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 Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot
I suppose one of the great questions has always been about what to do with daylight. Musicians are always concerned about time, in more senses than one. Most of us suffer from a lack of it, wishing that there were more hours in the day to do that which has to be done. We need time for creation, for envisioning, for practicing, and for production.
We need to have time to directly face and answer the questions that need answering, and don’t have the luxury of long periods of rumination.
I know relatively little about Modernist poetry except for the important bits. What I do know is that such poetry was the antithesis to Romanticism and its passion and idealism, especially after the events of World War I. Such poetry was written to be deliberately difficult to read and to interpret, with the poet sprinkling allusions to Western literature throughout the work. Eliot seems to expect his readers to understand some of the obscurities he puts in there. Even scholars remark that they can’t “get” all of Eliot.
Another important factor is that a lot of T. S. Eliot’s poetry seems to be a response against an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness in society at the time: a loneliness that still exists. Eliot’s “Prufrock” is no exception. The images are confusing, strange, and jarring, as seen in the opening few lines with the comparison of the evening “spread across the sky” to a patient “etherized on a table.” This isn’t the most pleasing image, or the most satisfying one. In fact, it gives the reader a strong sense of dissatisfaction from the very outset, and continues this undercurrent of loneliness, hesitation, and ultimate despair throughout the rest of the poem.
This poem is bleak. It’s not a poem written for a distraction during an afternoon tea break. It’s a poem that has to be read over and over before getting some sort of understanding of it. It’s not light, fun poetry, though there is a certain rhythm and flow, a beauty to the construction, that makes it sound nice when you read it.
There are two main interpretations of the poem. One of them is about loneliness: a middle-aged man is interested in a woman, and wants to ask her out but simply cannot bring himself to and ultimately decides against it. The other is on a larger scale. This middle-aged man finds himself faced with the overwhelming question of what to do with his life. Time is passing by, and he simply can’t bring himself to do anything with it, instead choosing to dance around the “overwhelming question” rather than answer it. Either way, he ultimately fails. I think it could be both, though I favor the latter over the former.
The particular passage quoted at the beginning of this post happens to be an allusion to the book Ecclesiastes, from the Old Testament:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens.
Clearly Prufrock has a good point: there is a time and a place for everything that needs to be done. However, the problem is that he uses it as a rationale for delaying what should be done, whether it’s asking that girl out, or actually finding some purpose for his life. He repeats the statement “there is time, there is time” over and over, this repetition juxtaposed by his lament that he is getting old. As the reader “sees” Prufrock pacing back and forth upon the stair, wondering about the question on his plate, wondering how he should begin, the reader can’t help but be frustrated by his indecision to do whatever it is he’s thinking about doing.
Time is indeed running out for him after all.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair…
He seems to be trying to stretch out the little time he has left, dragging the moments out until it has passed and there is only empty rationalization. His obsession with time can be explained by his vivid awareness that he has little left. His indecision is not helping.
Poems like this beg the “overwhelming” question of this day and age: But what if there is no more time? If then, what have you done with it? In some senses, this poem offers a challenge to the reader to make what they will of what they have.
When have we been guilty of thinking that there is time, when in fact time is running out?
Near the end of the poem, Prufrock states that he is not the tragic hero. He’s not Prince Hamlet by any means… he reduces himself to first the “attendant lord,” the adviser, and finally the fool. Perhaps what he is coming to realize is that the real tragedy is in not taking the courage to do anything, until it is too late and time has run out for him. Perhaps in that sense, anyone can be the tragic figure for simply letting time pass by, as Prufrock has done.
There’s a fantastical line near the end about Prufrock watching mermaids singing on the beach, and then realizing, crestfallen:
I do not think that they will sing to me.
Time. Of it I have little.
Ultimately, the great question may be whether by the end of my life, I have dared to take risks… whether I have done not only that which I am supposed to do but that which I want to do…
Do I dare?