Time is a constant, ever present notion immersed within human society. An awareness of the passage of time seemingly guides and regulates many individuals’ actions. Just as the hands of a clock continually spin, as the earth continually revolves around the sun, so time remains an endless cycle. The narrator of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” obsesses over the concept of time, describing many time-related scenarios; his fascination with time and time imagery, combined with his own progression throughout the poem, ultimately serves to demonstrate the futility in over-analyzing one’s actions when time naturally circulates back and forth. By creating a narrator whose focus on time prevents him from acting upon his desires, T.S. Eliot expresses the idea that procrastination and anxious hesitation are debilitating practices. As there is no “perfect time” in a world where time continually cycles round and round, and back and forth, refraining from taking action is a foolish practice.
Repetitious imagery of time as a force moving back and forth flows throughout the poem. The narrator describes: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” (Eliot 822/823). This imagery immediately presents time as a perpetually moving force. The women do not stop, but rather remain in constant motion. In asserting that “there will be time”, the narrator realizes that time perpetually continues, and he allows this understanding to justify his inaction. He never acts upon his unvoiced desires, instead merely questioning, “Do I dare?” (Eliot 823). The narrator’s assertion that “there will be time” also overestimates his own impact on time; the narrator is intimidated by the looming concept of time’s ceaseless passage, yet he believes his actions significant enough to have an impact on this endless cycle. “There will be time” suggests immortal possibility, thus implicating that the narrator mistakenly believes in his own longevity. Though the narrator believes that time is a great force, he sees own lifetime as long and his own actions as impactful. The narrator’s own beliefs thus cause his paralysis because he anxiously, narcissistically worries about his actions’ impact. In his obsession over time, the narrator overlooks the fact that the action of the women talking of Michelangelo never changes; the women constantly come and go. The static nature of the women’s actions exemplifies how there is never a time more advantageous than another for the narrator to act. The narrator’s actions will have little effect on the repetitious nature of the women’s habits. His belief that his actions will impact time’s immortal cycle prevents him from taking action. By allowing himself to become overly confident in the impact his own actions hold over infinite time, the narrator obstructs himself from acting upon his desires.
Throughout the poem the narrator expands upon his worry of “Do I dare?”, a question which is futile because time in the poem takes no heed of human concerns. The narrator again ignorantly suggests that his actions are consequential when he questions if he dares “disturb the universe”. This egotistically leaning worry is quickly quashed when the narrator immediately afterwards reflects: “In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (Eliot 823). In this statement, the narrator acknowledges that his musings and anxieties are ineffectual. Though he may agonize over a decision, his torment holds no power over constantly moving time. The narrator’s concession that his inaction is similar to a “pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” drives home the point that his preoccupation with time prevents him from moving forward in life (Eliot 824). Just as a crab moves back and forth, never advancing, so the narrator remains stagnant due to his inability to act and seize upon his desires. By mistakenly believing that his actions hold significant sway over the universe, the narrator’s own egotistical worry and preoccupation with time only serve to paralyze his actions and prevent him from attaining his desires.
Throughout the poem the narrator transitions from a man overly confident in his own longevity to a man overly concerned over his own fatality. In both circumstances, the narrator allows his concerns to overpower his ability to act. At the beginning of the poem, T.S. Eliot includes a passage from Dante’s “Inferno” describing a man who confesses to Dante: “If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement” (Eliot 822). Because the speaker is so focused on the idea of life on earth, he confesses his shame without hesitation. The speaker’s assertion that on earth his confession would stay without further movement directly parallels the narrator’s lack of movement with regard to his inaction. Both the speaker and the narrator neglect to understand that time is cyclical in nature. Just because the speaker waits to confess to Dante does not mean that his confession is not heard, thus his procrastination is rendered useless. Likewise, the narrator’s preoccupation with life and death serves only to prevent him from acting upon his desires immediately. The narrator concedes, “I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/And in short, I was afraid” (Eliot 824). The paralysis that the narrator suffers from due to his concern over the “eternal Footman”, or death, prevents him from daring to act. As the narrator projects upon his future, older self, he becomes anxious over the fatality of human life. By continually questioning whether his actions “would have been worth while” and measuring out his life “with coffee spoons”, the narrator distracts himself with his worries and thus impedes his actions that would lead to the attainment of his own desires.
Structurally, T.S. Eliot’s choice to keep the time frame within the poem ambiguous harkens back to the cyclical nature of time itself. Within the poem, the narrator at once describes many places and times throughout his life. In transitioning from a soft October night on the streets, to a room filled with women, to an afternoon and to an evening, and even to his life as he “grows old”, the reader is thrust back and forth through time. Just as the imagery within the poem symbolizes the cyclical nature of time, so the structural time frame of the poem itself reflects the continual movement of time. By remaining somewhat ambiguous, the various scenes of the poem repeat the assertion that time stops for no human reflection, whether that reflection is of the narrator or of the reader.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” centers upon the concept of time. By repeating time imagery, both within the language and structure of the poem, T.S. Eliot forces the reader to confront the force that is time. The ultimate predicament of the narrator, growing old as he continues to contemplate his actions as they relate to his eventual death, serves to act as a warning. In his mania over time, the narrator forgets to live in the moment. He simultaneously allows both his intimidation by time’s immortality and his concerns over the impact that his own actions will have on time to overpower him, and he later is overcome by the certainty of his impending death; he at once narcissistically believes his actions to be of consequence, and, alternatively, of no consequence at all. Thus the narrator’s obsession with time paralyzes him, preventing him from acting upon his desires. With the narrator’s anxiety-ridden life as an example of the danger and futility in succumbing to intimidation and procrastination, T.S. Eliot asserts the necessity of seizing the day and taking purposeful action to obtain one’s desires.