The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

April 26, 2009 at 1:29 pm Leave a comment

The Poem as an Interior Monologue. As you read the poem, keep in mind that it is an “interior monologue.” This means that everything in the poem is spoken from inside of Prufrock’s mind. Therefore, try to understand the poem as an assembly or collage of images that all somehow reflect Prufrock’s state of mind. As you do so, keep your eye on the dramatic situation: Prufrock is walking somewhere through a bad side of Boston. He has somewhere to go. Where? Ask yourself where you think he has to go, and who he wants to see, and why he is anxious about the meeting. Then, notice three quarters through the poem that he passes up his destination. By the end of the poem, he is on the seashore, admitting his failure to reach his destination.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Use the questions below to help you in re-reading the poem. The questions could serve as points of interest and places that are important. Here, by the way, is T.S Eliot reading this poem in the 1920s, a famous recording. Perhaps you could listen to it as you read the poem, or read my questions. It is a beautiful and helpful reading.   Eliot\’s reading.

1. The famous first three lines always stumped people first reading the poem as they still do today. Can you imagine an editor reading this poem in 1915, and getting past the first three lines? More than likely, the opening of the poem is what made it end up in the wastebasket more than anything. How do you interpret the odd simile of lines 1 – 2: “Let us go then you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table.” How can the dusk look like a patient on a surgeon’s table about ready for the scalple? Further, what does it say about Prufrock’s state of mind, the way he sees the world?

2. Lines 4 – 12 essentially situates Prufrock and the reader in his location. It sort of gives both a sense of his environment, where he is, while it further develops his state of mind. Based on “half deserted steets,” “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells,” what part of town (Boston) is he in? How would you describe such an area of town?  What do you think Prufrock means by the simile (again, describing his surroundings), “Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent” ? What do the images of Boston he sees say about his frame of mind? How he sees the world?

3. Lines 11 – 12 suggest Pruforck’s destination, his intent in the poem: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.” In the context of the poem, where is Prufrock walking? Where may he be going? (Granted, you have very little information so far).

4. Like the first three lines, lines 13 -14 always throw students: “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” Why on earth are these two lines here, in the middle, suddenly?  What do they have to do with Prufrock’s thoughts?  It might be easier to consider oppositions. How do the two lines suggest a very different environment from the preceding lines?

5. Lines 15 – 23 are a wonderful meditation upon “yellow fog” that Prufrock obviously sees as he is walking to his “visit.” This passage is an example of imagism: when a poet uses “pictures,” visual “images” of usually natural aspects of the world to convey mood, impressions, meaning. Eliot was very influenced by “imagist’ poetry at the time, poets who would write very short poems that often would focus on just one image. In many ways, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a long series of imagist poems, linked together like a collage, in this case a sort of imagist-tapestry of Prufrock’s thoughts. Look at the passage of “yellow fog.” How does he describe the fog? Why is it “yellow?” Most importantly, what does the yellow fog resemble in Eliot’s description, as when it “rubs its muzzle” and “licked its tongue” and “Curled once about the house and fell asleep.” Why does Eliot compare the yellow fog to such resemblance? What does it say about Prufrock, and how he feels?

6. In lines 24 – 34, Prufrocks repeats “There will be time” six times. What type of mentality does Prufrock exhibit by repeating this line? What kind of anxiety is he expressing? Why might he be expressing this particular type of anxiety? (Remember, the visit.) When does a person, “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”?  What does he mean by, “time yet for a hundred indecisions /And for a hundred visions and revisions”?

7. In lines 37 – 49, Prufrock offers the first real details about the place /event he is possibly walking to. Notice that the passage is in the future tense, as he imagines what might happen if he goes. What is Prufrock self-conscious of? even paradoid about? What does his anxiety say about his supposed “crisis”?

A rough draft of Eliots poem. The piece of paper that launched poetic modernism! Whats cooler than that?

A rough draft of Eliot's poem. The piece of paper that launched poetic modernism! What's cooler than that?

8. In lines 49 – 69, Prufrock gives a long description of various social things. What people and type of society is he talking about? How does he feel about these people he describes, who we may assume are the people he would interact with at the “visit?” How does he feel about his position in this world?

9. In lines 87 – 98, Eliot makes a very subtle but important shift in the poem. It is a shift in grammar, in tense, “And would it have  been worth it . . . ”  What is the shift in tense, and what clue does this give us as to the action and development in the poem? What may it say about what Prufrock does (or doesn’t do)?

10. Up until lines 110, what type of scenario does he imagine as possibly might have happened in the future? What situation does he imagine could have happened? What does it say about Prufrock’s anxiety? What clue does it give us as to why Prufrock is old and alone?

11. Lines 111 – 119 are famous, beginning with “No! I am not Prince Hamlet” and ending, “the Fool.” Notice the movement–from Hamlet to the Fool. This is a kind of movement that happens a lot in the poem: Prufrock takes us often from a great height (“I have seen my head brough in upon a platter”) to a depth (‘I am not prophet.”). Why do you think Prufrock compares himself to Hamlet?  And then why does he, in the same breath, deny that there is a comparison?  What assessment does Prufrock make of himself in this passage?

12. Notice the shift in mood, tone and rythm in the final stanzas of the poem, lines 120 – 131. How does the mood, tone and rythm of the poem change?  How might it reflect a change in Prufrock’s frame of mind?  How does the setting of a seashore contribute to the change in tone?  Why does Prufrock bring up mermaids? What do mermaids symbolize (they have to be symbols, since mermaids don’t exist)? Why does he shift from mermaids in the very end to “sea-girls”?

TS Eliot was not the happiest human being. And he tended to make people around him fairly unhappy, too. The movie Tom and Viv is a pretty good portrait of his disasterous marriage with Vivian
TS Eliot was not the happiest human being. And he tended to make people around him fairly unhappy, too. The movie “Tom and Viv” is a pretty good portrait of his disasterous marriage with Vivian

13. Those last three lines of this poem haunt me. They always haunt me. Combined with the previous three lines, I think that the last two stanzas of this poem are the most beautiful in any poetry. High praise!  What is Eliot saying? What do you think he means that “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea,” and why do we linger “Till human voices wake us, and we drown”? Why do we drown? Why is it “human voices”? What other kinds of voices can there be?

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MODERNISM: 1901 – 1945. The New World. Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Questions for Reading and Thinking.

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