The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Critical Essay by Bruce Hayman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
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Critical Essay by Bruce Hayman

SOURCE: "How Old Is Prufrock? Does He Want to Get Married?", in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 59-68.

In the following essay, Hayman argues that two distinctly different interpretations of "Prufrock" develop depending upon how the reader interprets the character's age and intent.

Before I try to answer the two questions which entitle this essay, I would like to pose a third question and try to answer it: what difference does it make? What difference does it make whether Prufrock is young or middle-aged, or whether he wants to get married or not? For a number of reasons, I think that it makes a significant difference.

First, it is a question of reading T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." What do we know about J. Alfred Prufrock, and how do we know that?

Second, depending upon how we answer these two questions, we have very different poems. A poem in which a young Prufrock desires to sexually proposition the poem's unnamed female is very different from a poem in which a middle-aged Prufrock desires to propose marriage. The difference between a proposition and a proposal is significant because there are two different sets of sensibilities involved. Such a difference tells us a good deal about what Prufrock thinks about the unnamed female and how he considers himself. Of course, there are not just two possible answers to these questions. It could be that a young Prufrock is proposing marriage or that a middle-aged Prufrock desires to make a sexual proposition. Still, the questions and their attendant sensibilities need to be differentiated.

Third, if Prufrock is a young man, then the poem takes on a much more autobiographical meaning. Eliot, after all, was a young man when he wrote the poem—about twenty-two or twenty-three in 1910–11. If Prufrock is middle-aged, we would likewise need to ask why a young Eliot was attracted to creating a middle-aged narrator.

Fourth, if Prufrock is a young man, then the structural and thematic similarities between Prufrock and the young narrator of "Portrait of a Lady" become striking—so striking, in fact, that it would be valid to argue that the Prufrock character narrates both poems. If Prufrock is middle-aged, the similarity between the narrators is different and less obvious.

Fifth, there is one final, intriguing possibility. If Prufrock is a young man who is interested in a one-night sexual fling with a woman whom he cares little about, then that situation is very similar to the mechanical, sexual encounter between the "young man carbuncular" and the "typist" in the middle section ("The Fire Sermon") of The Waste Land. The notes to The Waste Land tell us that "What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem." If Eliot was exploring the sensibilities of arbitrary sexual encounters in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," does that mean that he "had the experience but missed the meaning"—a meaning he realized a decade later in The Waste Land (194)? There is a possibility of a strong thematic connection here. On the other hand, if Prufrock is middle-aged and proposing marriage, such a thematic connection probably does not exist.

With this rationale in mind, we can turn to the original two questions, and I would like to examine first the question of whether Prufrock is contemplating marriage in this poem, because that is the easier question to deal with. Two critics, Elisabeth Schneider and Balachandra Rajan, have suggested that the "overwhelming question" is a marriage proposal, and while they have not enumerated their reasons, we can look to the poem itself for evidence.

What evidence is there that Prufrock wants to marry the poem's female? First, the title may offer two clues. A "Love Song" is usually sung to someone whom you know well and with whom you are in love. "Love" is more closely associated with marriage than with one-night sexual encounters. Also, the name "J. Alfred Prufrock" is about as asexual as one can find. One can more easily imagine someone named J. Alfred Prufrock being married than prowling the town as a sexual stud. The formality of the name suggests a more formal relationship like marriage. Second, Prufrock does not present himself as a sexual creature—far from it. His self-depiction is of a person who is prim, proper, fastidious—and fully clothed: "My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin." He also describes himself as thin and balding—altogether not a particularly seductive package. Third, Prufrock seems to come from an upper-middle class or upper-class environment, where marriage would be more the norm for love songs. He is well educated and articulate, and he seems to refer to drawing rooms where women discuss Michelangelo or from which music emerges. There are also a lot of proper, upper-middle class things in the poem: plates, toast, tea, marmalade, coffee spoons, cakes, ices, novels, dooryards, shawls, and terraces. All of these proper things suggest a proper environment where one has proper relationships. These are not the accouterments of seduction: there is not a lot of alcohol, loud music, or bawdy songs and conversation. Fourth, Prufrock is far more intellectual than physical. There are references in the poem to Dante, Michelangelo, Lazarus, John the Baptist, Hamlet, and Hesiod. Prufrock is a very bookish sort who seems more intent on writing a term paper than on seducing anyone. Fifth, Prufrock apparently feels that the question which he wants to ask the female is "over-whelming," that some sort of crisis is involved which may ruin the rest of his life. A proposition for a one-night encounter would not be so momentous, but an unreciprocated marriage proposal might be. Sixth, there is not much standard reference in the poem to the joys of sex. He does mention "one-night cheap hotels" obliquely, but there is no reference to beds, sheets, bodies, euphoria, or any other stock sexual symbol. Finally, we can compare Prufrock to Apeneck Sweeny, another Eliot character, who was very physical and sexual, and who rapes an epileptic and then calmly shaves. Such a comparison leaves Prufrock looking pale, prim, overdressed, intellectual, and therefore more probably singing a "love song" about marriage than about sex.

On the other hand, what evidence is there in the poem that Prufrock desires to make a sexual proposition rather than a marriage proposal? First, if Prufrock were trying to make a marriage proposal, he would know the female fairly well—well enough that her presence would figure in his imagination. But Prufrock seems to know very little about this woman. She does not even have a name. Second, there is no evidence in the poem that they have ever spent any time together, except for the fact that she allows him to be alone with her while she lounges on pillows on the floor. Had they spent any time together, those encounters would figure in his thinking, and he would have some indication that she might be receptive to his proposal. His rationale would be: because she smiled or laughed this day, or because we spent so many days or evenings together, or because we did this or that, this marriage proposal is at least plausible. But this is a couple with no past, which suggests that he does not have marriage on his mind. Third, he depicts her as lounging on the floor beside him among assorted pillows. This depiction suggests a more relaxed, informal, and sexual environment. It is, at least, more seductive than is necessary for a proper marriage proposal. Fourth, what Prufrock does tell us about her is almost exclusively physical. He concentrates on her body and says nothing about her mind or personality. He is aware of her arms, her bracelets, and her shawl. He does not even seem aware of her face—a standard poetic source for observations about complexion, eyes, lips, and hair. Prufrock's mind is telescoped toward the woman from the neck down. Fifth, while it is true that Prufrock is fastidious and proper, he is also sensually aroused in this poem. There is, for example, a long sensual depiction of the cat-like fog at the beginning of the poem: "The yellow smoke … rubs its muzzle on the window panes, / [and licks] "its tongue into the corners of the evening." He is also aware that her perfume is affecting his thoughts ("Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?"). And he does focus on her arms, which are "braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)." The focus on her arms may seem odd until we remember that a woman in 1910–11 would be more fully clothed than a woman today, and her arms would have been the only exposed part of her body. The focus on the arms has a strangely endearing combination of propriety and sexuality—as though Eliot wanted to write a poem about sexuality but was afraid his mother might read it. Sixth, it is true that Prufrock is prim, proper, overdressed, well educated, intelligent, articulate, and at least upper-middle class. He also has a funny name. But none of those qualities means that he is necessarily not interested in sex; certainly those qualities never held back Bertrand Russell. Prufrock may be, to use an overused twentieth-century word, "repressed," and he is certainly extremely introverted. But sexual repression was much more the norm at the beginning of this century, and in any event, repression does not negate the validity of sexual desire—in fact, repression indicates a desire is there to be repressed. Finally, if Prufrock desires a one-night sexual encounter and feels that the woman may decline, why is he getting so upset? Surely there must be many more women in the world whom he could quickly come to know as well as he knows this woman. But Prufrock sees this woman as a test case, a kind of conscious Rubicon. If he cannot force himself to make a sexual proposition to this unnamed, generic female commodity, he feels doomed to an asexual life of virginity—a devastating prospect if it is undesired. To him, she is, in a sense, all women. In other words, he is thinking: "I cannot succeed with this woman; therefore, I will never succeed with any woman, and my life will always be a lonely, asexual hell." That is the prospect which makes this encounter so crucial to him and which makes it appear, along with the other evidence, that Prufrock's question is a sexual proposition.

There are thus valid reasons for arguing that Prufrock's aborted question is either a marriage proposal or a sexual proposition. In my judgment, that question is a sexual proposition, and the most persuasive argument for that interpretation is the fact that Prufrock seems to know so little about the woman or even care about her. She has no name, no distinguishable face, no personality, and no past history. I do not think that it is persuasive to assume that Prufrock would propose marriage to such a nonentity.

The second and more complex question is whether Prufrock is a middle-aged man or a young man. By "middle-aged" I mean around forty or older; by "young" I mean in his early twenties. There is some disagreement among Eliot's critics about the age of Prufrock, but the consensus is that he is middle-aged. For example, John Crowe Ransom notes that "Prufrock is of middling age"; A. G. George agrees: "Prufrock is a middle-aged man"; Lyndall Gordon calls Prufrock "the timid, aging lover"; George Williamson refers to Prufrock's "unromantic middle-age"; and Grover Smith finds a possible source for Prufrock in a character from Henry James's "Crapy Cornelia" named "White-mason, a middle-aged bachelor of nostalgic temperament." Elisabeth Schneider disagrees, in part, saying that Prufrock is "a young man who has never been really young," and Stephen Spender calls Prufrock "a man of uncertain age." Late in his life, Eliot himself ambiguously split the difference by saying that Prufrock was partly a forty-year-old man and partly himself.

What evidence is there, then, in the poem to indicate that Prufrock is middle-aged? First, Prufrock refers to himself as aging: "I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." He also sees himself wasting away, growing slightly decrepit: "(They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!')." A young man in his early twenties would normally not make such statements or be thinking about growing old. Second, Prufrock describes himself with middle-aged characteristics. Twice he refers to going bald. "And indeed there will be 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!')." Later, he says: "I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter." Worrying about balding is a normal preoccupation of middle-aged men, but not of young men. Third, Prufrock places repeatedly heavy emphasis on his considerable knowledge ("For I have known them all already, known them all"), which could probably only have been acquired during a more substantial life span. Also, his allusions to Hamlet, Hesiod, Lazarus, John the Baptist, and so on suggest a substantial education which would have required some substantial time span. Fourth, for me the best argument for his being middle-aged is a passage in the middle of the poem where he shifts into the present perfect tense and seems to indicate his past life:

     But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
     Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)
     brought in upon a platter,
     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.

The reference to his past is mainly metaphorical, rather than practical, but it does suggest substantial elapsed time. It also suggests that he is already going bald and feels strongly the passage of time flowing through him. Finally, at the end of the poem, Prufrock sees himself as Polonius, a middle-aged character in Hamlet: "Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two." All of these repeated references to aging, balding, education, and middle-aged characters, combined with his use of the present perfect tenses, suggest that Prufrock is a middle-aged man.

What evidence is there, then, for Prufrock being a young man? First, there is a freshness and an innocence in his worrying about this woman, as though he were confronting the situation for the first time. The poem is loaded with questions: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" "And how should I presume?" "And how should I begin?" "Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?" "Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" This flurry of questions suggests the bewilderment of youth over a new situation—everything is new and puzzling. Second, Prufrock is a character largely without a past. A forty-year-old man would have encountered other women previously, and those experiences would give him some clues about this situation. But Prufrock seems never to have encountered a woman before. He is totally inexperienced. He has no past to draw from to help him say the right words or make the right gestures. He is a social tabula rasa. Third, Eliot explains in Four Quartets how past consciousness merges with the present and the future. But Prufrock's mind is focused primarily on the present and the future. In a mind as active and lively as his, the past would certainly keep appearing in his confused mental state; but there is no past consciousness here swirling into the present. Fourth, it is true that Prufrock refers to himself as middle-aged or elderly, but he usually does so in the future tense (italics mine): "(They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!')"; "I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." Further, the heavy emphasis on the extraordinary amount of time which he has available to him is more indicative of youth than of middle age: "And indeed there will be time / … There will be time … There will be time." A middle-aged Prufrock would probably at least mention the time that has already been spent. Fifth, but why should a young man keep referring to himself as middle-aged or elderly? The answer is in the structure of the poem's argument. Prufrock is trying to understand, with all of his conscious knowledge and abilities, why he cannot sexually proposition a woman. Because he has looked at his problem theoretically and because he is intensely frustrated, he finds it easy to wallow in a kind of self-pity: I cannot succeed with this woman because of my particular structure of consciousness; therefore, I will never succeed with any woman, and my life will always be hell—from now until I am middle-aged or elderly. Life is over for me. But, of course, this sense of fatalism is really immature—much like the distraught teenager who feels that her life is ruined because her parents will not let her go to a party. Frustration, especially in the young, often multiplies monstrously of its own accord and causes one to rush to wild, negative, and illogical conclusions. Sixth, Prufrock's claims concerning his broad knowledge ("I have known them all already") would seem more characteristic of middle age if we believe those claims. But, in fact, his claims to knowledge are wildly exaggerated, and these exaggerations are more characteristic of precocious youth than of middle age. Youth is often overly impressed with what it knows "already" (a word Prufrock repeatedly uses), while maturity more often appreciates its limitations. Prufrock's heady claims are immature bravado. Finally, Prufrock suffers from a case of debilitating self-consciousness. But nearly every youth suffers to some degree from such self-consciousness, and nearly everyone gets over it and learns to deal with it be the time he is middle-aged. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" captures that youthful moment when life is being consciously born and is terrifyingly puzzling. Young Prufrock reminds us that "April is," indeed, "the cruelest month."

Those, then, are the major arguments for seeing Prufrock as either middle-aged or young. In my judgment, the evidence in the poem supports a youthful Prufrock. The major arguments which persuade me are that Prufrock has no past, that he is innocently and bewilderingly inexperienced, and that he immaturely leaps to the fatalistic conclusion that he will grow old unloved. I cannot see a middle-aged Prufrock having these characteristics. As I have indicated already, I believe that the questions of whether Prufrock is young or middle-aged and whether he wants to make a proposal or a proposition are important ones. Despite the wonderful complexity of Eliot's poems and ideas, and despite the wealth of entrenched criticism on those poems, we should never stop asking two basic questions: what do we know about Eliot's poems, and how do we know that?

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