Literature

The Imagery and Symbolism of ‘Prufrock’

T. S. Eliot’s 1915 poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is full of mysterious and ambiguous symbols and images, each one loaded with meaning, or, in many cases, multiple meanings. But what are the key images of ‘Prufrock’, and what is notable about Eliot’s use of symbolism? The dreamlike imagery which is threaded through Eliot’s poem is a big part of the poem’s power, so it’s worth stopping to consider how Eliot loads each of these symbols with significance.

Yellow fog.

Early on in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, we find Prufrock telling us about the ‘yellow fog’ which ‘rubs its back’ along the window-panes, lingers in the pools in the street drains, and – more surreally – licks its tongue ‘into the corners of the evening’. The fog is being likened to an animal, and being described in decided feline or catlike terms.

This image of the fog-as-cat is one of many examples of the influence of the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) on Eliot’s work. In his 1930 essay on Baudelaire, Eliot argued that Baudelaire had shown how poets could write about the ‘sordid’ aspects of the modern metropolis by elevating ordinary urban imagery ‘to the first intensity’: describing them as they are, and yet imbuing them with deeper symbolism.

The yellow fog image is a good example of this: it describes the thick fog (smog?) found in many modern industrial cities. It is oppressive, vaguely sickly in appearance (that yellow colour), and languid, even listless, like a cat. It suggests the decadence of the modern city and the way it stultifies all action and movement; and this is what it has done to J. Alfred Prufrock himself, who cannot even broach the ‘overwhelming question’, let alone answer it.

Michelangelo.

The women at the parties Prufrock attends, who ‘come and go’ while talking of Michelangelo (1475-1564), the great Italian Renaissance artist, act as a shorthand for the social circles Prufrock moves in (and here we mean ‘social’ both in the sense of ‘socialising’ and ‘social class’). Prufrock is part of the middle classes, perhaps even upper-middle class, cultured, and educated. The art of Michelangelo is the sort of thing such people would talk about, with perhaps a hint of pretentiousness or assumed knowledge.

Some critics have argued that such a reference reveals a misogynistic streak in the poem: that women talking of Michelangelo is somehow intimidating for Prufrock because they represent a new class of educated women (whereas before, advanced education was usually preserved for men) and this is somehow a bad thing. But the poem makes no further comment on this, other than to repeat this refrain later in the poem.

Prince Hamlet.

Prufrock’s declaration that he is not Prince Hamlet is significant. Shakespeare’s most famous tragic hero is also his most intellectual and philosophical: Hamlet spends far more time thinking about doing things than he does actually doing them. Prufrock’s assertion that he was not ‘meant to be’ Hamlet means he was never destined to be a major player or serious tragic hero (with the last two words of Prufrock’s line, ‘to be’, taking us to Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy). Prufrock sees himself more like ‘an attendant lord’, a supporting character in a play, and sometimes even the comic relief, or ‘the Fool’.

Despite this, Prufrock is like Hamlet in one aspect: he, too, prefers to mull things over and then put off doing anything about them. He passively moves from one social dance or tea party to another, without ever approaching any of the women who gossip about him there, or asking them that ‘overwhelming question’ (marriage, perhaps?).

Mermaids and sea.

‘Prufrock’ is not exactly awash with sea-imagery, but there are several key moments in the poem where Prufrock turns to the oceans and the sea bed to express his state of mind.

The first of these is his statement that he would have been better off being a ‘pair of ragged claws’ scuttling across the sea bed: many of us have longed to be someone else, someone more successful, or attractive, or confident, but Prufrock goes as far as to wish he’d been born a different species. There is something calming about the ‘silent seas’ far below the ocean’s surface, a far cry from the clattering of the teacups and the chatter about Michelangelo which Prufrock has to endure. There are no social pressures under the sea.

The second notable sea-image in the poem comes at the end, when Prufrock talks about lingering in the sea, with mermaids singing to each other. Although Prufrock’s statement that he does not think the mermaids will sing to him can be interpreted as self-pity (even the mermaids won’t notice Prufrock), he seems to welcome this blessed indifference as a contrast to the women he’s forced to socialise with at the dances and tea parties.

Indeed, Prufrock seems happy enough listening to the bewitching sound of the mermaids’ song (a detail possibly picked up from John Donne), and being left alone to enjoy their music. Ironically, he only ‘drowns’ – he and the mermaids in their oceanic paradise are destroyed, in his imagination – when ‘human voices’ recall him from his reverie, or daydream. It is real life, the life of New England society, which really ‘drowns’ or suffocates him: the sea provides escape.

Tea.

The more surreal or fantastical images and symbols of ‘Prufrock’ are at odds with the rather dull, staid, stultifying middle-class backdrop, the ordinary settings in which Prufrock has these more outlandish daydreams of escape: the references to cups, marmalade, tea, and ices all summon the drawing-rooms of respectable New England society and the tea dances where young, unmarried men and women would meet and, following fairly strict social codes, approach each other with a view to courtship and, eventually, marriage.

Meanwhile, Prufrock’s cryptic statement that he has measured his life out in coffee-spoons (not teaspoons, the usual unit of measurement) suggests that he has already mapped out how many coffees he can expect to enjoy over the rest of his life. Does this symbolise his longing for certainty and routine, or the rather mundane life to which he feels condemned? We can crave order over our lives, but a life stripped of all excitement and impulsiveness can become deadened and predictable.

Arms.

Yes: even arms are imbued with curious symbolism in Eliot’s poem. Prufrock has noticed the women’s arms – white and bare, and wearing bracelets – just as he is attracted by the smell of the perfume on the women’s dresses. He seems simultaneously attracted to the women and unwilling, or unable, to envision asking one of them out. They fascinate and repel him. Indeed, he is also attracted to (or at least side-tracked by) the arms of men: those lonely men ‘in shirt-sleeves’ who lean out of windows.