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James Barela

Benjamin - Eng 201

Prufrock's Room

Upon reading many critiques of TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” none of

them have had the impact of what images were cemented within me upon my initial vetting. I feel

most critical deconstructions to be the views of stuffy intellectuals that know little of the seedy

underbelly of sawdusted bars and one-nighter rooms. But odds are, neither did Eliot, apart from his

fantastic imagination. TS Eliot was a student of 22 when he first drafted “Prufrock” and it was four

years before he could reach a final draft. Around this age he was probably already being called on to

defend his work, and—though probably not, judging by his photographs—he may have even been

going bald; but still, I do not see this landmark poem as being a present-written portrait of himself;

indeed, the character of J. Alfred Prufrock seems middle-aged and lifeworn, bemoaning of growing

old when Eliot himself was actually young and writing a thing of terrible ferocity that was rebukingly

progressive to the then literary form. “Prufrock” hailed from the left field of accepted structure of

metaphor and simile, and yet not so far out as to be denied as the ravings of a madman—at least, not

unto further examination. In this essay, I shall attempt to show that while “The Love Song of J.

Alfred Prufrock” is a poem of metaphorical irony, the tenors of the vehicles, and even the meanings

of certain key lines, are not set in stone and are still open to interpretation, for in many ways, “The

Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” could be a fictional vision of TS Eliot’s possible future and not

necessarily based upon his 22 year old life, a time when he had complained in a letter to Conrad

Aiken of still being a virgin.

Before discussing the metaphors of irony, we must establish a meaning in my interpretation

of “Prufrock.” One of the most widely-accepted line implications is that of the repeating chorus: “In

the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” For whatever reason, reviewers have

solidified in their analyses of these two lines as of the being at a tea party, or some other high social

function where pedants would be discussing craftwork, like say at an art-house or museum. But

really, what within those two simple lines could possibly relay so much detail? At the easy mention of

a classical painter we suddenly shift from a drunken night of walking empty streets and cruising
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Benjamin - Eng 201

cheap hotels to being at an upscale gallery opening? And then right back into the frowzy, yellow city

that smells of dog urine? I think not. Far too much is unsaid here. And likely, purposely so. I would

say, here, in this stunted repeating stanza, once you assume to what it refers, the rest of the poem

fleshes out around that notion, and personally, I can never see even an inkling of tea and crumpets

and women in funny hats voicing pooh-poohs at an exhibition no matter how many times I read its

first appearance. Only at its second appearance is there but one line before it suggesting tea-time, but

for me, the first appearance defines its purpose, and it falls right into place with the stanzas that lie

yore and beyond it. The “room” is most easily translated as being just that, a room, a room in the

cheap hotel of which he spoke of in the first stanza that comes right before this two-line ‘chorus’, and

the women are bourgeois strumpets vying to impress him, the great poet. How one can reason

‘museum’ from “room” in the context these lines, is problematic to reckon. Poetic guesswork is a

doubly difficult duty to decode because it has everything to do with the decoder’s personality, at

least, before he or she learns what other decoders have guessed.

A circumstance that probably adds to the confusing, often contradictory interpretations of

this poem is that it was written over so long a period and on two different continents, leaving Eliot

time to cram in many convolutions. This is evident in the lines that immediately follow the ‘chorus’,

lines fifteen and sixteen: “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes/The yellow

smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes.” Many commentators call this out as his metaphor

for the London fog, as of London itself being seen as a place of filth. But why two lines? Because Eliot

himself said the smoke was the smoke wafting from the factories in St Louis [a little-known fact] so

these two lines could easily be seen as a comparison of the two cities [a perspective rarely noticed].

He likens the fog to the smoke while simultaneously likening the fog/smoke to a stray dog, adding

lines of it licking its nether regions and brimming the drains with its urine. Eliot’s mind is clearly not

a place for very genteel thoughts, and in fact, many considered this poem obscene from the

beginning with its inconceivable metaphor of comparing the night sky to an etherized body, so I am

left to wonder: why does no one assume the obviously suggestive, “In the room the women come and

go,” as just that, merely suggestive?

James Barela
Benjamin - Eng 201

I propose that the once-repeated lines are not frumps at a societal shindig, and not TS Eliot’s

reality, but they are an illustration of a 22-year-old-Eliot’s augural fantasy, just as the entire poem is

suchwise. In “Prufrock,” he sees a path that his life could take, that of the tortured, tavern-haunting

poet being doted upon by drunken pseudo-intellectual dames (showing his infamous misogyny),

exploring how inferior they will be to him and how they will try to impress him with their

comprehension of the arts (though the character’s worth of worship is doubted in the poem). He uses

them to gratify himself, becoming bored with their adorations and horrified by their explorations

into the meaning of his work, just as the Eliot of 22. In my interpretation, the “You” in “Prufrock,” is

not directed towards the reader, as so many speculate, but to one of the many fantasized sycophantic

lovers he takes. “Let us go then, you and I,/When evening is spread out against the sky” and “Let us

go and make our visit” (have sex), and he speaks of the women in his room: (the afternoon and

evening are) “Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me”, “settling a pillow by her head” and

“the skirts that trail along the floor.” These lines are clearly not directed at party-goers at a museum,

and why should these women be different than the women who come and go? He sees them gathered

round him in his room as he addresses them like a prophet returned from death, for such will be the

due power of his poetry, he imagines. If this besotted, sexual, contemptuous concept is accepted as

the theme of the poem, it will bring us to our first little bit of irony: the title.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” as a title in and of itself is ironic. Firstly, the humor

lies in how one with such an austere name could come to show such passion as to compose a love

song. Secondly, no interpretation of this poem could ever suggest that the character Prufrock is in

love; indeed, he is an exploiter of the concept. Even the name ‘Prufrock’ sounds like ‘defrock’,

suggesting the desired loss of his virginity, or perhaps the opposite. The poem seems to have a

certain void in it, caused by doubt and bitterness, a reluctance to state what he really wants to say, so

that whenever we read phrases of grandeur about disturbing the universe with his tremendous poetic

license, we feel irony; when he expresses doubt of his prophet-like status amongst the drunken

womanly rabble, we feel irony because the entire poem is an expression of desire, and, apparently:
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Benjamin - Eng 201

Eliot desires to become a poet of great renown, and yet still be filled with great self-deprecation. This

gives the entire poem tremendous ironic context throughout all its metaphors.

A metaphor that Eliot uses for his disdain towards the deconstruction of his work by beery

harlots is that of being an insect pinned up on display. This metaphor was used years before Kafka’s

bug. The line reads: “And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,/When I am pinned and

wriggling on a wall.” He clearly dislikes being put on the spot, or pigeon-holed, or ‘pinned down.’ He

goes on to say: “Then how should I begin/to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” Here he

expresses the difficulties of discussing, or ‘spitting out,’ his experiences that have led him to this

point, suggesting the days of his life have been burnt up like cigarettes (again sounding old), same as

his debauched ways have led him to this point of exploiting would-be thinkers as his whores, as if

this was the used up, cancerous results of his self-doubt seeking grandeur, like a false prophet.

When Eliot writes “Do I dare/Disturb the universe,” and “I am no prophet” and “I have seen

the moment of my greatness flicker” and “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you

all,” or “I am not Prince Hamlet,” the irony is that by denying these titles and outlandish capabilities,

he is suggesting that someone has already claimed him to be as such figures or capable of such power

and now he must refute them; that proclaimer may have even been himself, which, in a deeper irony,

it actually is, because he writes this as a yet unrecognized poet. TS Eliot doth protest too much, and

the irony is that in his denial he is actuality trying to escape scrutiny, wanting to achieve fame

without the price of being a spectacle, which leads us to another metaphor: the ocean.

The ocean becomes an increasingly important metaphor towards the end of the poem, in that

it moves us towards the isolation from his renown, which is ironic in that it is the future-desired

separation from the fame to which he aspires. It is given precedent in the lone lines: “I should have

been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” He picks up this theme again in

the last few stanzas of the poem, by walking along the beach as a has-been, listening to mermaids

sing like sirens drawing him towards fame and wrecking him upon the rocks. The mermaids are the

women he brings back to his room to lavish him and let him feel the power of his talents, but he does

not love them, and must resist them, for to believe their words, would be doom. The irony is that he
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must escape to the bottom of the sea, away from adoration, to feel powerful enough to deserve

adoration. But he denounces it all as being delusional—or will be in the future—in the last and quietly

emotional stanza: “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea [he is with the women in his room,

the true place of his isolation]/By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown [and there many

different women sing his praises (sea-girls/mermaids/sirens with hair of red and brown)]/Till

human voices wake us, and we drown.” [till the voice of reason, the terrestrial voice that can reach

our celestial height, breaks them from this spell of worshiping him by exposing him to be the fraud

that he is, and they all fall into despair, because they all believed it].

In conclusion, though I have focused on but a few key points, this does not mean I have

neglected to examine the entire poem for incongruities with my interpretation of TS Eliot’s “The

Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Through my lens, in believing the poem to be a future wish or a

fictional possible outcome of his talents, all parts of the poem can be fit into my ken. As the great

poems do, in “Prufrock,” we may find something of ourselves that compel us to delve deeper, to

shape the puzzle pieces until it becomes what we want the picture to be, and in this way, it becomes

opinion, for so much of the poem is open to interpretation, and this is the interpretation that moves

me, this is how I make the poem personal and memorable. Would that we could do so with all poetry,

but alas, it is only the great poems that can withstand to consent to let us to have our druthers.