Critical Analysi of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
It Is Impossible To Say Just What I Mean!” To What Extent Can This Quotation From ‘The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock’ Be Said To Summarise The Poem?" The ambiguity that Eliot creates in ‘Prufrock’s Love Song’, with his often obscure and random streams of consciousness that are so characteristic of modernist
literature, ensures that it is quite a challenging read. Similarly, it often seems that Prufrock, who throughout the poem constantly avoids and prolongs the asking of an ‘overwhelming question’, seems to find it quite a challenge to say exactly what he means. In many ways, the line ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean’ seems to summarize this inability and unwillingness of Prufrock to voice what he feels, and also encapsulates the modernist characteristics of the poem.
Prufrock appears to be in a constant state of frightened isolation, and although the narrator talks of ‘you and I’, it soon becomes evident that he is alone. He is often deep in contemplation, which allows his stream of consciousness to flow. However, despite this heavy deliberation taking him to extreme levels of, often dream-like, emotion, Prufrock never physically gets further than daring himself to ask this ‘overwhelming question’
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, Do I dare?’
Time to turn back and descend the stair
It could be said that Prufrock is only willing and capable of engaging himself with these thoughts, because he knows that no one will overhear him. Indeed, Williamson (1968) identifies Prufrock’s unwillingness to act out his thoughts, claiming that ‘the point of calling this poem a Love Song, lies in the irony that it will never be sung; that Prufrock will never dare to voice what he feels’. Certainly, a prominent fear for Prufrock seems to be the public revelation of his sensitivity
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen
Would it have been worthwhile
Prufrock’s insecurities seem to restrain him, and are a prominent reason why he cannot bring himself to say just what he means. However, taking Prufrock’s own words – that it is ‘impossible’ to say what he means – this suggests that he is not simply unwilling, but incapable of confronting this ‘overwhelming question’. Certainly, the abrupt break after the mention of the question, suggests possibly an emotional block, which is emphasised by his refusal to identify what the question is
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, ‘what is it?’
Perhaps it is the nature of the question that touches Prufrock’s self-consciousness and insecurities. Gordon (1977) suggests that the question centred on the meaning of life. He claimed that ‘Prufrock’s overwhelming need is to ask not a lover’s question but a metaphysical one’. Certainly, Prufrock questions whether it is worthwhile to ‘disturb the universe’ by asking this ‘overwhelming question’. Perhaps his insecurities and lack of self-worth, make him feel that he has no right to ask such a grand question. In the following lines, Prufrock appears to be comparing himself with an insect, classified as such, and unable to break away from this classification
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
It seems that Prufrock wants to say just what he means, but feels that his life is too futile and insignificant for him to disturb the universe by doing so. He appears to feel that he cannot escape from the pigeon hole that he has been placed in, and that his lowly place in society is justified and enough to render him insignificant.
Prufrock’s distrust of women could also be why he is unwilling to question the nature of the universe. Perhaps it is the case that he desperately wants to share these deep thoughts with a woman, but is concerned that females are only interested in more superficial topics of discussion. This is a theme that runs throughout many of Eliot’s
poems, and in both ‘The Love Song’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’, Eliot bemoans females for their insistence on polite-society, drawing room conversation
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
The apparent inability of Prufrock to address the ‘overwhelming question’ could be attributed to the confusion that he feels, which may have been brought on by his divided self that is so evident throughout the poem. Certainly, the narration is divided into a rationalist biography of Prufrock and a modernist dream-like stream of consciousness. Prufrock’s ‘you’, in the first line of the poem at least, seems to be his inner, thinking self – the modernist aspect of the poem. Whereas the ‘I’ is his public personality, his biographical and rationalist self. Moreover, Prufrock’s inner self seems to be constantly floating from a dream like ‘other worldly’ state of mind, to his more superficial, ‘earthly’ insecurities. This is most evident at the end of the poem, when the watery, floating imagery seems to provide Prufrock with a somewhat submerged fulfilment
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
I do not think that they will sing to me
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
However, this pleasant dreamy experience is brought to an abrupt halt, with the intrusion of reality. It arrives in the last line of the poem, and it drowns Prufrock’s inner self. This divides the self once more, and prevents Prufrock from resolving the uncomplimentary contradictions in his personality.
Till human voices wake us, and we drown
Perhaps it is not Prufrock’s insecurities that make it ‘…impossible to say what I mean’, but instead it is simply the case that he is so confused by his divided self, that he does not know how to say what he means.
It must also be acknowledged that the confusing and contradictory tone of ‘The Love Song’, is undoubtedly often intentional on Eliot’s part. Prufrock’s random transitions from a dream like state of mind, back to his old insecurities, is often both comic and tragic
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?
It is tempting for the reader to react to this apparent self-consciousness with sympathy and sadness. But as Williamson (1968) suggests, ‘Eliot himself keeps well hidden behind his highly cultivated ironic tone, by which he can appear to be doing one thing (perhaps serious) and yet can undermine it by a hint of something else (perhaps humorous)…’ This should be taken into account when analysing any of Eliot’s work, as many of the meanings and emotions that he conveys should not necessarily be taken wholly at face value.
It is clear that the line ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean’ is particularly relevant to the theme of self-consciousness that runs through the poem. Prufrock begins by imagining walking through sordid streets to the room where the women chatter, but he comes away having failed to achieve anything. He fails to make any declaration of love, which, judging by the title of the poem, is what Prufrock had intended. Nor does he dare to say anything else of any significance, i. e. his question of the meaning of life. He is so unheroic, self-conscious and riddled with insecurities, and so shy of communicating with women, that despite wanting to say so much, he finds himself incapable of saying anything at all. Instead, he finds himself thinking deeply about all these issues that burn so strongly in his mind, and this causes him to drift into dream-like states of mind.
It could therefore be said that the line ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean’ does encapsulate an extremely prominent theme in the poem – that of Prufrock’s idiosyncratic personality. However, the specific meaning of the line is, to a certain degree, open to interpretation. It may be a reference to Prufrock’s unwillingness to voice his thoughts, which is a result of his insecurities and shyness, or it may represent his sheer inability to confront these
character flaws. On the other hand, it may refer to Prufrock’s muddled mind and confused thoughts, caused by his divided self. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this particular line from the poem largely summarises what is probably the main theme of the poem.
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