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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Thomas Stearns Eliot

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La poesía de T. S. Eliot
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S'io credessi che mia risposta fosse

a persona che mai tomasse al mundo,

questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma per cio che giammai di questo fondo

non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,

senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

Inferno XXVII - [Epigraph]

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:

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.


In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.


   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.

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 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.


   In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.


   And indeed there will be time

To wonder, ' Do I care? ' 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.

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?

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?


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!)

Is it 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?


             *        *       *     *       *


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.


                     *       *       *       *       *


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,

I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

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 towards some overwhelming question,

To say: ' I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: ' That is not what I meant at all.

That is not it at all. '


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. '


                               *       *       *       *       *


   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 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.


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.

Annotations for The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

These annotations were taken directly from B.C. Southam's A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot.

Dedication: Dedicated to Jean Verdenal, a friend of Eliot's who was killed in 1915 on the Anglo-French expedition to the Dardanelles.

Title: Orginally titled "Prufrock Among the Women". "J. Alfred Prufrock" follows the early form of Eliot's signature "T. Stearns Eliot".

Epigraph: These lines are taken from Dante's "Inferno", and are spoken by the character of Count Guido da Montefelltro. Dante meets the punished Guido in the Eighth chasm of Hell. Guido explains that he is speaking freely to Dante only because he believes Dante is one of the dead who could never return to earth to report what he says. Translated from the original Italian, the lines are as follows: "If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy."

spread out:   This metaphor occurs many times in Bergson's "Time and Free Will (1910), the work which Eliot, while in Harvard, quoted from most frequently in his writings about Bergson.

overwhelming question:   In James Fenimore Cooper's "The Pioneers" (1823), a book Eliot loved as a child, a metaphorical "overwhelming question" occurs.

In the room the women come and go...Michelangelo:  Laforgue wrote: "In the room the women come and go/Talking of the masters of the Sienne school". Eliot imitates Laforgue, introducing an element of parody, set off as a kind of chorus (repeated later at lines 35-6) following a section of "vers libre" i.e. free verse. Michelangelo: great Italian sculptor, painter and poet.

fog:  According to Eliot, the smoke that blew across the Mississippi from the factories of St. Louis, his hometown.

And indeed there will be time:  Echoing "Had we but world enough and time", from Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress". The speaker of the poem argues to his 'coy mistress' that they could take their time in courtship games only if they lived forever.

dying fall:  In Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" the lovesick Duke Orsino orders an encore of a moody piece of music: "That strain again! It had a dying fall".

sprawling on a pin:   In the study and collection of insects, specimens are pinned into place and kept in cases. Prufrock feels as though he is being brutally analyzed in a similar manner.

butt-ends:   As in the ends of smoked cigarettes.

Arms that are braceleted white and bare:  "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone" in John Donne's "The Relic", a line with a "powerful effect" Eliot remarks upon in "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921).

Though I have seen my head...brought in upon a platter: Matthew 14:3-11, Mark 6:17-29 in the Bible; the death of John the Baptist. King Herod was enamored of a dancing girl named Salome. He offered her a gift of anything she wanted in his kingdom. Salome's mother told her to request the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Herod complied.

Lazarus:   Another Biblical story. In Luke 16:19-31, a Lazarus is a beggar associated with a rich man named Dives in a parable. When they died Lazarus went to Heaven while Dives went to Hell. Dives wanted to warn his brothers about Hell and asked Abraham if Lazarus could be sent back to tell them. Abraham refused saying, "if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."

Prince Hamlet:   Probably Shakespeare's most famous character. The hero Hamlet, like Prufrock, is crippled by indecisiveness. Prufrock echoes Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" at the end of this line.

attendant lord:   Prufrock having an inferiority complex, stating that he will never be a main character with a purpose, like Hamlet, but rather an "attendant lord" (in this case Polonius), a side character who may slightly move the plot but is buffoonish, a fool (see below).

Fool:   Besides the common meaning, a standard character in Elizabethan drama, as in a court jester who entertains the nobility and speaks in seeming nonsense which contained paradoxical wisdom. Hamlet's court jester was Yorick ("Alas poor Yorick--I knew him Horatio..."). The fool was often also another character in the play, not a court jester, who was used as comic relief. In "Hamlet" it is the gravedigger; in "The Merchant of Venice" it is Launcelot Gobbo, in "Henry IV Part I and II" it is Falstaff, and so on.

Shall I part my hair behind?: At this time such a hairstyle was considered "daringly bohemian".





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