Imagery in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Table of Contents
By barraging readers with a seemingly disjointed collage of images, T.S. Eliot uses the distinctly modernist style of Imagism to construct his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Imagism, a literary movement closely linked to modernism, is based on the principles that poetry should be constructed of precise descriptions of concrete images. The language used by Imagists is clear and exact. They held that only words that are absolutely necessary to enhancing the description should be used in poetry. Ezra Pound, one of the most influential Imagist poets, defined this movement by saying: “We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous.” Knowing Eliot’s involvement with this movement, his use of imagery and description becomes especially important to the reader. His use of precise language invites readers to examine each word and image closely. In order to understand the meaning behind this poem, the reader must dissect Eliot’s imagery, analyze its symbolic meaning, and find thematic patterns. This site intends to do just that. By highlighting a few dominant images and allusions in the poem, I hope to gain some insight into Eliot’s use of imagery to relate the main themes of this poem. While the explications of the images on this page follow the same disjointed pattern of organization as Eliot’s images themselves, I hope to show that while each image or image cluster are distinct and seemingly unrelated, they are tied together though thematic elements. Through his use of imagery and allusion in this poem, Eliot deals with themes that revolve around the fragile and self-conscious human condition, touching on the ideas of inadequacy, sexual anxiety and fear of mortality.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – Full Text
Listen to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Thinning and Baldness
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]…
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!” (40-44)
The reoccurring image of baldness, and furthermore Prufrock’s obsessive anxiety about his own thinning hair, draws the reader’s attention to the theme of self-consciousness in this poem. As mentioned by critic Margaret Blum, Prufrock alludes to his own baldness or thinning hair on four different occasions during his dramatic monologue. Prufrock’s anxiety about his own baldness, and also about the feebleness of his body, can be related to his obsessive fear regarding aging and death. This theme is again echoed as Prufrock proclaims: “I have seen the Eternal footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short I was afraid” (lines 85-86). Here, Prufrock expresses the belief that death itself mocks him in his old age. Through this passage, Eliot again displays Prufrock’s self-consciousness and fear as he nears the end of his life. The protagonist’s constant introspection and anxiety about his own death develops the theme of the mortality and fragility of human life. Prufrock’s apparent concern with his image and the way in which he is perceived by the guests at the party also serves to highlight his difficulties and anxieties regarding human interaction- a theme that is echoed throughout the poem in various other images.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo (13-14)
This repeated mention of Michelangelo by the women in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” serves as more than just a representation of the idle chatter of the attendees of the tea party. This allusion highlights the theme of sexual anxiety as suggested by Tepper in her article “Nation and Eros.” Michelangelo, a world-renown painter, sculptor and poet, serves as a model of the quintessential “Renaissance man”, the male ideal for perfection. An image also associated with Michelangelo is his sculpture of David, considered to be the embodiment of male physical perfection. As discussed in terms of Prufrock’s fear of aging and death, he also faces severe sexual anxiety when faced with this idea of this paradigm for the perfect male and his own inadequacy. Unable to compare with Michelangelo’s status as a Renaissance man or David’s standard of physical perfection, Prufrock turns self-conciously inward to obsess over his own “decisions and revisions” and the way in which he appears to members of the opposite sex. In many ways, as this allusion and Prufrock’s reaction demonstrate, this poem deals with the inherent inadequacy we experience and the anxiety we feel as human beings interacting with one another. Adding to the previously discussed themes of mortality and fragility, the allusion to Michelangelo and Prufrock’s inability to compare with the male ideal display the self-consciousness that comes with human interaction.
Individual Female Body Parts
And I have known the eyes already, known them all-
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase…
And I have known the arms already, known them all-
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare…
Arms lie along a table, or wrap around a shawl. (55 – 66)
Adding to the theme of sexual anxiety in this poem, literary critic Michelle Tepper also asserts that Prufrock’s self-conciousness and fear of human interaction, especially interaction with women, causes him to “reduce [female] bodies to arms and legs.” As the female attendees of the tea party are described in Prufrock’s monologue it is true that they are often severed into “arms that lie along a table” or “eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase.” In a Petrarchan sense, this division of female body parts creates a blazon – a literary device in which the poet praises individual parts of a woman’s body often with flowery, figurative language. Yet this device, while it seems to compliment the female object of the poem, is not entirely an innocent form of flattery. The division of the female body into mere pieces is a means of objectification and the denial of her existence as a whole human being. However, Prufrock’s division and objectification of female body parts does not seem intentional. Rather, due to his anxiety in his relations with others, Prufrock is subconsciously unable to recognize the females he interacts with as whole human beings and instead must view them as individual body parts. Furthermore, Prufrock’s anxiety leads to his own self-objectification, adding more complexity to the effects of his fear of human interaction as reflected in his self-image and the way in which he deals with others. The protagonist’s tendency to regard himself and others as fragmented, objectified beings expresses his sexual anxiety as well as the difficulties of human interaction. The ideas of a disconnect in human interaction and the failures of communication are prevalent among Modernist writers and poets. Eliot uses Prufrock’s dramatic monologue to highlight the characteristically Modernist theme of a rift in human interaction within this poem.
“Ragged Claws” and Allusions to Hamlet
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas (73-74)
This image of “ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” reiterates the previously discussed theme of aging and mortality and also can be read as an allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play that is referenced several times in the poem. But before analyzing this line as an allusion in the context of Hamlet, many critics, like Robert Fleissner, argue that the image has an innate meaning that fits well with the ideas woven together in this poem. Fleissner views the use of this crustacean as a symbol of growing old and futile. The use of the crab, especially, conjures images of futility, of moving slowly and with great difficulty- images also associated with the process of aging and approaching death. In a colloquial sense, this image of the crab bring to mind the idea of “crabbiness” or ill-tempered petulance that is also often linked to growing old and senile. While one interpretation of this image is based on its context within the poem, other some believe that it takes on a more fully-developed meaning when read as an allusion to Hamlet. Many critics look to Polonius’s line to Hamlet, “if, like a crab, you could go backward” (2.2.205-206), to interpret Eliot’s mention of “ragged claws scuttling.” In this light, his alignment of Prufrock with the image of a crab ties back to the protagonist’s feelings of self-consciousness and regret and echoes his obsession with “decisions and revisions.” As Prufrock nears the end of his life and begin to grapple with his own mortality, he turns fretfully inward and wishes regretfully the be able to revise his own past. As seen though both interpretations of this image, it furthers Eliot’s theme of aging and death as well as the anxiety and self-consciousness that comes about in response to this process.
Shall I part my hair from behind? Do I dare eat a peach? (122)
While Eliot only briefly mentions the peach in this poem, it has come to be one of the most critically contested images, in terms of deciphering its meaning. In his book, Ascending the Prufrockian Stair, Robert Fleissner dedicates an entire chapter to offering various interpretations of “Prufrock’s Peach.” Firstly, he considers the idea that the peach, in this context, could be a reference to the Forbidden Fruit of the biblical Creation story. With this interpretation, Prufrock must choose between knowledge and immortality. This struggle fits in closely with Prufrock’s constant grappling with his own mortality. In Prufrock’s eyes, he has already eaten the biblical fruit and must now heed the consequences: a burdensome awareness of the world around him and his own approaching death. Another interpretation by Fleissner also broaches the topic of Prufrock’s fear of aging. He believe that Prufrock’s uneasiness in biting into the peach stems from his fear of losing his teeth while doing so. Much like with his obsession with his thinning hair, Prufrock is plagued by self-consiousness and panic that his body will fail him even in everyday tasks such as eating. Finally, many critics agree on the idea that the peach can be taken as a sexual symbol, representative of Prufrock’s reoccuring feelings of sexual inadequacy and anxiety when faced with human interaction. With the image of the peach representing female sexuality, and especially with his self-doubt in considering whether to eat the peach, Prufrock revisits the feelings of inadequacy that he presents in his inability to compare to Michelangelo’s David. Notably, the peach is used as a means to objectify women and female sexuality. As explained previously with the speaker’s tendency to represent women as mere body parts, this objectification is a result of Prufrock’s anxiety when faced with human interaction. This anxiety, it seems, is only intensified when dealing with the potential of sexual relations. While there is no conclusive agreement as to the meaning of the peach, most critical interpretations are in accord that this image in some way enhances the themes of Prufrock’s fear of aging and death, his feelings of inadequacy and self-deprecation, or his panic when interacting with other humans.
Listen to the poem:
Blum, Margaret Morton. “The Fool in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.” Modern Language Notes, Vol. 72, No. 6 (Jun., 1957), pp. 424-426
Fleissner, Robert F. Ascending the Prufrockian Stair: Studies in Dissociated Sensibility. Peter Lang: New York, 1988.
Tepper, Michelle. “Nation and eros”. Gender, Desire and Sexuality in T.S. Eliot. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2004.
Tea Party: Painting by Frank L. http://www.forgottentreasurez.com/servlet/Detail?no=573</span>
Peach: Texas A&M Depatment of Horticulture. http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/syllabi/319/1peach.html
David: Wikimedia Commons.