Advice for Mr. Prufrock

T.S. Eliot wrote "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock" as an undergraduate at Harvard. It's one of my favorite poems. The current literature, and my professor, suggest that the poem is a criticism of love in a modern age. I believe it's more of a warning against the dangers of hesitating and of being negative in the market for love.

Eliot's imagery is consistently concrete and original. He does a great job of painting an emotion in the viewer's mind in a few words. Eliot rarely wastes words.

But the poem hits home for another reason; the speaker makes numerous cognitive errors in his deliberations about the opposite sex, all of which I've made at one point or another. So in a way, this poem is painful to read. Maybe the second or third time I analyze this I'll be able to write without pointing out all of the cognitive errors and trying to correct them. But that's the plan today.

Lines 23-34:

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.

The speaker procrastinates. He knows he's useless, but he's okay with that, because there is time for indecisions and revisions. The problem is this is that once you say this one night, the next night comes around and because you said it last night, you can stand in line behind yourself. Meaning that your preference for remaining hesitant solidifies, because now your rationale for hesitation is that you did it last night, not that hesitation is the best decision.


In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo. And indeed there will be time To wonder, "Do I dare?" 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.
The speaker makes several mistakes here. He second-guesses himself; he worries about "disturbing the universe." Life is too short for second guessing, or regrets. When you second-guess yourself, you're toast, even if you approach the person later. You can't give yourself time to think; say "Hi" and go from there. The speaker gets paralyzed thinking about all of the things that people are thinking about him. Every attempt he makes at a positive mental frame of mind is destroyed by his imaginings of negative comments by others. This is a self-reinforcing cycle of darkness; thinking about what people think about you makes you hesitate, or stand against the wall and stare, and when you do that people will think bad things about you, reinforcing your original judgment. Maybe people think hurtful things about you, and maybe they don't, but others' criticisms should not merit your attention. Continuing:
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.
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?
The speaker's intimidated by women who give him the thousand-mile stare. But these stares stem from his initial problems with second-guessing and hesitation. If you believe you're an interesting person, you'll give off a good vibe and people will want to get to know you. But why would any woman want to spend more time talking to someone who thinks his days have been "butt-ends"? (Leave aside for a second that the speaker is one of the West's greatest poets. Or, maybe don't leave it aside. Eliot was a frustrated virgin until age 26).
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.
Here the speaker thinks about what he could say to a girl, and then cuts it off in frustration. The simple truth is that it really doesn't matter what you say, as long as you sound confident. My friend Dave Roosth once said "you have to get diarrhea of the mouth."
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short, I was afraid.
Sadly, yes. There's no reason for it. Concluding:
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.
Eliot reaches his inevitable, sad conclusion. By this point he is perfectly cynical; he compares women to sirens, luring men in until they awake and drown. The fact is that the world is the world; we can only choose how we see it. If you worry and waffle, the world will eat you alive. When you're depressed, or low on confidence, it's the most difficult thing in the world to avoid seeing the world as the speaker in the poem does. I don't have the answers, as the only thing that I know that worked for me was passing time. But the mental model is everything; if you have a negative mental model people will see that and react accordingly; if you're positive and confident, people will see that and react too. So I don't see this so much as a critique of dating in modern society as I do as an extremely well-written lament. It's also a warning against the dangers of waffling and not approaching anyone. The speaker is middle-aged, but Eliot was only twenty or so when he wrote this. To have written this as an undergraduate is a remarkable display of insight and wisdom.

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