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 talking to himself? Is he any or all of the self-caricatures he contemplates—ragged claws, John the Baptist, Lazarus, Polonius? Is he bound on an erotic mission, a visit of social obligation, or merely an imaginary prowl through half-deserted streets; does he move at all from the spot where he begins his narrative, or is all animation suspended and all action only contemplated or remembered? Readers must negotiate these and similar questions, open to a variety of answers, to determine the speaker’s identity and judge the situation in which they find themselves with Prufrock.
Similarly important are the sensory images that the voice projects, from the etherized patient to the ragged claws to the mermaids and one’s own death by drowning, which involves all the senses until consciousness is extinguished. As the voices—Prufrock’s, the women’s, the woman’s, the mermaids’, Lazarus’s, John’s—must be heard, so the images must be seen, the yellow fog and the seawater smelled and tasted, the motion of walking and the pressure of reclining felt along the nerves. Like many of Eliot’s dramatic poems, this drama calls for total sensory involvement as the reader observes with the mind’s eye the many scenes to which Prufrock refers.
Apart from its intrinsic significance, this poem foreshadows many of the concerns and techniques Eliot would explore and use in the remainder of his poetry. It stands, then, as a prelude to other work and, as Eliot would have it, is modified by that work.