o! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” (l. 111), asserts the narrator of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Let us explore the resemblances between “Prufrock” and Hamlet to which Eliot’s narrator here obliquely calls our attention.
Begin by noting that “Prufrock”’s Hamlet subtext is present from the poem’s beginning, in the epigraph spoken by the ghost of Dante’s Guido da Montfeltro returned from Hell (just as the ghost of King Hamlet returned from Purgatory) to tell us the horrors which have been visited upon him. Though the ghostly visitations have differing effects in their respective works, they color the self-perceptions of both Hamlet and Prufrock. The ghost of Hamlet’s father prompts Hamlet to action and self-reproach; the ghost of Guido, whose words are positioned so that they appear to be a response to a question posed by Prufrock himself, appears to be assuring Prufrock and his readers that he answers Prufrock’s implied question only because he assumes he is speaking to a fellow denizen of hell.
Like Hamlet, Prufrock is perplexed by an “overwhelming question” (l. 10). Though that question is at no point explicitly articulated in Eliot’s poem, several large questions are implied: Does life have meaning? Will the woman to whom Prufrock’s love song is addressed accept his marriage proposal? Is the ghost who addresses Prufrock in the poem’s epigraph a “true” ghost whose tale is to be believed (the question which perplexes Hamlet) or is it a false ghost attempting to lure him to damnation?
Like Hamlet, Prufrock inhabits a world in which something seems rotten and time seems out of joint. Prufrock’s evening bears the lifeless aspect of a “patient etherised upon a table” (l. 3). The would be singer of a love song has “a bald spot in the middle” of his “hair” (l. 40). His “arms and legs are thin!” (l. 44), and he is “afraid” (l. 86). The streets he must travel “follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent” (ll. 8-9). The voices in the chamber which he visits are “dying with a dying fall” (l. 52). The world itself seems to Prufrock, as it did to Hamlet, “stale,” for he has “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons” (l. 51). Like Hamlet, he has “lost all [his] mirth, foregone all custom of exercises,” and the earth itself “appeareth nothing to [him] but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” (II.ii.296-303). This last phrase seems to me to lie behind Prufrock’s preoccupation with the soot-colored “fog” which has fallen “asleep” on the “October night” (ll. 21-22).
Like Hamlet, Prufrock has a troubled relationship with the women in his life, feels some awkwardness contemplating female sexuality – or so his brooding on the “light brown hair” which downs the ladies’ arms (and doubtless other body parts) suggests. So too does the peevish response he imagines the woman offering in response to his “overwhelming question”: “That is not what I meant at all / That is not it, at all” (ll. 97-98).
Although Prufrock (l. 44) is neither “fat” nor “scant of breath” as is Hamlet (V.ii.290), he experiences at one moment a situation analogous to Hamlet’s in his duel with Laertes (V.ii), when he finds himself prospectively “sprawling on a pin, /. . .pinned and wriggling on the wall” (ll. 57-58). Like Hamlet (II.ii.322-323), Prufrock seems “delight[ed]” neither by man nor by woman. In Prufrock’s case, as in Hamlet’s, “the native hue of resolution /Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (III.I.84-85).
Like Hamlet as well, Prufrock must “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” (l. 27) The face Hamlet prepares is one of madness. The face that Prufrock prepares is one of feigned confidence – confidence that will permit him, for instance, to “dare” ascend the stair rather than “turn back” (ll. 38-39). In both instances the time that is given to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” is granted for the purpose of giving its wearer “time to murder” (l. 28) – an action which the utterly passive Prufrock is incapable of carrying out but is obviously as capable of contemplating as is Hamlet.
Prufrock resembles Hamlet in his indecision, in his ineffectuality, in his incapacitation by overthought, in his sensitivity to the eyes of those others for whom he must “prepare a face,” in his awareness that his auditor is prying him for information, examining his expression as her “hands . . . lift and drop a question on [his] plate” (ll. 29-30) Hamlet tells Guildenstern, “You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass” (III.ii.355-358), sounding very much as Prufrock does when he tells us he feels “as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen” (105). Like Hamlet, Prufrock has “known the eyes already, known them all –/The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase” (ll. 55-56) and seek to compel him, as Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern had sought to compel Hamlet, “To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways” (l. 60).
Prufrock is a less heroic character than Hamlet, of course — as witness the disparity between Prufrock’s frail body and the bodies of Michelangelo’s massively limbed and confidently muscled nude statutes of which the ladies in the room are evidently talking. Prufrock is a smaller prince than Hamlet — more concerned about his dress, more tightly cravated, less fiercely armed. His tie is "asserted" not with a "bare bodkin" but by a "simple pin" (l. 43) directed perpetually toward his heart. It is not a king whom he wonders if he "dare[s]" dispatch but a “peach” (l. 122). Prufrock’s “lovesong” is an ineffectual one, as ineffectual as Hamlet’s efforts to communicate with the women in his life – with his mother and Ophelia in particular. The conjectured response of the lady to whom Prufrock would “tell . . . all” (l. 95) sounds a bit like Hamlet’s mother after observing her son’s interaction with the invisible ghost of his father: “. . . you do bend your eye on vacancy/And with the incorporal air do hold discourse” (III.iv.117-118). Hamlet asks, “Do you see nothing there?” His mother responds, “nothing at all (III.iv.133), a phrase that echoes “Prufrock’s “That is not it at all, /That is not what I meant, at all” (ll. 109-110).
But Prufrock is of course correct. He is “not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” Rather, he is Polonius, “an attendant lord,”
Like Polonius, Prufrock is “politic” — aware that
“In a minute there is time /For decisions and revisions which
a minute will reverse” (ll. 47-48). Like Polonius, he “grow[s]
old” (l. 120) and is prone to "digress" — “Full
of high sentence,” given to excess verbiage, for instance in his
insistent deployment of such figures of repetition as epistrophe (“And
I have known the eyes already, known them all”; l. 55) and anaphora
(“And would it have been worth it, after all, / Would it have
been worth while, /After the sunsets . . . , /After the novels, after
the teacups, after the skirts. . .”; ll. 99-102).
From The Explicator, vol. 63, no. 1, Fall 2004, pp. 43-46 ( http://www.heldref.org/explicator.php ). Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th Street NW, Washington, DC20036-1802. www.heldref.org. © 2004.
1. All citations of “The Love Song of
J. Alfred Prufrock” are taken from Eliot’s Collected Poems,
1909-1962 (3-7). Return
Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry.
3rd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.