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 fears making the mistake of trying to pick someone up after misinterpreting their politeness as an advance. For instance, if a man opens up a bit prematurely to a girl in whom he’s interested, after she showed him a bit of professional politeness that he perceived as flirtation, she might respond, “I didn’t mean it that way; that isn’t what I meant at all.” Prufrock is questioning whether it’s worth the risk of declaring his feelings, if the result might be getting “shot down.”
John 11:38-53 tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead by calling him by name—after which Lazarus walks out of the tomb still wrapped in his burial cloth. Here’s an excerpt:
John 11:42: And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.
John 11:43: And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.
John 11:44: And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.
Some readers think the reference here is to the other biblical Lazarus: a leper who had dogs lick his sores. But that is not what Eliot meant, at all.
The image of Lazarus raised from the dead also recalls the epigraph from Dante at the poem’s start, translated as:
“But since no man has ever come alive / out of this gulf of Hell, if I hear true.”
However, even if resurrection did exist, it would be powerless in the face of an uninterested woman.
Similar biblical and Renaissance art allusions come up several times in the previous stanza. Prufrock is so ill-equipped to express his inner feelings that he likens doing so to something as monumental as Lazarus’s coming back with knowledge of the underworld.
To help improve the meaning of these lyrics, visit "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot and leave a comment on the lyrics box