The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a psychological profile of a white, middle-aged, middle-class, late Victorian man suffering from an acute spiritual malaise as a result of his boring, unimaginative, routine, repressed bourgeois existence. The poem, T. S. Eliot’s first major publication, immediately established his reputation as an important poet. It also announced one of the themes that Eliot explored throughout his career: the emptiness of modern life, made tedious by habit, sterilized by convention, in which self-awareness does not lead to self-knowledge but only to existential paralysis.
Prufrock epitomizes a frustrated man hopelessly alienated from his imagination and yet desperate for imaginative salvation. His life is filled with meaningless gestures and predictable encounters; his seamy world is agonizingly uninspiring. Prufrock is an effigy representing the cultural decadence and moral degeneration that Eliot equates with the society of his time. He is the product of a world suffering from a break with its past cultural heritage, a loss of tradition, a failure of institutional authority, and an unhealthy emphasis on individualism.
Eliot incorporates hallucinatory imagery to create a lethargic world where ‘the evening is spread out against the sky, Like a patient etherised upon a table.’ The women who ‘come and go Talking of Michelangelo’ suggest the transience and shallowness of contemporary relationships while ironically reducing the work of an Italian Renaissance master. Prufrock is afraid to ‘force the moment to its crisis.’ The people in his world mask their emotions and ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.’ The streets are ‘insidious’ and ‘half-deserted’; people spend ‘restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.’ Deadened by routine, he complains that he has ‘measured out my life in coffee spoons.’ The portrait of Prufrock is particularly unflattering, but more pathetic because he realizes the nature of his dilemma but is still incapable of rectifying it. His vision at the end of the poem is one of possible redemption, of ‘mermaids singing,’ but his resignation is complete; he does not think that they will sing to him.
Eliot, perhaps the most significant of the new wave of Symbolists of the 1920’s, startled the world of poetry and spoke for a lost generation in The Waste Land, engaged literary critics with his landmark book of criticism, The Sacred Wood, and wrote the most successful verse play of the twentieth century, The Cocktail Party.
Although Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in and lived his early life in St. Louis, his family was so New England in its outlook that it can hardly be identified as Midwestern. Eliot’s grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, was a Unitarian clergyman whose religious zeal brought him to St. Louis in 1834, shortly after graduation from Harvard’s Divinity School. He founded a Unitarian church in St. Louis and then went on to establish three schools, a poor fund, and a sanitary commission in the city. His crowning triumph, however, was in founding Washington University in 1872.
At thirty, Eliot had two books in print: Prufrock and Other Observations and Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry (1917). By his fortieth birthday, he had twenty-three more books in print, including collections of his poetry, several books of criticism that dislocated many entrenched ideas about literature, and three dramatic works, Sweeney Agonistes (1932; verse play), The Rock (1934), and Murder in the Cathedral (1935).
Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, the same year in which he received the Order of Merit from King George VI. By that time, Eliot was generally considered the most important poet writing in English. He heard of his selection for the Nobel Prize while he was in Princeton as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies. There, he worked on The Cocktail Party (1949), which he had begun before he left England.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was T.S. Eliot’s first important publication and it has often been called the first masterpiece of modernism in English. It represented a break with the immediate past as radical as that of the English romantic poets. The title of the poem is a clear ironic contrast between the romantic suggestions of ‘love song’ and the rather prosaic name ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’. The name comes from Prufrock-Littau, a furniture company which advertised in St. Louis, Missouri, where T.S. Eliot was born. The poet combined this name with a fatuous ‘J. Alfred ,’ which somehow suggests the qualities this person later shows. There is also irony in the title because it says the poem is a ‘love song,’ but then we read something completely different. It is true that there are some elements often used in ballads and songs, such as rhyme, refrain, anaphora, parallelism and incantatory tone; but the poem is not a ‘love song’. Prufrock never gives utterance to tender or loving feelings in his song. He is unable to love.
In the first line the poet introduces two persons, ‘you and I’. The reader immediately wonders who these people are and where they are going. It is obvious that the ‘I’ is the speaker, and according to the title his name is Prufrock; and ‘you’ could be a lady. It can also be the reader and Prufrock. We do not know yet. We only know that it is evening and that they are walking through streets of a sordid section of a certain city. We do not know its name but it seems representative of other great cities of modern western civilization. Then the speaker mentions a question, an overwhelming question, but he does not want to talk about it. And since the question is never asked in the poem, the answer is never given.
We also learn that they are going to pay a visit to a place in which women talk of Michelangelo. After thinking of the women to be visited, the speaker returns to a vision of the streets, the fog, beautifully described as a cat that falls asleep. It seems that Prufrock is putting to sleep the vision he had of the city and also he is gaining time from the society that is waiting for him in the room where women are talking of Michelangelo. The somnolent image suggests Prufrock’s mental state, his desire for inactivity, his indecision, his passivity and his reluctance to ask the overwhelming question. Prufrock tries to put off the decision and says that “there will be time” (line 23), though we do not really know for what there will be time.
The next section increases the tension by raising the question “Do I dar”?” (line 38). This also shows Prufrock’s fear of his society and the people In It. Eventually he enters the room and remembers In three rhyming stanzas the times he has heard the same voices, seen the same people. He knows that society very well and he does not like it. He finds it trivial and boring; he says: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (line51). Then he starts to rehearse what he dares not to say, and he does not say it. He fails. He never asks the question, his only excuse being that he is no prophet, that he does not have the strength of John the Baptist.
After that mock-heroic tone and after that self-justification, Prufrock looks back upon the event and thinks about his failure. He asks: “Would it have been worth it, after all” (Line 87). But his fear of being misunderstood makes him accept his failure.
In the last part of the poem there is a great change: from a tone of self-mockery showing Prufrock as the Fool in an Elizabethan play to the language of romantic longing. Prufrock at the end tries to escape from the real world where he was defeated and he dreams of mermaids. Yet he cannot avoid the realty and he drowns. The poem is a song of desire and failure. It seems to be the story of what is taking place inside a man called Prufrock. Therefore we can say that the poem Is a dramatic monologue, a dialogue between “you” and “I,” both being the same person.
Prufrock talks to himself. The “you” is the passionate self who insists on going to make the visit. The “I” is the one who consents and says “Let US go then…” (line 1); he is the timid self who does not dare, who does not ask the overwhelming question. If in the epigraph we had Guido’s answer to Dante, somebody who, he believed, would never return to the world to report Guido’s words, now in the poem we have the words of the condemned “I” who, like Guido, speaks freely only because he is sure that the “you” will not tell anybody about him.
Now that we have thrown light on the mystery of the identity of the different people addressed in the poem, we still have to tackle the enigma of the “overwhelming question,” which is never formulated in the poem. Is Prufrock trying to issue a marriage proposal? Is he trying to ask the lady called “one” in the poem to marry him or is he just asking about the meaning of this life? The answer may be different for different readers. But it seems to be irrelevant. We simply do not need to know what the question, “the overwhelming question,” is. It is enough to know that Prufrock never asks the question; that he is unable to ask it. We should not look for a concealed narrative in the poem. T.S. Eliot is not presenting a story, but a personality. The poem is built around the timid person called Prufrock. This character needs to be analysed.
After reading the poem we think of Prufrock as an unattractive middle-aged man who grows old and talks about his bald spot in his hair. He is aware of his weakness and disabilities:
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.” (lines 84-85)
Prufrock is conscious of being inferior. He knows he is not Prince Hamlet and he does not think the mermaids will sing to him. He knows that he cannot make a decision. Therefore he takes refuge in self mockery. He is resigned to his failure. However, he is sensitive to criticism. He knows that people around him remark that his arms and legs are growing thin (line 44) and have him sprawling on a pin (line 57).
J. Alfred Prufrock is an unhappy frustrated man. He is involved in a routine of social life and he does not feel comfortable in the society in which he is condemned to live. He sees boredom and monotony. Though he is conditioned by that fashionable society, he seems to be tired of the superficial and miserable existance he is leading. Besides, he is isolated in that alien world. He has a range of more or less obscure feelings that he cannot communicate due to his inhibitions and timidity. He then talks to himself and he suffers. Prufrock is a mask, a person through whom the tribulations of the modern city life are spoken.
One of the themes this poem develops is the tedium and dryness of modern life. It is an expression of the futility of life. The reader gets an intense personal view of the society, the city and the world in which Prufrock lives. The poem also conveys a sense of frustration which leads us into the main issue: the problem of communication. This theme, present throughout much of Eliot’s work, is incorporated in the poem by means of the question which is never asked. The speaker cannot get his message across. It does not matter whether the recipient of that message is a lady or not. The fact is that communication fails. And the failure of communication is related to the theme of the individuals isolation, loneliness, and estrangement from other people. Prufrock is alienated from this world, like Guido and like the “patient etherized upon a table” (line 3). He should have been a crab “scuttling across the floors of silent seas” (line 74).
The theme of lack of communication and understanding that Prufrock voices in his monologue has a close relationship with the way the poem is written, its style and structure. According to Leonard Unger ‘, there is a statement in the poem which suggests this connection between the problem of articulation Prufrock suffers and the mode of composition T.S. Eliot chose for his poem: “It is impossible to say just what I mean But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen” (lines 104-105). T.S. Eliot, like Prufrock, does not clearly say what he means; instead, like the magic lantern, the poem throws different pictures of Prufrock’s mind on a screen. In order to express his feelings, the poet shows different corners of Prufrock’s psyche in no particular order (the streets, the room, the fog, the room again, etc.). And all these images put together give the meaning of the poem.
Therefore we cannot see a logical structure in the poem, despite the fact that it is divided into several sections. There is only the structure of the flow of thoughts in Prufrock’s mind. The poem is based on the free association of ideas and images without connective and transitional passages. It renders the flow of impressions visual, auditory, physical, and subliminal’that impinges on the consciousness of Prufrock, a technique similar to the stream of consciousness used by James Joyce a few years later.
Eliot’s technique In this poem Is like that of a collage, composed of juxtaposed Images. “Prufrock” is made out of different elements: Images, literary references, remarks, the squalor, the beautiful, lyricism, brutality, etc. The whole sum of the elements builds up the meaning of the poem while the reader is delighted in trying to rationalize the association of elements.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is certainly modern in tone and diction. T.S. Eliot wrote a new kind of poetry, with irregular rhyming verse paragraphs, free verse, new themes, and attitudes.
SOURCE: "Prufrock and the Fool Son," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. VIII, Winter, 1967, pp. 51-54.
[In the following essay, Fortenberry explores the influence of Jules Laforgue on "Prufrock" and considers the role of the fool.]
How much or how little the title of a poem means is, of course, left to the whim or decision of the poet. Upon occasion, however, a title will furnish the best clue to the meaning and significance of a poem. It is quite possible that the title, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," could furnish us with meaning we have not found before. This title has received very little attention considering the great attention which the poem itself has received. The following remarks focus upon the title of the poem, especially its use of the term "song."
In spite of the fact that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has fostered many articles, enough, in fact, to make it one of the best understood works in our language, the poem is not well read by—not well explained to—thousands of college freshmen each year who find it in the section of their readers devoted to the latest poetry to be anthologized. Often they are rather shocked to learn that the poem is vintage 1915, which, although a good year, seems long ago to a freshman. They are also shocked to learn that it has been in print longer than some Thomas Hardy and a great deal of Housman and Hopkins. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is no longer young. It is of such an age that coming to terms with it becomes very important.
Those who have long used the Brooks and Warren explanation of the Prufrock poem and are satisfied need go no further. It is a reasonable and sound explanation and one of the few attempts to deal with the whole poem by bringing some semblance of unity to it. Unfortunately for those who seek further than Brooks and Warren, most articles on the poem deal almost entirely with fragments, with single lines or single words, with Mermaids, rolled trousers, or gastric problems caused by peaches. This line-by-line approach is entirely natural because lines of the poem, especially those in the last section, seem to lack unity. Other essays are concerned with the sources of various lines in the poem. This approach is also a natural development which grew out of Eliot's own precedent of publishing notes on "The Wasteland." One of the best articles of this type, John C. Pope's "Prufrock and Raskalnikov," was provocative enough to merit a reply by Eliot in which he claimed the source for the Hamlet in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to be the work of Jules Laforgue, not Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, as Pope had contended.
Explanation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" should begin with attention to the work of Jules Laforgue where Eliot has directed us. Not only that, but attention should be given to Laforgue's Hamlet, a character not too much like Shakespeare's Hamlet. Critics have known for a long time of Laforgue's influence. They have not, however, paid much attention to his Hamlet in trying to interpret the poem.
To return to the title, we observe that Eliot's poem is about a love song. As we read, however, we are soon aware that this is not the regular boy-girl love song but is an attempt to communicate a message of importance to the world, a message Prufrock wants to deliver but has great difficulty expressing. In spite of the difficulty, the love song is finally sung. It is sung by the Fool, and it is within the Fool Song that we may find the comment that Prufrock wants to make, one which Eliot himself continued to make in later poetry. The song of the Fool begins in much the same way that any ditty of a Fool in Shakespearian or other seventeenth-century drama might begin. But this resemblance does not mean that Eliot got his Fool from these sources, even though no smaller Fool than Falstaff admits, "I am old, I am old." (2 Henry IV. II. iv. 294) Much more likely it is that Eliot got his Fool, along with his Hamlet, from the work of Jules Laforgue, for both "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Portrait of a Lady" are Laforguian poems. Eliot has indicated his indebtedness to Laforgue for his method. Tindall comments upon this method at length:...