Daily Routine Expressed through Figurative Language in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
T.S. Eliot was a modernist poet publishing during the early part of the twentieth century, right around the time of World War I. Published in 1915, the middle of the High Modern Period, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an example of modernist poetry. The poem, like many of Eliot’s poems, takes place in a city, presumably London. The speaker is an aging man, who is self-conscious about how others view him. His fear of outside judgment is so powerful, that it compels him to follow the same routines every day. He does not want to do anything to draw attention to himself or appear unusual. Based on the title of the poem, and context clues within the text, it appears the speaker wants some sort of love relationship, but his desire to not draw attention to himself prevents him from ever expressing his desire. In these stanzas of Eliot’s poem, Eliot uses figurative language, including repetition, visual and auditory imagery of how the speaker view of himself, and active metaphors comparing the speaker to his activities, to convey the speaker’s sense of entrapment in his dull daily routines.
Eliot uses repetition to establish the speaker’s repetitive daily routine. The first stanza begins “For I have known them all already, known them all.” This line, “I have known them all” is repeated in the next two stanzas as well, implying Eliot wanted special emphasis on it. The line implies that the speaker is in a routine. Eliot gives more context in the next line, when he says, “Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons.” The reason the speaker knows all these things is because he has done them before, in the sense that every evening, morning, and afternoon, he is doing the same thing. If he did something new each day, then he wouldn’t “have known them all already.” The next stanza opens the same way, but with slightly different implications. Rather than referring to all the morning, evenings and afternoons he has known, he instead refers to “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase.” Here, the speaker is referring to how he has experienced the feeling of being judged by the eyes of others. It is unclear whether the speaker has actually faced judgment and ridicule, or if he just fears it so strongly that he feels as if he has experienced it. Either way, the repetition of these lines in the context of the stanzas gives the reader insight into the speaker’s routine life.
Eliot Reads "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
More repetition comes in the final lines of both stanzas, which are both ambiguous. Eliot writes, “So how should I presume?” in the first, and “And how should I presume?” in the second. In the next stanza, Eliot repeats the line again with “And should I then presume?” Based on context of the poem, mainly the title, it seems the speaker is questioning how he should presume love is possible for him when he perceives all these inadequacies in himself, and when he knows that pursuing love will draw unwanted attention to himself. Interestingly, Eliot does not answer this question. This could be because the speaker can never actually answer the question for himself, or perhaps because the speaker fears the answer too much to admit it. Whatever the answer, the repetition still serves its purpose of paralleling the repetition in the speaker’s own life.
Eliot utilizes metaphor, comparing the speaker to his activities, to express the speaker’s ideas on his mundane daily habits. Eliot writes in the third line of the seventh stanza, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” This line is a metaphor, because one can’t literally measure life with coffee spoons, but it’s as if the speaker had. However, despite this metaphorical aspect, the line seems to have an almost literal quality to it, in the sense that the speaker may literally be referring to himself drinking so much coffee, that he can metaphorically use the spoons to measure out his life. In context with the previous lines about his daily routines, this line implies that he has a certain time, or times, each day when he drinks coffee, and he is expressing a self-awareness of his habit. He seems to regret that he drinks so much coffee, when he could be doing other things, but, he feels too trapped by the judgment of others to break this routine.
The speaker expresses a similar sentiment in the fifth line of the eighth stanza where Eliot writes, “Then how should I begin/To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” This shows the speaker questioning how he should tell people about his daily routines, when he feels they’re so uninteresting. The metaphorical comparison to his days as “butt-ends,” evokes a feeling that his days are wasted—like the butt ends of cigarettes—but also could function similarly to the “coffee spoons,” in that the speaker may be a smoker, and smoking, like coffee, is a daily habit he’d rather do without, but feels compelled to continue for social reasons. Eliot uses the metaphors of the coffee spoons and butt-ends not only to show the speaker’s daily routines, but to imply his feelings toward his life as well.
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Eliot also uses various kinds of imagery to show aspects of the speaker’s life and his perception of his life. Eliot writes in the fourth line of the seventh stanza, “I know the voices dying with a dying fall/Beneath the music from a farther room.” It seems there is some sort of singing group in the speaker’s apartment, perhaps, and that since he is always home at the same times, and always living in the same place, he has come to know the voices of the singers. However, there is a second meaning to these lines, with the multiple usages of the word “dying.” With this word and other references to aging throughout the poem—such as “thin” hair and legs, his head “grown slightly bald,” and the speaker directly saying “I grow old”—Eliot is constantly reminding the reader that the speaker is aging, which seems to be a warning that, although people may feel trapped, they should not wait to break free, for it could be too late by then. In this way, the imagery serves dual purposes.
Eliot continues his use of imagery to portray the speaker’s feeling of entrapment in his way of life. In the third and fourth lines of the eighth stanza, Eliot writes, “And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,/When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall.” These lines are not literal, but instead, entirely figurative, as the speaker compares himself to a fly pinned to a wall, while people observe him. Within these two stanzas, this line most clearly shows the speakers feeling of being trapped, as he feels “pinned.” The use of “formulated” in the second and third lines of the stanza is somewhat ambiguous. Formulated evokes connections to formaldehyde, a preservative; however, if the speaker feels he is “wriggling,” then he would be alive and not require preservative. Therefore, the word would appear more literal. In the second line, “formulated phrase” would refer to how the speaker feels that rather than having the liberty to speak freely, he must carefully formulate all his words, so as to properly conform to expectations. However, it is unclear then why “eyes” would be responsible for the judgment of his words. In either case, the imagery of the speaker as a fly pinned to the wall is still clear.
In these two stanzas, Eliot utilizes various forms of imagery and metaphorical comparisons of the speaker to his activities in order to express the speaker’s susceptibility to outside judgment. Eliot’s repetition of phrases helps also helps him emphasize certain points. However, the lack of a singular, clear, interpretation makes the poem modernist, as words take on multiple connotations, and Eliot eludes to most of his ideas, rather than express them outright. Since the form of the poem is an interior monologue, Eliot allows the reader the clearest view into the speaker’s mind, but the presentation of the speaker’s mind without context at certain points adds to the ambiguity common in modernism.