Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
The very first lines of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) are masterful in how they introduce ideas that will be handled in the remainder of the poem. In a short space, Eliot sets up such themes as time, indecision, social identity, and malaise, which not only describe the speaker but also seem to express a larger comment on the culture.
In the first line, the word “then” can be interpreted in a couple ways. As a time indicator, the word has a straightforward meaning that is explained in the second line: “you and I” will go “when the evening is spread out against the sky.” However, “then” draws attention to itself, because as a simple time indicator, it is not really necessary; the word “when” suffices. Yet the line doesn’t read: “Let us go, you and I, when the evening….” The additional word, rather than being redundant, signals to the reader that time is relevant. In fact, stanza four is devoted to time, beginning “And indeed there will be time.” On the one hand, the speaker’s repetitive focus on time in this stanza suggests that he is actually procrastinating. By his lack of action, he ends up sitting on the sidelines of life, ineffectual and alone. On the other hand, time is mocking him. No matter what decision he makes, his choice is ultimately pointless, which is what the allusion to Ecclesiastes reveals: All is vanity. This futility is further supported by the speaker measuring out his “life with coffee spoons,” amid the dilettantism and frivolity of women chatting about Michelangelo.
The word “then” could also be interpreted as a response in a conversation or train of thought that is already started. It functions as a decision; Prufrock has decided to make a “visit” to a tea party, as if he is saying, “Ok, then, let’s go.” Unfortunately, this decision lacks substance, for nothing will change as the result of it. Prufrock has a more pressing decision to make, which appears to consume him in deliberations throughout the rest of the poem. Ironically, the “perfume from a dress that makes” him digress is probably more to the point. He seems to want to address one of the women at the tea party, but he fails; he remains sexually inept, and his “love song” falls flat. His sexuality, which could be tied to his lack of completion and contentment, is complicated by his fragmentation of bodies, where peoples’ identities have been displaced onto their arms and legs, and thus, possibly eradicated. In short, on the surface, the “then” in the first line indicates resolution, but on a deeper level, it alludes to Prufrock’s inability to make real decisions and engage life.
The first line also introduces an “us” that quickly gets divided into “you and I.” Once again, just as the “then” is redundant and draws attention to itself, the “you and I” is not really necessary in the line. However, the clarification of the “us,” its division, should alert the reader to question the relationship between the “you and I.” The next line: “When the evening is spread out against the sky” sets up a parallelism, connecting “you and I” to “evening” and “sky.” Normally, from a visual perspective, the evening and the sky could refer to the same thing, or at least, they are not completely separated. Evenings are not usually “spread out against the sky,” but intimately joined with the sky. The same distinction (and also connection) that Prufrock makes about the evening and sky elucidates the relationship between “you and I”: They are distinct but connected. In other words, the “You” may not be a separate individual, but an aspect of Prufrock. The “You” could function as the speaker’s social self, which is both false and objectified. This is the prepared “face,” the “I’s” performance or assumed role at the social gathering. Ironically, because the “I” is masked, the false self is the one who gets objectified by “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase.” This objectification is evident in the third line of the poem; through “you and I’s” parallel relation to the “evening” and “sky,” the speaker is also compared to the etherized patient, who helplessly and lethargically awaits dissection, which is similar to being sprawled “on a pin.” Sadly, the “I” is disconnected and truly unknown, and his inability to know other people is heightened by his awareness that he will only meet other false, performing selves.
The comparison of the speaker to the sky is established not simply through the parallelism, but also more forcibly, in fact, by the rhyme that connects “I” to “sky.” In accord with the Symbolist tradition, the rhyme creates a metaphor that gets reinforced throughout the poem, turning the descriptions of the atmosphere into descriptions of Prufrock himself. The yellow fog and smoke, while depicted as a cat, correspond to Prufrock’s attitude, which seems sickly and dejected. Like the yellow fog, he is alienated and rubs only against the outside of the house, and the repetition of “panes” presents an obvious pun: pains.
On the one hand, Prufrock’s mood could be coloring his perspective of the atmosphere, and so he is projecting his malaise onto everything. Yet it is very possible that the environment is affecting him in return. This would make the malaise more general and indicative of a larger society, making Prufrock not only a victim but also a representative of a sick culture.