:
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.
Daraiseh, Isra, and M. Keith Booker. “Jokes from Underground: The Disintegration of the Bourgeois Subject and the Progress of Capitalist Modernization from Dostoevsky to Todd Phillips’s Joker.” Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol.48, No. 3, Summer 2020, Available on-line at https://lfq.salisbury.edu/_issues/48_3/jokes_from_underground_the_disintegration_of_the_bourgeois_subject_and_the_progress_of_capitalist_modernization_from_dostoevsky_to_todd_phillips_joker.html.
Eliot, T. S. “The Metaphysical Poets.” Selected Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode. Faber and Faber, 1975, pp. 59–67.
Malcuit, William Q. “The Poetics of Political Failure: Eliot’s Antiliberalism in an American Context.” Twentieth-Century Literature, Vol. 62, No. 1, March 2016, pp. 75-95
Stillman, Anne. “Prufrock and Other Observations.” The New Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. Jason Harding. Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp.41–54.
Trotter, David. “T. S. Eliot and Cinema.” Modernism/Modernity, Vol.13, No. 2, April 2006, pp. 237–65.
 London is a city famous for both its fog and its pollution. Thus, while the setting of this poem is obviously intended to be a sort of generalized modern city, these lines do suggest that London is the model.
 In 1939, Eliot published a book of light verse entitled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. This book eventually became the inspiration for the hit stage musical Cats, which premiered on London’s West End in 1981 and on Broadway in 1982, alter becoming a much discussed film in 2019.
 Time is a central concern of this poem, as it is of modernism in general. Prufrock mostly wastes time, almost as a sort of unconscious protest against the emphasis on efficient use of time in the modern world. Here, he would seem to be alluding to the line “Had we but world enough and time” from the poem “To His Coy Mistress,” written around 1650 by metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, one of Eliot’s favorites. In Marvell’s poem, the speaker protests the fact that his loved one is resisting his advances, thus wasting time. Here, though, it is the speaker Prufrock who is himself wasting time.
 Apparently a reference to a long poem entitled “Works and Days,” written by the ancient Green poet Hesiod around 700 BC. This time addresses a time of agrarian crisis in ancient Greece, when crop failures necessitated a series of colonial adventures in search of new farmlands. Here, there is a suggestion that, in the modern world, time has become a commodity, managed and controlled for maximum economic output.
 Reminiscent of Hamlet’s “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space,” but perhaps more likely another reference to “To His Coy Mistress,” in which Marvell’s speaker says, “Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball.”
 Hamlet is perhaps the one literary character best known for hesitating. One might therefore think of him as a model for Prufrock, but Prufrock himself realizes that he is nothing like Hamlet, who hesitates before taking monumental actions, while Prufrock’s contemplated actions are trivial.