Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The masterpiece of his poetic apprenticeship, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” remains one of Eliot’s most intriguing and challenging poems; it may be usefully examined by listening to the voices it embodies. Like much of the poetry of Robert Browning, it is a dramatic monologue. Like the poetry of Jules Laforgue, it is a Symbolist poem that explores the narrator’s stream of consciousness as he relates, in fragmented fashion, his seemingly random thoughts that are unified by the structure of the poem.
One key to this song of misprized, reluctant, hesitant love is in the epigraph from Dante’s Inferno (XXVII) in which the speaker, Guido, reluctantly reveals the reason he is in Hell. While Prufrock finds it difficult to say what he means, he relates his thought as Guido had to Dante, without fear that his secret will be revealed to the living. The Dantean clue places the reader among the dead: This is one of the several suggestive possibilities for reading the poem and viewing its world as one of the circles that hold dead souls. The reader immediately enters what the critic Hugh Kenner has called a “zone of consciousness,” not a realistic setting, and listens to a story that is not sequential: One is invited to share a dream with disturbing overtones.
The often perplexed reader needs to make numerous decisions about the teller and the tale. Is Prufrock actually addressing the reader, as Guido did Dante, or is he...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
“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...
(The entire section is 457 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” marks the beginning of the modernist movement in Anglo-American poetry. It is the first English-language poem in the twentieth century to employ free verse, startling juxtapositions of allusion and situation, an intensely self-conscious speaker (or “persona”), and a truly urban setting. The initial quotation is from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the great fourteenth century epic describing the author’s descent into the Inferno and eventual ascent into Paradise. The lines (in Italian) are spoken by one of the damned souls to Dante as he journeys through Hell. Like souls in the Inferno, Prufrock exists in a kind of living death.
In the poem’s opening lines, Prufrock invites the reader to accompany him as he walks through a modern city making his social rounds. Perhaps he assumes that they share his comfortable wealth and socially active lifestyle. As his proper, even prissy, name implies, Prufrock is neurotic, fearful, sensitive, and bored. His upper-class friends—the women who “come and go”—apparently lead arid and pointless lives. At any rate, what is evident right from the outset of the poem is that Prufrock is unhappy with his life. His unhappiness, he suspects, has something to do with the society in which he lives: There is, for example, the jarring clash between the grim cityscape through which he walks and the mindless tea-party conversation of his friends.
One important way in which this poem is different from the poetry of the century before it is the way in which the speaker describes nature. In the nineteenth century, poets described the natural world as the real home of God, as the fountain at which weary human beings could refresh themselves. A nineteenth century poet, such as William Wordsworth, might have described the coming of evening as being “gentle, like a nun.” In contrast, Prufrock’s evening is like a very sick person awaiting an operation; the dusk over the city is anesthetized and...
(The entire section is 835 words.)