The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Eliot, T. S.
"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.
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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...
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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 Question, that "Prufrock" owes its effect as much to what is not in the poem as to what is, but Rajan's denial of the question's presence in the poem tends to diminish unnecessarily Eliot's accomplishment. Surely the "overwhelming question" is there in the poem, there in the way demanded by the methodology of the poem. One of the stranger aspects of the Prufrock "question" is the way in which critics, whether assuming the question to be present in the poem or not, have refrained from making clear what the question actually is and how it is present if, indeed, it is present.
It seems for a moment as if Robert M. Seiler, in his interesting article, "Prufrock and Hamlet," is about to elucidate the matter once and...
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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 readings of the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" ridicule the poem's main character for his timidity and self-deception. He is blamed for surrendering too easily to the petty vanities encouraged by a shallow and self-conscious society. The poem is admired mainly for its supposedly Modernist irony and its stylistic innovations. It seems to me that this "standard" approach fails to explain the poem's strange and powerful hold on the imagination of twentieth-century readers. There is an inexplicable gap between the critics' high-minded rejection of Prufrock and his world, and the incontrovertible appeal of the poem itself. The important concerns of the poem are those of the central character, yet critics have continually berated that...
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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 frontiers between metropolitan and agrarian culture are naturally inclined to interplay them. The sounds of the city can be poured through the spoken idiom in such areas.
I suppose the original nostalgia of the slave for his African homeland eventually mutated into the urban black's anguished longing for rural roots on the farm and the plantation. That same lonesome whistle blew, more wistfully, for the newly urbanized white at the turn of the century (when "Prufrock" was written, at Harvard), no longer down on the farm, whether native emigrant or foreign.
While visiting his birthplace in Missouri in the 1950s, Eliot referred to the yellow fog in "Prufrock" as being "a St. Louis fog, now...
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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 static, and as such fundamentally ahistorical, form. Like the bourgeois ideology in which it is rooted, modernist literature denies that history is a changing ensemble of human activities, and therefore subject to change by human action. Modernism rejects the tradition of realist literature in which the human individual is conceived of as an essentially social and historical being, both formed by and forming his or her environment. In modernism, that "concrete typicality" of the realist view is replaced by an "abstract particularity" that is grounded in a view of the human individual as essentially solitary and asocial, capable at best only of superficial contacts with others. Human action, particularly action aimed at effecting social...
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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
Although scholars and critics became aware of F. H. Bradley's influence upon T. S. Eliot at a relatively late point in the latter's career, the relationship between the two writers has now been extensively documented. The studies of Kristian Smidt and Hugh Kenner led to a number of books and articles on this subject in the early sixties. This research culminated, largely through the efforts of Anne C. Bolgan, in the publication in 1964 of Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley—in effect, Eliot's 1916 dissertation on "Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley," supplemented by his articles on Bradley and Leibnitz in The...
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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, possibly the most influence-prone writer of an age, the scholar must be doubly careful. At all points Eliot seems to have anticipated the influence-hunter's search and to have laid false trails—I say "seems" because, once possessed of the notion of Eliot's duplicitousness, it becomes impossible not to take it into consideration at every stage—what started life as a phantom becomes an everyday reality.
The notorious "Notes on the Wasteland"—hard to take seriously, hard to ignore—are perhaps a prime example of this. Many of Eliot's essays, while purporting to be objective criticism seem, under scrutiny, to be oblique meditations about the influence that an author might have had on Eliot's own work. The 1918 Lecture, "From...
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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 the beginning of the canon; it links in theme and technique with various other poems by Eliot; and, most useful, it anticipates certain equally familiar critical principles (two especially) that he was to declare. Those principles, though they only took shape ten years further on, in his most active period of critical theory, apply to "Prufrock" and other poems of the 1909–11 period because it was in these, as a practical exercise, that he discovered their necessity. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) he set forth a kind of theory of mutual adaptation between the poet and the cultural past; in "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921) he pointed to certain distinguished cases of poetic excellence achieved through unity of thought and...
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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. The sources that one cites can profoundly affect interpretations of the poem. I believe that a correct reading of Eliot's "Prufrock" requires that one cite Wilde, in addition to Matthew, and Luke, in addition to John, as the sources for the John the Baptist and Lazarus being referenced. Furthermore, the citation of these sources can help explain Eliot's allusion to Dante's Guido da Montefeltro.
By a correct reading of "Prufrock," I mean a reading consistent with the central theme of the poet's belief made mute because the poet lives in a culture of unbelief—that is, the "silence" of the poetic vision in modernity. Prufrock renounces his inherited, romantic role as "poet as prophet" and renounces poetry's role as a...
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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.
First, it is a question of reading T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." What do we know about J. Alfred Prufrock, and how do we know that?
Second, depending upon how we answer these two questions, we have very different poems. A poem in which a young Prufrock desires to sexually proposition the poem's unnamed female is very different from a poem in which a middle-aged Prufrock desires to propose marriage. The difference between a proposition and a proposal is significant because there are two different sets of sensibilities involved. Such a difference tells us a good deal about what Prufrock thinks about the unnamed female and how he considers himself. Of course, there are not just two possible...
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Bentley, Joseph. "Actions and the Absence of Speech in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'" Yeats Eliot Review 9, No. 4 (Summer-Fall 1988): 145-48.
Argues that what Prufrock is really afraid of is modern society and its language patterns, and thus is not the pathetic character portrayed in other criticism.
Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'." Explicator 52, No. 3 (Spring 1994): 170.
Discusses the importance of shellfish to the imagery in "Prufrock."
Campo, Carlos. "Identifying the 'Lazarus' in Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." English Language Notes XXXII, No. 1 (September 1994): 66-9.
Claims that the Lazarus referred to in the poem is from Luke's account and the more famous story in John.
Colum, Padraic. "Studies in the Sophisticated." New Republic 25, No. 314 (8 December 1920): 52, 54.
Discusses the modernistic aspects of Eliot's poetry.
cummings, e. e. "T. S. Eliot." Dial XLVIII (June 1920): 781-84.
Praises Eliot's technique in Poems.
Everdell, William R....
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