A modernist exercise in capitalist angst, T.S. Eliot’s famous masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” at once exposes the crumbling of bourgeois society and the utter disintegration of its culture as a meaningful epoch. Considered by many to be the first modernist poem, its verses certainly carve out a splendid picture of the isolation and contempt for the status quo that marks modernist and postmodernist literature. More than that, it illustrates the emptiness and superficiality of class society through the middle-class male persona of the narrator, who is kept nameless but is presumably Eliot himself speaking through a fictional character.
The sense of being lost begins with the quotation at the beginning of the poem. Translated, it reads: “If I thought my answer were to one who could ever return to the world, this flame would move no more; but since no one has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer you.” The quote, which comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, is originally spoken by a lost soul in hell. This gives quite a first impression of the emotions to come from the main body of the poem.
In the first stanza, when the narrator asks a person, presumably a woman, to accompany him on a stroll through the streets of downtown, already the man’s thoughts have drifted to the decay of class society. He describes “half-deserted streets,” “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels,” and “streets that follow like a tedious argument/ of insidious intent.” This continues throughout-everything around him seems to be molding, rotting and rusting. Most revealing is his description of “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells,” a contrast between the perceived “low-class” imagery of sawdust on the floors of a restaurant and the “high-class” imagery of the oysters on a half-shell. The narrator hates the upper-crust and empty society of London. This is significant, since in real life Eliot tried to escape such a culture, but his greedy wife lured him back in by insisting he get a “real” job other than writing.
The couplet, “In the room the women come and go/ talking of Michelangelo,” is repeated over and over at various stages in the poem, showing the two-fold mindset of wanting attention from women and fearing to get it, and criticizing the pretentiousness of the refined. The narrator realizes throughout that bourgeois capitalist culture, that is, the culture of the dominant class, expressed these days through advertising and television, is vapid, hollow and worth nothing. Even the aristocrat women of such a culture are worthless to him, which he reveal when he says, “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!]” He notices the flaws of these shallow women, in this case the arm hair, which become symbolic for the larger imperfections of the social order they represent. He is even hesitant to participate in the classy activity of “taking toast and tea,” and in fact seems to find it reprehensive.
Not only does our narrator criticize the culture of the society itself, and the people which make up that society, but he also condemns the unsavory pillars which uphold that society. “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes” can be interpreted to be either (or both) mustard gas and sickening smog. In another time-honored modernist tool, Eliot seemingly parodies the insanity of imperialist war and capitalist pollution with these images, two things which have helped give rise to the society he so hates.
Nevertheless, he saves his most biting criticisms for himself. He imagines himself as a foolish and aging old man, unable to command even the small amount of respect from women he has already: “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair/ [they will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’]” He speaks in subtle code about his lost sexual performance as an old man when he asks himself, “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices/ have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” It is in this section of the poem that his pack of insecurities comes to a head with him claiming to have, “seen the moment of my greatness flicker” and to have “seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.” The eternal Footman in this context is probably death, personified by the grim reaper, handing him his coat-an activity normally reserved for when one is about to depart-in order that he may “depart” from his life.
His anxiety peaks with the famous statement, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” from which the poem switches moods. The narrator’s fears become free-floating and ever sharper, as he questions whether it is worth it to be bold or if life itself is pointless. He asks himself if it “would be worth it” if he should end up having to say: “that is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.” He fears mistakes he will make and anticipates the ways in which the woman he desires will misunderstand him. His insecurity, which in itself is a social construct of the system he despises, knows no bounds. “No!” he claims, “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.” He feels he is not good enough or brave enough to be the hero character of fable, the knight in shining armor. This shows betrays a patriarchal mindset in which he, the male lead role, is the virtuous hero of the story who is the center of attention and praise, another social construct which is programmed into men as being the most ideal by bourgeois culture.
Finally, the world the poem has constructed so far abruptly collapses. There is suddenly no more talk of the city, or of culture, or of the narrator himself taking a walk with the woman he is with. He bemoans his fate of aging one last time with the line, “I grow old…I grow old…I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” this time talking in present tense, as if all hope is already lost. The scene changes to a fantasy of the narrator’s where he is walking along a peaceful beach with singing mermaids. Yet, even in this beautiful imaginary setting, our storyteller has no control over his own life or his surroundings. “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each” he says, “I do not think that they will sing to me.” Even in fantasy, he is marked with hopelessness and loneliness.
Finally, wading into the ocean of his pretend world, he says, “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.” He realizes real human voices must eventually awaken him from this dream world, and once again he feels lost. The poem ends with the disturbing imagery of drowning, which has the symbolic meaning of the narrator drowning in his raging insecurities about everyday life, aging, and of his sexual advances towards women being turned down, even in dreams. Eliot’s poem leaks cynicism, wit and anxiety in its carefully crafted stanzas.