Of Poetry and Fire (Analysis #1: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot).

This is the first in a series I am beginning to write based on poetry dated anywhere from the 16th century to the present. These essays will range from discussing the different writers and authors: T.S. Eliot, William Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Robert Browning, William Carlos Williams, etc. It is not concrete.

T.S. Eliot, after Edgar Allan Poe, was a large inspiration in my own poetry at one point. I was fascinated by his style and phrasing, and one of the very first poems I’ve read from him after “The Wasteland” was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

What always generated a peculiar interest in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to me was the epigraph preceding the first stanza of the poem:

“If I but thought that my response were made
to one perhaps returning to the world,
this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.
But since, up from these depths, no one has yet
returned alive, if what I hear is true,
I answer without fear of being shamed.”—From Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno”, translated from Italian to English (translation provided here).

Authors often give us a taste of the poem in different ways whether accentuation through italics, using bold, including a direct quote, referencing a modern or deceased writer, etc, etc—it can be suspected that this is what T.S. Eliot is doing here. The stanza from Dante’s “Inferno” explicates in the first three lines a fear of statement said to those returning to the world, the deceased. Dante is rather saying that his “tongue of flame” would no longer flicker. A tongue of flame may seem to be the exuberance in making a statement, whether in excitement or controversy, or it perhaps may be more reminiscent to anger or resentment of the dead. If it no longer flickers, there is fear manifesting within the narrator.

The remaining three lines evince that interpretation. Since the dead cannot rise to life, thus far, the narrator feels no shame in answering, whether it be answering a question itself or answering it honestly.

Let us now go through every few lines in “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock” and break them down to atoms as much as we can.

“Let us go then, you and I,  
When the evening is spread out against the sky  
Like a patient etherised upon a table;  
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,  
The muttering retreats         
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels  
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”

The first three lines explore two people, the narrator beckoning the other to going with them in different places; the evening is described as “like a patient etherised upon a table”. This can be indicative to the evening itself, a glance briefly illuminated through the nature versus character perspective. The evening is calm and still. The narrator continues on the vivid retreat to different locations and places, and he starts listing them off as such:

“Streets that follow like a tedious argument  
Of insidious intent  
To lead you to an overwhelming question …          
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”  
Let us go and make our visit.”

There seems to be a fear that follows them. Insidious itself can be a good indicator of this. Who the narrator is addressing experiences apprehension, or perhaps it is the narrator themselves asking: “What is it?” before they move on wanting to try to make that very visit. The following couplet is only repeated twice in the poem:

“In the room the women come and go  
Talking of Michelangelo.”

Michelangelo, a painter, lived during the Italian Renaissance period. The Renaissance period highlighted the individuality of people and humanity itself, which was a break in the construct of itself against the power of the Roman Catholic Church. These powers were challenged, and the Church aspired their believers to follow the Church’s principles, faith, and beliefs such as, for example, with Geocentrism (the Geocentric model where the earth is at the center of the universe; everything else orbits around the earth), often rejecting and condemning scientists that believed in other ideas not germane to the Church.

It is symbolic why the Church believed in Geocentrism. The universe itself represented God, and as the center of all things, it would make perfect sense for them to consider that we must be very special. If we are placed in the middle of the universe, it is fate and it is an act of God. While it was not outright rejected, Nicolaus Copernicus, the creator of the Heliocentric model, was banned from the Catholic Church.

“In the room the women come and go  
Talking of Michelangelo.”

Back to this, here are some thoughts. Is Michelangelo a reference to art at a museum if looking at this piece symbolically? He is an essential figure in artistry. Is it rather as direct as it is, that the women are speaking of Michelangelo? Is this perhaps germane to freedom and fear? Talking of such a powerful figure in art history shows an interest in what it presides in that very history. Art itself is history. When conversing about this figure, even if minutely said, there is a raveling theme of freedom and fear. The fear first presented when the narrator says, “Oh, do not ask, “What is it?””

“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,         
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes  
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,  
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,  
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,  
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,          
And seeing that it was a soft October night,  
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.”

Factories became common in the North with the Second Industrial Revolution, which introduced mass production to the United States with technological advances.

The Second Industrial Revolution began during the Civil War, and it built upon the First Industrial Revolution by improved machinery equipment and inventions (seed drills for one example) which limited employment for farmers. Cities were being populated by the prospect of jobs.

We are witnessing dynamics in the workday of, at the time this poem was written then published, 1910 through 1915. Smoke was a common problem that contributed to air pollution. Because of this, black soot from the factories would turn tree bark black. Interestingly enough, it gave black moths the advantage to hide from predators and outlive white moths as they were able to blend in with the bark (all the workings of natural selection in play).

In the poem, it then states the time of October. I briefly went into this at dVerse about poetry that takes place in or around the autumn and October, and poetry that references the season itself. We can look at this and think this must be a time of transition, while often death, it is still a metamorphosis. What change would occur during this time? We can look at it for what it is–a month in the year it was written in that mentions serenity of falling asleep in the comfort of one’s own home. We can look at it for its history too. More on that later.

Face value, this poem so far emanates wanting a change or metamorphosis. Visiting different places, forgetting anxiety or hesitancy, then now a brief glimpse of normal life being peaceful and perhaps predictable.

“And indeed there will be time  
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,  
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;          
There will be time, there will be time  
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;”

There will be time to change. There will be time to prepare, as Eliot seems to hint at. “a face to meet the faces that you meet” signifies a transition from being timid to being prepared. You will go a lifetime of meeting different faces, and it is up to you on how you engage and act. Is it with fear, hesitancy, or preparation? Is it expected or unexpected? Is there emotion or is there none based on the circumstances you will encounter?

“There will be time to murder and create,  
And time for all the works and days of hands  
That lift and drop a question on your plate;          
Time for you and time for me,  
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,  
And for a hundred visions and revisions,  
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

We will murder into our indulgences and desires, we will create what makes us impassioned. We will have time between our work-life to indulge in our hobbies and pastimes to have fun with and without each other. Yet, this brings a time while in the in-between to have doubts, to have dreams and visions in the midst, and to revise before taking act of these plans and desires. Once more, let us murder and create. These actions involve indecision, visions, and revisions. Let us act with desire.

“In the room the women come and go          
Talking of Michelangelo.”

Again, freedom among fear is a prevalent theme throughout this poem. The couplet is no exception since if we take Michelangelo as a model, he is the epitome of freedom in creation, delving into individualism through different mediums such as with sculpting or painting.

“And indeed there will be time  
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”  
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!”]  
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,  
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—  
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]  
Do I dare         
Disturb the universe?  
In a minute there is time  
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

Should I dare take this action? I will do it, but in face of others (anxiety or insecurity front and center from the narrator), should I seize this moment? Is it mine?

“Do I dare         
Disturb the universe?  
In a minute there is time  
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

Should I bother with fate? Perhaps even if I change fate, would it still occur this way or not? Do I then disturb what is out there? There is time to decide and revise, and then there is time to reverse my decisions in an instant among my indecision.

“For I have known them all already, known them all:—  
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,          
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;  
I know the voices dying with a dying fall  
Beneath the music from a farther room.  
  So how should I presume?”

I have known my days as I lived them and measured them through predictability. I do not act with spontaneous desire and I will eventually die this way, unknown to what I will experience if I had acted out in what I wanted without fear holding me back from my desires. I know others who may die the same and are dying now. How then do I presume knowing that?
“And I have known the eyes already, known them all—         
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,  
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,  
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,  
Then how should I begin  
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?         
  And how should I presume?  

I have stared in its face the preambles to desire that pull me closer to its tide. I have known the eyes that wanted me to take risk and chances. When I am then confronted on my avoidance, how do I reveal the predictability of my days and mannerisms? How do I continue to acknowledge that in presence of fear?

“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!]  
It is perfume from a dress        
That makes me so digress?  
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.  
  And should I then presume?  
  And how should I begin?”

I have known the arms from myself and others, and as with light, they change in time in how they appear. What makes me feel fear? Is it the stir of perfume from women? Does my fear of my desires, especially romantically, cause me to pause and not pursue them? How would I start?

Personally, I believe the narrator is likening his fear to the pull of infatuation. It is a great comparison that manifests as one of his desires.
“Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets         
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes  
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…  
I should have been a pair of ragged claws  
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

I have watched the lonely men that are, perhaps, like me. Is there truly a similarity among us? I should not have been born the way I am; I should have been born stentorian, commanding, and known. Essentially, confident and to act without fear and to act without fear of consequences.

“And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!        
Smoothed by long fingers,  
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,  
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.  
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,  
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?        
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.”

Time comes so quick that there will soon be no time at all. Should I let the moment be or force it to occur? But though as I had wept and prayed, I had seen myself for what I was: I reside myself to an internal moment, my confidence and greatness flicker. I was afraid of myself and my desires. I was afraid of myself and others, and what they think.

“And would it have been worth it, after all,  
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,  
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,  
Would it have been worth while,          
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,  
To have squeezed the universe into a ball  
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,  
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,  
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—          
If one, settling a pillow by her head,  
  Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.  
  That is not it, at all.””

Would such moment, had it been forced, be worth it after all we have been through? If I had the courage like that of Lazarus rising from the dead, I shall tell you now I can act without fear of my wants and desires. However, in my indecision, I take these words back.

“And would it have been worth it, after all,  
Would it have been worth while,          
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,  
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—  
And this, and so much more?—  
It is impossible to say just what I mean!  
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:         
Would it have been worth while  
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,  
And turning toward the window, should say:  
  “That is not it at all,  
  That is not what I meant, at all.””

Would it have been worth it after all this time, all the memories I remember, and everything we’ve been through and more? I cannot, even in this moment, say exactly what I want. If some essence were to display my nerves in tangible perception, it would still not explain how I feel and what my fears are. It would not do justice the fear I have felt for all this time, consecutively.

“No! 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. “

I am not erratic or mad, and I do not act with intent. I would use the prince as a pawn to “start a scene or two” and I will be cautious if not careful. But, though, I am a bit dull and unlike the prince who is a tool, I am at times, the Fool.

The narrator is almost considering using a vessel to enact his desires, but concedes that while careful and cautious, he would be “a bit obtuse” and a fool in this endeavor.

“I grow old … I grow old …         
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.  
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?  
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.  
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.  
I do not think that they will sing to me.”

Time goes on and I grow old. Should I start indulging in these dares now? Should I live the life I want to live? Even if I had heard desire itself, I do not think it will call to me, those types of dreams I once had.    
“I have seen them riding seaward on the waves  
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back  
When the wind blows the water white and black.  
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.”

I have witnessed it before manifesting in others. We have lingered before together, until we wake and drown into our fixed patterns. We are brought back from dreams to the reality that reminds us of our faults.

This entire poem, in its pith, consumes into the depths of fear and how it prevents one from acting on their utmost desires and wants, whether it be an action or decision. This poem delves with missed chances especially with potential relationships in which romantic context is the heart of this poem (pun intended).

This says it all: “And in short, I was afraid.” Fear prevents us from evolving from what holds us back. We can think and dream, the same with having the power to decide, visualize, and revise. You can construct an empire in your imagination, but never exact it in reality. We isolate in our wants and desires internally that we become the fool in our construct of such illusion, and we end up more isolated and alone when we actively choose not to make a decision and act in a moment, especially when a moment calls for it to be forced. Moments do not always bring ample opportunity and to rear its ugly head would be a change in the succession of individual patterns.

When we observe the history, this poem was penned and eventually published before and during World War I. A time of emerging tensions between countries, a life still of relative peace in the United States before their involvement in the war after Germany broke the Sussex pledge. As well, when the Russian Revolution occured, it created a democratic government in Russia that effectively overthrew their monarchy. Russia withdrew from the Allies and the war, which was another factor that led the U.S. into taking the empty space against the Central Powers.

With this in mind, there was a destabilization regarding the country being involved in a World War. The war was one of the largest factors that pushed the United States into isolationism. This piece reflects the idea of being isolated and alone; and perhaps were this to manifest WWI itself, it could delineate that the act of engaging itself is risky, one beckoning the question if it is indeed worthwhile? Engaging in isolationism pushes away trade and other matters concerning foreign countries. By acting in haste, a moment is ruined. Acting haste in a war has the same impact just as being too hesitant.

This poem is not about war. It is about the personal connection of our inner fears and desires. By referencing the arts and humanities, it envelops us into an idea of freedom from fear–a capability to act on desire, while not on impulse, is the idea that seduces the most weary of those in thought. By not acting free, one is repressing themselves of the future they could have. They will never know otherwise as they are linear in their patterns, afraid to break away from the known to explore the excitement that urges us into the unknown.

What are your thoughts regarding “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? Feel free to discuss. I will be posting, hopefully, twenty poem analyses in the near future for this series. Every other week, I will choose and deconstruct a poem to its bare-bones and atoms, including what I think is referenced and the history, if applicable, as well.

I hope you could enjoy this analysis. The next one should not be as long.

13 thoughts on “Of Poetry and Fire (Analysis #1: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot).”

  1. The information and the thoughts you shared. I enjoyed. I read a few times dear Lucy. You gave the reader many things to think about. The World War one and two poets and writers left us with something to think about. I wish some of Salinger books would come out. Hemingway wrote like he was far away from the wars. He wasn’t. He was a reporter in the take-down of Germany in WW2. I believe the writers, men and women needed hard skin and strong bodies to survive the World wars. i liked how you set-up the words and thoughts. Easy to read and worthwhile knowledge. I have been reading Hemingway books and all of Salinger’s published work. Thank you Lucy for sharing the outstanding work.

    Liked by 1 person

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