Quote of the Day: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” -T.S. Eliot
Something to Take to the Grave: An Analysis of “Prufrock” in Imagery
T. S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” paints a simple image of an elderly man lying in a hospital bed “like a patient etherised upon a table” (line 3). He lies there, old and worn at the end of his life, bald, deep wrinkles creasing his tired face–a manifestation of the struggles and stress of life. There is no one in the chair beside him, holding his hand, no one crying for him as he wheezes and coughs. He stares up at the ceiling, his medications pulling him in and out of consciousness, and each time he drifts off, memories of the past flood his mind, drawing all of his attention away from the present. Nostalgia sets in as his memories play across hi eyelids like a moving picture he sat too long in a theatre for…
“Let us go and make out visit.” (Line 12)
His memories unfold beginning at a crisis in his life. There he is, sitting in a slovenly apartment room with a lukewarm cup of coffee, staring out the window at the next building over. He stares longingly through the clear glass of the windows of that nice, new building, freshly painted while his wallpaper is peeling away at every seam, and he watches the ladies pass by in their fancy dresses and gold bracelets. In the room directly across from his, the curtains are never drawn. He gazes through that window as “the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo,” (Lines 13-14) yearning to be at the lovely parties they have with champagne and music. He wonders solemnly why the hell he can’t be like them, why they have it all when he has only his crummy flat and an old yellow cat that comes and goes as it pleases. He opens his window and can hear the gentle hiss of music in the air coming from across the narrow street. He wants to be one of them. He wants to be an asset to society instead of the burden he feels like. But he doesn’t know if he can. He doesn’t know how.
“To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?'” (Line 38)
He walks the dark, narrow streets at night, glancing from the crumbling building he lives in to the shining new apartment complex across from it. It seems like there is a different world on either side of the street. He looks up the athe buildings. On one side, there are “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows” (line 72) and on the other, there are the dark forms of partygoers swooping in and out of sight. Suddenly, an idea strikes him, an idea so profound that he must act on it before reason can reprimand him. He hurries up to his flat, and when he returns to the street, he is dressed in his best suit. He marches toward the new building, mustering up the courage to push through the doors and start up the flight of stairs, but alas! Thoughts cloud his mind. What would they think of him? He is too old, too bald, and too thin to be welcome, too fool to win the heart of any fair maiden willing to risk a conversation with him (if he only had the guts to persevere up the remainder of the steps and walk through that door). But what if he did? Would he dare? Oh, to speak to a woman so beautiful as the one who lives in the room just across the way! But what if she were to reject him? What would he do then? Would he stand there and be subjected to the gloating eyes of all of the guests as they laughed at him for even thinking he might fit in at one of their lavish celebrationss? No, he wouldn’t. He couldn’t! He returns home immediately, cursing himself for having such a useless idea and wondering why he couldn’t be the claws of some small crab on the sea floor rather than a human being, which constantly worries and thinks! Lonely and distraught, he banishes himself to his apartment room to sit by the window again and watch until the party disperses at midnight. The women disappear in the street below. He stares at the owner of the room as she sits to comb her hair by the open window, and he pours another cup of coffee, the lines on his face growing more evident.
“Would it have been worth while?” (Line 90)
He looks in the mirror each day after. He weeps and fasts, weeps and prays (Line 81), but he is always the same. He is always too old, too bald, too thin, and too fool for Michelangelo’s ladies to welcome him. He grows old in front of that lonely window, and “in the room, the women come and go…” (Line 35). He swallows the last drink in his coffee mug.
“Till human voices wake us…” (Line 131)
An elderly man lies in his hospital bed, older than he was only a moment ago. Another hair has fallen onto his pillow. Another line has drawn itself beside the corner of his mouth. But with age comes wisdom, and in a moment of perfect madness, he realizes that none of this chaos matters. He searched for the answer to some outstanding question his whole life, and only in death does he realize that the answer really wasn’t that important, after all. He was J. Alfred Prufrock… and that was all he ever needed to be. At some time, in some place, he had lived. He had existed in a world full of people wishing they could be at those grand parties, stand by those beautiful women, and be a part of their society, and he alone, had realized that none of that really mattered at all. This sudden thought, this realization, this discovery pulls him from his obsessive absorption in the past as if waking him from a long, tiring dream he’d just been waiting to wake up from. Then, in that same hospital bed, he slips quietly away with a clear mind and something to take with him to the grave–not simply a love like the ‘love’ that people say is ‘love.’ (he never gained the affection of any beautiful women) but a gentle and genuine love of life and J. Alfred Prufrock’s quest to get there.
T. S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock is not just a ‘love song,’ it’s a ‘Lovesong,’ a testament to the beauty of existence.
“…and we drown.” (Line 131)
(C)2012 H. D. Hunter
References: The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot, Public Domain