Segments of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," often called "the first Modernist poem," appeared in the Harvard Advocate in 1906 while Eliot was an undergraduate. He later read the poem to Ezra Pound in England and Pound arranged to have it published in the prestigious American journal Poetry in June 1915. It was included in Prufrock and Other Observations, Eliot's first book of poetry, in 1917.
Eliot's interest in music is made evident in the title, but the term "love song" is used loosely here. The poem centers on the feelings and thoughts of the persona, J. Alfred Prufrock, as he walks to meet a woman for tea and considers a question he feels compelled to ask her (something along the lines of "Will you marry me?"). In fact, in this poem he never arrives at tea, let alone sings to the woman. The poem is composed of Prufrock's own neurotic—if lyrical—associations. Indeed, over the course of the poem, he sets up analogies between himself and various familiar cultural figures, among them Hamlet. This establishes a connection with Hamlet's famous soliloquy ("To be or not to be?—That is the question"). Prufrock's doubt that he deserves the answer he desires from this woman transforms the poem into a kind of interior monologue or soliloquy in which "To be or not to be?" is for Prufrock "To be what?" and "What or who am I to ask this woman to marry me?"
Seen as simply the romantic agonizing of a young man (Eliot was eighteen when he began the poem) over a woman he loves, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" would have a distinctly limited appeal. However, the poem moves from this specific situation to explore the peculiarly Modernist alienation of the individual in society to a point where internal emotional alienation occurs and a soliloquy in which a man speaks as if alone can begin, "Let us go then, you and I...."