In past posts I have argued that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is about the narrator's struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality. I'd like to look at Eliot's use of "smoke" and "windows" in the poem to further explore this point.
A section of Prufrock that I've always read as highly homosexually charged begins with:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
For example, I read the phrase "the soot that falls from chimneys" as a reference to ejaculation. In previous posts I have mentioned that "fog" brings up the notion of concealment (concealed desires) and that "yellow" is the color of sickness (perversion).
I have often wondered why the "fog" (an obvious image of concealment) in the stanza's opening line becomes the "smoke" in the next line. Since "fog" and "smoke" could almost equally well serve as metaphors for concealment, why is it necessary to have the 'fog' turn into its apparent equal, 'smoke'?
I think the answer in found in a critical section of the poem, whose importance is noted by the poet by "framing" the section apart from the rest of the poem with dots:
And how should I begin?
. . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?...
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
. . . . .
Here Prufrock goes deep into his soul to reveal his innermost secrets (which is why the section is physically set apart from the narration of the rest of the poem). Prufrock reveals that the purpose of his journey "at dusk through narrow streets" is to watch "the smoke that rises from the pipes/Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows", that is, to pursue his desires for homosexual encounters. That revelation results in a moment of panic and self-loathing ("I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas").
In this moment of revelation, we finally learn the basis of the "smoke" metonymy. The "yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes" and "the yellow smoke that slides along the street/Rubbing its back upon the window-panes" is a shorthand for the "smoke that rises from the pipes/Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows". That is, the "smoke" represents the homosexuals that the narrator longs for in the "narrow streets at dusk".
The set-apart section about the "lonely men in shirt-sleeves" also plays an important role near the end on the poem. In my reading, Prufrock is trying to imagine explaining his homosexual desires to an imagined future bride who is upset with his homosexual revelations. He muses to himself:
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."
Prufrock then adds, in a section that at first appears to be redundant:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."
"Settling a pillow" can be seen as indicating intimacy, as would "throwing off a shawl", evoking an image of a scene between a future husband and wife. But what is it important in this next stanza to add a detail that the woman is "turning toward the window"? I think that, once again, the answer is to be found in the set-apart section of the "lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows". I believe that as the woman turns toward the window, we are to understand that she mentally "sees" the lonely men leaning out of the window, finally understanding the soul of Prufrock, "the nerves in patterns on a screen" revealed by some "magic lantern" of confession.
Comments are always welcome.
-- Steve -