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T.S. Eliot published “Prufrock” in England in 1917 and in America in 1920, causing such a stir of praise and disapproval that by 1922 he probably was the most discussed of living American poets. Eliot insisted that the poet must “be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory” of contemporary society. Prufrock’s monologue was a classic statement of the disconnectedness and alienation that were to become a hallmark of much early twentieth-century poetry.
The speaker in this poem is Prufrock, who engages in an internal monologue. Prufrock wants to escape the solitary dreariness of his isolated existence, but is afraid to take action or ask for affection. He instead imagines a tea party that he and the reader will attend, a party where he will remain indecisive, lacking the creative energy of the men
they speak of such as Michelangelo. He recalls how the hero Hamlet finally acted after deliberation and indecisiveness, but he ultimately compares his own fear and inaction to that of the old fool, Polonius.
The title proves to be ironic, for we scarcely get a love song: “J. Alfred Prufrock” is a name that, like the speaker, seems to be hiding something (“J.”) and also seems to be somewhat old-maidish (“Prufrock” suggests “prude” and “frock”); the initial description (especially the “patient etherised”) is really less a description of the evening than of Prufrock’s state of mind; mock heroic devices abound (people at a cocktail party talking of Michelangelo, Prufrock gaining strength from his collar and stickpin); the sensuous imagery of women’s arms leads to the men in shirt-sleeves and to Prufrock’s wish to be a pair of ragged claws.
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