Upon reading Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the first question which sprang to my mind was the question of how Eliot, a poet who was in his mid-twenties at the time, was able to write a poem dealing with the problems of aging in such a penetrating manner. Upon closer examination, however, I realized that Prufrock's aging was only incidental to his central problem. Prufrock's major problem is a problem of existential anguish. Prufrock's doubts about aging at a dinner party are merely one example of this anguish, and this party brings his psychology into sharp focus when the reader examines closely the moment in which the poem's events occur.
It is true that Prufrock's overtly expressed fears all seem to stem from his aging. For instance, he mentions the thinning of his hair in lines 40, 41, and 82; and the aging itself is mentioned toward the end of the poem:
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. (lines 120-121)
However, all of Prufrock's problems stem from his insecurity and his inability to reveal his interest in the women at the party. "How should I presume?" he asks several times throughout the poem. (lines 54, 61, and 68) Prufrock is so entranced and frustrated by the women that every detail, including the arms "braceleted and white and bare" (line 63), the "long fingers" that smooth away the afternoon (line 76), and the "skirts that trail along the floor" (line 102) become everything to him in that moment.
These small details so obsess Prufrock and so occupy his mind, in fact, that everything else ceases to exist for him. He does not simply wonder how he should p...
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... of the poem, then become clear. In the epigram, he quoted someone directly addressing the reader; in the first twelve lines, he invites us to "make our visit" (line 12); and in the three lines of the poem, Eliot tells us that "We have lingered [...] Till human voices wake us, and we drown." (lines 129-131) At this point, Eliot invites us to identify ourselves with the main character of the poem. J. Alfred Prufrock is not simply J. Alfred Prufrock. There is a quite a bit of Prufrock, with his self-doubt and his existential anguish, in all of us. But unlike Dante, we do not return to a normal life: we are merely drowned in "the chambers of the sea," (line 129), which the mermaids ride, uncaring.
Eliot, T.S. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry. Ed. Robert DiYanni and Kraft Rompf. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.
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