"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" T. S. Eliot
(Full name Thomas Stearns Eliot; also wrote under the pseudonyms Charles Augustus Conybeare; Charles James Grimble, Reverend; Gus Krutzch; Muriel A. Schwartz; J. A. D. Spence; Helen B. Trundlett) American-born English poet, critic, essayist, dramatist, and editor.
The following entry presents criticism on Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915). See also The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Poetry Criticism, T. S. Eliot Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is considered one of Eliot's finest and most important works. With the help of Ezra Pound, the poem was accepted for publication in Poetry in 1915—four years, it is believed, after Eliot (1888–1965) completed it. Through this poem Eliot established himself as a modern voice in literature, creating profoundly innovative, erudite poetry which mixes classical references with industrial twentieth-century images. It is the first work among many which would earn him a place as one of the most important and revolutionary poets of the twentieth century.
Plot and Major Characters
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a lyrical, dramatic monologue of a middle-class male persona who inhabits a physically and spiritually bleak environment. The title of the poem is misleading since it is neither a love poem nor a song in the classical sense. Approximately 130 lines long, it follows the ramblings of J. Alfred Prufrock, the would-be suitor of an unnamed and nebulously developed woman. While Eliot provides little description of Prufrock's person, he does reveal a great deal about Prufrock's personality and state of mind.
Major ThemesPrufrock is full of self-doubts, with a pessimistic outlook on his future, as well as the future of society and the world. This pessimistic view renders him unable to declare his love to the unnamed woman. He describes himself as "almost ridiculous," "almost … the Fool." Although aware of the possibility of personal fulfillment, Prufrock is afraid to act, unable to claim for himself a more meaningful existence. The poem also contains numerous biting images of the industrial land-scape with its insidious "yellow fog," "narrow streets," "lonely men in shirt-sleeves," and "soot that falls from chimneys." "Prufrock" is also replete with classical references to such literary and historical figures as John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet and to the literary works of Hesiod, Andrew Marvell, Dante, and Jules Laforgue.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has sparked tremendous interest and dissension among literary scholars. It is considered by many to be one of the principal poems of this century, and is listed with The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943) as Eliot's best work. Often analyzed by line, incident or reference, the poem continues to confound scholars. Eliot pioneered an innovative and often fragmentary style centered upon modernity and the use of startling metaphors; Louis Untermeyer calls it "sensitive to the pitch of concealment." Critics such as Robert M. Seiller, Elizabeth Drew, George Williamson, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren all argue that Prufrock never articulates a question: he is too overwhelmed by modernity and the state of his existence to formulate it. J. Peter Dyson contends that Eliot utilizes a literary reference to Hamlet in which to indirectly frame Prufrock's question. In a separate but related inquiry, Bruce Hayman questions whether Prufrock is proposing marriage or making a sexual proposition to the woman in the poem. Critics agree that in the end Prufrock is too overwhelmed by the bleakness of his own life and his view of the urban landscape to take any action, so paralyzed is he with fear and uncertainty. Scholars have focused a great deal of energy on unraveling the meaning of the literary references with which Eliot peppers the poem. There is disagreement over the allusions to John the Baptist and Lazarus, and argument over which Hamlet reference he employs. Several scholars have marked Dostoevsky's influence on Eliot, although Eliot himself pointed out that Crime and Punishment was not available to him when he wrote this poem. Critics list among Eliot's influences Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, and Laforgue.
Prufrock, and Other Observations (poetry) 1917
Poems (poetry) 1919
∗The Waste Land (poem) 1922
Fragment of a Prologue (play) 1926
Journey of the Magi (poetry) 1927
Fragment of the Agon (play) 1927
A Song for Simeon (poetry) 1928
Animula (poetry) 1929
Ash-Wednesday (poetry) 1930
Marina (poetry) 1930
Sweeny Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama (play) 1932
The Rock (play) 1934
Murder in the Cathedral (play) 1935
Collected Poems, 1909–1935 (poetry) 1936
The Family Reunion (play) 1939
†Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (poetry) 1939
East Coker (poetry) 1940
The Dry Salvages (poetry) 1941
Four Quartets (poetry) 1943
The Cocktail Party (play) 1950
The Confidential Clerk (play) 1954
The Elder Statesman (play) 1959
Collected Poems, 1909–1962 (poetry) 1963
Growltiger's Last Stand and Other Poems (poetry) 1987
∗First published in Criterion, October, 1922.
†Later adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber as the Broadway musical CATS.
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:...
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SOURCE: "Word Heard: Prufrock Asks His Question," in Yeats Eliot Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1978, pp. 33-5.
[In the following essay, Dyson contradicts Robert M. Seiler's arguments, stating that Eliot does pose a question in "Prufrock."]
An assumption seems to have grown up over the years that no precise meaning can be assigned to the "overwhelming question" in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." When Prufrock cries, "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" one is meant, apparently, to see the impossibility as referring, above all, to the formulation of the question. One can certainly agree with Balachandra Rajan, in his recent book, The Overwhelming...
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SOURCE: "'Prufrock': An Absurdist View of the Poem," in English Studies in Canada, Vol. VI, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 430-43.
[In the following essay, Bagchee argues that "Prufrock" should be reinterpreted in terms of post-modern theories.]
The aim of this article is to reclaim one of T. S. Eliot's most celebrated poems as a truly modern poem: as poetry that is as significant in our post-Modernist times as it was in 1915 when it was published at the beginning of the Modernist movement in Anglo-American literature. For much too long it has been admired and interpreted mainly from narrowly Modernist or Eliotic perspectives. Most existing...
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SOURCE: "Mr. Prufrock's Big City Blues," in Antigonish Review, Nos. 66-67, Summer-Autumn, 1986, pp. 75-9.
[In the essay below, Keogh compares Eliot's poem "Prufrock" with blues music.]
Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying that the love-song of Eliot's "Prufrock" is a blues song, and he related it to the interface between urban and agrarian life in the American South. In "Mr. Eliot and the St. Louis Blues," McLuhan wrote
Further, the peculiar character of jazz derives from the South, perhaps because of the interplay between industrial and metropolitan life, on one hand, and agrarian life, on the other hand. People situated on the...
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SOURCE: "'Prufrock' and the Problem of Literary Narcissism," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 356-77.
[In the following essay, McNamara analyzes "Prufrock" in terms of realism and subjectivity.]
The central failure of modernist literature, according to Georg Lukács's vehement critique in "The Ideology of Modernism," is that it denies the historically situated character of human thought and action and in so doing denies the power of human actions to effect social change. Modernist literature, says Lukács, is rooted in a bourgeois ideology, at the center of which a self-made and self-contained individual confronts history, but history given a...
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SOURCE: "Knowledge and Experience in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", in ELH, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 685-99.
[In the following essay, Childs argues that in order to fully comprehend "Prufrock" the poem must be considered in light of Eliot's dissertation on F. H. Bradley.]
But what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning—or without forgetting, merely changing.
—T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism...
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SOURCE: "Two Bald Men: Eliot and Dostoevsky," in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, October, 1988, pp. 282-300.
[In the essay below, Ayers considers whether Dostoevsky's novel The Double influenced Eliot's writing of "Prufrock."]
Students of the influence that one author has had on the work of another have at all times had reason to be careful, not to give too much importance to the superficial resemblance, the odd verbal parallel, while seeking deeper structural affinities—without, that is, making one or two centuries of highbrow literary effort appear to have repeatedly produced the same thing.
In the case of Eliot,...
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SOURCE: "'Prufrock' as Key to Eliot's Poetry," in Approaches to Teaching Eliot's Poetry and Plays, The Modern Language Association of America, 1988, pp. 88-93.
[In the following essay, Smith discusses how teaching students the underlying structure of "Prufrock" introduces them to the broader concepts of Eliot's later works.]
A strategy to identify the essence of Eliot beyond, as well as within, a single poem needs the right poem. To make "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" this poem, whether one is proposing to teach Eliot comprehensively or selectively, offers several advantages. "Prufrock" is familiar and is outstanding in interest and attractiveness; it comes near...
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SOURCE: "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", in Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 41-5.
[In the following essay, Ledbetter asserts that a more accurate interpretation of "Prufrock" may be garnered by rethinking the roles of Lazarus, John the Baptist, and Guido da Montefeltro.]
The editors of anthologies containing T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" invariably footnote the reference to Lazarus as John 11:1-44; rarely is the reference footnoted as Luke 16:19-31. Also, the reference to John the Baptist is invariably footnoted as Matthew 14:3-11; never have I seen the reference footnoted as an allusion to Oscar Wilde's Salome....
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SOURCE: "How Old Is Prufrock? Does He Want to Get Married?", in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 59-68.
[In the following essay, Hayman argues that two distinctly different interpretations of "Prufrock" develop depending upon how the reader interprets the character's age and intent.]
Before I try to answer the two questions which entitle this essay, I would like to pose a third question and try to answer it: what difference does it make? What difference does it make whether Prufrock is young or middle-aged, or whether he wants to get married or not? For a number of reasons, I think that it makes a significant difference.
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