Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question. . . . Oh, do not ask, "What is it?" Let us go and make our visit.
In the opening stanza of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the title character invites an unidentified “you” to accompany him to a social occasion. Prufrock might be muttering to himself or addressing the reader. The title of the poem provides the best clue to the “overwhelming question.” Prufrock reminds readers that inquiring into other people’s private lives is impolite, a warning perhaps to accept some details as a mystery. Readers may find themselves, however, wondering how he knows about cheap hotels.
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!”)
Prufrock ascends the stairs approaching a room full of women including, readers might assume, the recipient of his overwhelming question. At this point in the poem, the reader overhears Prufrock’s internal dialogue. He observes himself objectively and predicts what the people at the party will say. He reminds himself that he still has time to turn back and also reassures himself that he is properly dressed for the event.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed, Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, I am no prophet—and here's no great matter; 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.
Prufrock here explains that he decides not to ask the question, but he does not provide a reason why. The head on a platter references John the Baptist, a prophet executed on the whim of Salome, a wicked queen. The allusion suggests that some incident at the party made Prufrock afraid to ask for what he wanted. The shift of tense in the last line indicates that whatever happened now exists in Prufrock’s past.
And would it have been worth it, after all, After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me, Would it have been worth while, To have bitten off the matter with a smile, To have squeezed the universe into a ball To roll it toward some overwhelming question, To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”— If one, settling a pillow by her head, Should say: “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”
Here, Prufrock switches to the subjunctive mood as he replays the events of the evening. He imagines what could or should have happened and wonders whether that alternate scenario would have been worthwhile. Prufrock excuses his failure to ask what he should have asked by telling himself that he probably wouldn’t have been understood anyway. The image of the woman “settling a pillow by her head” suggests that Prufrock bores her.
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do To swell a progress, start a scene or two, Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool, Deferential, glad to be of use, Politic, cautious, and meticulous; Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool.
After failing to ask his question, Prufrock admits his own insignificance. He is not Prince Hamlet, the hero of a tragic drama. He is Polonius, the pompous attendant who spouts platitudes and functions as a comic foil, or fool. Prufrock seems bemused and somewhat self-pitying but not particularly sorrowful or even regretful. He cannot summon the energy to enact a tragedy, so he dismisses the whole episode as one of life’s absurdities.