The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” T. S. Eliot
The following entry presents criticism on Eliot's poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” See also The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Criticism (Volume 13), T. S. Eliot Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6.
Widely acclaimed as one of the world's greatest modern poets, Eliot has maintained an influence on literature some critics claim is unequaled by any other twentieth-century writer. While Eliot often is associated with the Symbolist-metaphysical tradition, his bold experiments with form, phrasing, and tone helped usher in the Modernist period in American and English letters. In fact, his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in its entirety for the first time in Eliot's first volume of poetry in 1917, often is credited by critics as being the first Modernist poem. Written as a dramatic monologue, “Prufrock” explores through the voice of its middle-class male persona a bleak and superficial world bereft of cultural depth and the fulfillment of personal relationships.
Several themes permeate “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that would later come to characterize both Modernist literature specifically and twentieth-century literature in general: particularly alienation and loneliness, the disintegration of culture in bourgeois society, and the fear of aging and mortality. Critics are divided as to Prufrock's main concern in the poem; some believe he is anxious about proposing marriage to a woman while others argue that he is troubled by the prospect of having his sexual advances turned down. Regardless, however, Prufrock's predicament is shaped by his own paralyzing fear of rejection and his depressed perception of the world as desolate and decaying. Much critical attention has been paid to the epigraph with which Eliot's poem begins. Taken from Dante's Divine Comedy, it reads, “If I thought my answer were to one who could ever return to the world, this flame would move no more; but since no one has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer you.” In Dante's work the lines are spoken by a lost soul; in “Prufrock” they are seen as representative of Prufrock's inability to ask, much less accept the answer to, his important question, and his dread that the woman to whom he asks the question would respond with, “‘That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all.’” Another of Eliot's—and Prufrock's—concerns in the poem is the matter of the shallow pretense of cultural refinement and understanding that he believes he witnesses around him. This is particularly evident in the repeated lines “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” and the fact that Prufrock is throughout the poem apprehensive about taking part in the middle-class tradition of “the taking of a toast and tea.” This is contrasted in the poem with the dingy world of “one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oystershells” through which Prufrock moves. Perhaps most important, though, is Prufrock's preoccupation with aging and death that recurs throughout the poem. He repeatedly expresses worry about what others will think of his aging body: “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair— / [They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’] / My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin— / [They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’]” He also is concerned about own ability to age with dignity: “I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. / Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” Ultimately, Prufrock is aware of the absurdity of existence despite his constant fears. He admits, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” and seems content with his role in life as an “attendant lord, one that will / To swell a progress, start a scene or two,” in short, to play a supporting role to the more dynamic men of the world, and even to be “At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.” With his reference to the Shakespearean Fool, however, Prufrock ironically suggests that, while he is not to be considered a heroic figure, he nonetheless possesses some wisdom and deserves respect. In the end, Prufrock fails to ask his question of the woman. Instead, he falls into a fantasy of mermaids that ends with imagery of drowning, suggesting that Prufrock has not solved any of his problems in his monologue but has rather become overwhelmed and incapacitated by his fears and insecurities as well as by his perception of the universe he inhabits as menacing and cruel.
Because Prufrock's specific intent is unspoken, critics have read the poem on many different levels. For example, critics who interpret Prufrock's dilemma as revolving around whether or not he should propose marriage to a woman tend to take Eliot's tone and subject matter seriously and at face value. Those who read the poem on a more sexual level tend to find humor and irony in Prufrock's self-examination, particularly in such lines as “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” where Prufrock seems to wonder if he will have the energy to perform sexually after tea-time. M. L. Rosenthal has commented that, read in this way, “Prufrock” evidences “a strongly adolescent flavor,” asserting that the poem “positively sweats panic at the challenge of adult sexuality and of living up to one's ideal of what it is to be manly in any sort of heroic model.” Ann P. Brady has written that Eliot was aware of this, maintaining that the poem reflects Prufrock back “from the world in which he moves” in a “clinically hard” way, and that this contrast with romantic aspirations—the “juxtaposition of lyricism with the tone of satire”— creates the Modernist tension.
Prufrock and Other Observations 1917
Ara Vos Prec. 1920
The Waste Land 1922
Poems, 1909-1925 1925
Journey of the Magi 1927
A Song for Simeon 1928
Triumphal March 1931
Two Poems 1935
Words for Music 1935
Collected Poems, 1909-1935 1936
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats 1939
East Coker 1940
The Waste Land, and Other Poems 1940
Burnt Norton 1941
The Dry Salvages 1941
Little Gidding 1942
Four Quartets 1943
A Practical Possum 1947
Selected Poems 1948
The Cultivation of Christmas Trees 1956
Collected Poems, 1909-1962 1963
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound [edited by Valerie Eliot] 1971
Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry (lecture) 1917
The Sacred Wood:...
(The entire section is 324 words.)
SOURCE: “Prufrock and Other Observations,” in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. 10, 1917, pp. 264-71.
[In the following essay, Pound reviews “Prufrock and Other Observations,” finding in it some of the best poetry of the time.]
Il n'y a de livres que ceux où un écrivain s'est raconté lui-même en racontant les moeurs de ses contemporains—leurs rêves, leurs vanités, leurs amours, et leurs folies.
—Remy de Gourmont
De Gourmont uses this sentence in writing of the incontestable superiority of Madame Bovary, L'Éducation Sentimentale and Bouvard et Pécuchet to Salammbo and La Tentation de St. Antoine. A casual thought convinces one that it is true for all prose. Is it true also for poetry? One may give latitude to the interpretation of rêves; the gross public would have the poet write little else, but De Gourmont keeps a proportion. The vision should have its place in due setting if we are to believe its reality.
The few poems which Mr. Eliot has given us maintain this proportion, as they maintain other proportions of art. After much contemporary work that is merely factitious, much that is good in intention but impotently unfinished and, incomplete, much whose flaws are due to sheer ignorance which a year's study or thought might have remedied, it is a comfort to...
(The entire section is 1973 words.)
SOURCE: “Prufrock and Raskolnikov,” in American Literature, Vol. 17, No. 3, November, 1945, pp. 213-230.
[In the following essay, Pope traces similarities between Prufrock and Raskolnikov, the brooding hero of Dostoevski's novel Crime and Punishment, finding in the character Prufrock a similar existential darkness.]
It is now over thirty years since J. Alfred Prufrock entered the literary world. He has become so familiar a figure that he can travel without credentials. Nobody asks where he came from. Yet it is misleading to set him down as one of Eliot's amusing and innocuous “observations,” the abject little man hiding a sensitive soul behind the brassy respectability of a morning coat and a calling-card name. Out of his divided personality come suggestions of something latently revolutionary, even anarchic. What does he mean by saying that “there will be time to murder and create”? Why does he consider “disturbing the universe” or likening himself for a fleeting instant to Hamlet? The truth is, I think, that he has had a dark and disreputable past, or, if you like, other and more sinister incarnations.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published in Chicago in 1915, in the June number of Harriet Monroe's Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. Aside from some obvious misprints which suggest that the author had no opportunity to read the proofs, the text...
(The entire section is 6702 words.)
SOURCE: “Notes and Queries,” in American Literature, Vol.18, No. 4, January, 1947, pp. 319-21.
[In the following essay, Pope reprints and comments on a letter from Eliot explaining some of his sources for “Prufrock” and its connection to Crime and Punishment.]
Mr. T. S. Eliot has supplied me with some important corrections for my article, “Prufrock and Raskolnikov,” which appeared in American Literature, XVII, 213-230 (November, 1945). I was wrong in attributing the resemblances between “Prufrock” and Crime and Punishment to Mrs. Garnett's translation, and in supposing as a consequence that the poem had been composed (I rashly said “conceived”) after October, 1914. The actual details are of such interest that I have secured Mr. Eliot's permission to quote his account in full, from a letter of March 8, 1946:
I have never read Mrs. Garnett's translation of Crime and Punishment. The poem of Prufrock was conceived some time in 1910. I think that when I went to Paris in the autumn of that year I had already written several fragments which were ultimately embodied in the poem, but I cannot at this distance remember which. I think that the passage beginning “I am not Prince Hamlet,” a passage showing the influence of Laforgue, was one of these fragments which I took with me, but the poem was not completed until the summer...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)
SOURCE: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in A Reader's Guide to T.S. Eliot: A Poem-By-Poem Analysis, Thames and Hudson, 1955, pp. 57-70.
[In the following essay, Williamson provides a close analysis of “Prufrock.”]
The mixture of levity and seriousness immediately confronts the reader in the title poem of Prufrock and OtherObservations. For he transposes his epigraph from the serious context of Dante's Inferno to the lighter context of Prufrock's love song. The epigraph is never to be ignored in Eliot for while it is not an essential part of the poem, it conveys hints of the significance or even genesis of the poem. Together with the title, it prepares the reader for the experience of the poem. Thus the first rule in reading one of Eliot's poems is to consider the possibilities suggested by the title and epigraph.
In this poem (1915) we have the love song of a certain character, whose very name is suggestive of qualities he subsequently manifests.1 Then the epigraph states the situation of another character, who was called upon to reveal himself. How is it related to the title? Are the two characters alike or merely in similar situations? In view of the disparity which we have already noted, let us proceed on the assumption that likeness in situation is more likely to explain the presence of the epigraph. What, then, is the situation? In the...
(The entire section is 3368 words.)
SOURCE: “Prufrock of St. Louis,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XXXI, No.1, Spring, 1957, pp. 24-30.
[In the following essay, Kenner suggests possible influences for “Prufrock,” and analyzes Eliot's prosody.]
The name of Prufrock-Littau, furniture wholesalers, appeared in advertisements in St. Louis, Missouri, in the first decade of the present century; in 1911 a young Missourian's whimsical feline humor prefixed the name of Prufrock to what has become the best-known English poem since the Rubaiyat. The savor of that act had faded from the memory of the sexagenarian London man of letters who wrote to a mid-century enquirer that his appropriation of the now-famous German surname must have been “quite unconscious.” There would be no point in denying that it probably was; but the unconscious mind of T. S. Eliot once glimmered with a rich mischief which for many years has been much more cautiously disclosed than it was in 1911.
The query itself must have amused him, however; Mr. Eliot's dealings with people who wanted to know what he was concealing have for two decades afforded some of the richest comedy in the annals of literary anecdote. Letter after letter, visitor after visitor, he answers with unfailing plangent courtesy. After The Confidential Clerk was produced, a journalist, teased by implications he couldn't pin down, or perhaps simply assigned a turn of duty...
(The entire section is 2632 words.)
SOURCE: “Prufrock's Dilemma,” in The Freedom of the Poet, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1960, pp. 270-78.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1960, Berryman describes “Prufrock” as ushering in the era of modern poetry with its ability to subvert and invert the reader's expectations.]
To begin with Eliot's title, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” is the second half quite what the first led us to expect? A man named J. Alfred Prufrock could hardly be expected to sing a love song; he sounds too well dressed. His name takes something away from the notion of a love song; the form of the title, that is to say, is reductive. How does he begin singing?
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky …
That sounds very pretty—lyrical—he does seem, after all, in spite of his name, to be inviting her for an evening; there is a nice rhyme—it sounds like other dim romantic verse. Then comes the third line:
Like a patient etherised upon a table …
With this line, modern poetry begins.
In the first place, the third line proves that the author of the first two lines did not mean them. They were a come-on, designed merely to get the reader off guard, so that he could be knocked down. The form, again, is reductive; an expectation has been created only to be diminished or...
(The entire section is 3553 words.)
SOURCE: “Dante and T. S. Eliot's Prufrock,” in Modern Language Notes, The John Hopkins Press, Vol. 78, 1963, pp. 51-9.
[In the following essay, Locke discusses Eliot's use of an epigraph from Dante in “Prufrock.”]
In the course of this essay I shall have occasion to refer to F. O. Matthiessen's work The Achievement of T. S. Eliot in several contexts. I would like to begin with a quotation from that book: “Eliot's conceits sometimes have the look of being too studied; that is to say, of coming into existence not because the poet's mind has actually felt keenly an unexpected similarity between unlikes, but as though he too consciously set out to shock the reader. Such an objection might be made against the opening lines of “Prufrock”:
Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table.”
Matthiessen continues: “Even though the reader can perceive wherein the comparison holds, he may still have the sensation that it is too intellectually manipulated, not sufficiently felt.”
I am not arguing with the contention that Eliot may be guilty of the defect pointed out by Matthiessen in even large areas of his poetry. I am concerned here only with the verses from “Prufrock”; which Matthiessen chooses to scrutinize in defense of his proposal that they are illustrative of a...
(The entire section is 3690 words.)
SOURCE: “Prufrock, Freud, and Others,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 75, Autumn, 1968, pp. 571-88.
[In the following essay, Halverson provides a psychoanalytic reading of the sexual elements in “Prufrock.”]
It is hardly possible to find any criticism of Eliot's “Prufrock” that does not assert an important strain of sexuality in the poem. There is nearly uniform agreement that in the poem Prufrock wants to propose to a lady, or at least declare his passion, but is finally too timid to do so. “J. Alfred Prufrock is unable to make love to women of his own class and kind because of shyness, self-consciousness, and fear of rejection,” says Delmore Schwartz. And Grover Smith: “His object is to declare himself to a lady,” but he is beset by a “dread” of “sexual insufficiency”. Elizabeth Drew refers to Prufrock's “terror of social and sexual failure”. Roy Basler asks, “How should he begin to make love?” with “his adolescent fear of sexual failure”. Prufrock's “amorous self, the sex instinct”, is, according to George Williamson, “suppressed by the timid self” and “fear of the carnal”. Moreover, critics for whom sexuality is not central in the poem may yet observe in passing, as Morris Weitz does, “There are also the sexual experiences that prevent his asking the question.” Even A. C. George's recent and unfortunately rather cursory existential reading assumes...
(The entire section is 5962 words.)
SOURCE: “Understanding ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,” in Robert Frost's Chicken Feathers and Other Lectures, edited by Arthur R. Husboe, The Augustana College Press, No. 1, November, 1969, pp. 33-44.
[In the following essay, Fryxell discusses major themes in “Prufrock.”]
T. S. Eliot is one of the best known poets in the twentieth century. And yet, when “The Waste Land,” which is Eliot's longest, his most difficult, and certainly his most controversial poem, was first published in the year 1922, T. S. Eliot was comparatively unknown, despite a volume of poetry he had written entitled Prufrock and Other Observations, which appeared in 1917, and which contained, among other poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the years after The Waste Land, Eliot's output was not particularly great in terms of the number of lines which he wrote or in terms of the number of poems which he wrote. And yet yearly his stature as a poet, as a critic, and as a dramatist grew so that today it has become almost heretical to say that he is not the foremost poet of the twentieth century. Eliot reached that stature partly because what he has had to say to the modern age seemed so peculiarly appropriate; partly because in his poems, in his plays, and in his essays, Eliot has traced the way out of the wasteland of the twentieth century; partly because the language of Eliot's poetry...
(The entire section is 4166 words.)
SOURCE: “Prufrock's Defenses and Our Response,” in American Imago, Vol. 26, Summer, 1969, pp. 182-93.
[In the following essay, Waldoff examines Prufrock's defense mechanisms of passivity and self-criticism.]
In The Dynamics of Literary Response (Oxford, 1968), Norman Holland writes: “the literary work acts out a psychological process which we introject. That process is the transformation of a central fantasy toward a central meaning” (p. 101). The key term is “introject.” With it Holland shifts our attention from the mind of the author and the supposed minds of the characters to the mind of the reader or audience. This shift, similar to the one toward the appeals of literature in Simon O. Lesser's Fiction and the Unconscious (1957), reminds us that in psychoanalytic criticism we very often read about the motives and actions in a literary work, but seldom about the psychological appeals of the work and our response to it. A good example is T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” generally regarded as one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century, and essential to an understanding of modern poetry. It has been read and reread by a variety of critics, often with sensitivity and psychological concern,1 and at least once with psychoanalytic insight,2 but never in terms of response. In this paper, I want to show how our response is...
(The entire section is 4849 words.)
SOURCE: “Prufrock and After: The Theme of Change,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 87, No. 5, October, 1972, pp. 1103-8.
[In the following excerpt, Schneider discusses the role of “Prufrock” in Eliot's transformation from skeptic to religious believer.]
The transformation of T. S. Eliot from skeptic to religious believer was a public event and to the literary world quite a spectacular one. Criticism has been busy with it ever since, following often at considerable length—now and then at considerable distance too—the course of his journey from a view of the Church as Hippopotamus “wrapt in the old miasmal mist” to a Christian faith that “all shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.” The substance of his later belief he made explicit in his writing, and the change has been welcomed, denounced, scoffed at, and analyzed from many angles, with or without sympathy. Interesting as much of this subsequent discussion is, one element has been largely ignored that seems to me of even greater interest and certainly of equal importance to the reader of Eliot's poetry. It is his preoccupation, which appears markedly in the poems, with the process itself of subjective change. A concern, that is, not only with what one may change from or to but with change itself: how possible it is, how easy, how subject to the will; what the...
(The entire section is 2856 words.)
SOURCE: “‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ as a Cubist Poem,” in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1983, pp. 129-39.
[In the following essay, Leveson explains the influence of Cubist art on “Prufrock.”]
The year 1910-1911 in Paris marked the focal point of that extraordinary intellectual and artistic revolution of the beginning of the twentieth century known as Modernism. The unfamiliar sounds and rhythms of Stravinsky's music were heard from the stage where Diaghilev's Ballets Russes were performing the Firebird ballet. Poincaré introduced a fourth dimension to Euclidean mathematics. The philosopher, Henri Bergson, was attracting large crowds to his lectures at the Collège de France. Marinetti and others published a manifesto of Futurism in Le Figaro. Guillaume Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein championed the new school of Cubist painters whose exhibitions were shocking the public in two major Parisian salons.
Across the Atlantic, the poetically-minded student, T. S. Eliot, graduated from Harvard in 1910, having studied French, comparative literature and fine art. Bored with polite, effete Boston society, fired by his interest in the French Symbolist poets he had been reading, and lacking direction for his own original poetry, he considered living for a while in Paris. His mother was apprehensive. For...
(The entire section is 5194 words.)
SOURCE: “Tradition and the Individual Talent in ‘Prufrock’,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 77-90.
[In the following essay, Sultan argues that “Prufrock”'s success is due in part to its role as a harbinger of the modernist movement.]
“The best known English poem since the Rubaiyat”; it was called in 1959, and probably both was so and is.1 Certainly no other one is more likely to be included in a collection of English poetry of this century; and two generations of teachers have introduced it to secondary-school seniors and college freshmen. Long before 1959 “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had achieved special canonical status.
One cause of that status was high regard for the poem itself. But I believe another was historical, and that the vantage afforded by the quarter-century since 1959 reveals “Prufrock” to be a most eloquent cultural artifact—both as harbinger of Modernism and as paleomodernist specimen. I also believe its special status persists, and a related essay, which will appear in the first T. S. Eliot Annual (London: Macmillan), will address its pertinence to the present situation in criticism. But my subject here is the advent in literary history of this particular one of T. S. Eliot's early poems.
A distinctive work of art can no more be accounted for by its...
(The entire section is 5734 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Prufrock’ and the Problem of Literary Narcissism,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 27, Fall, 1986, pp. 356-77.
[In the following essay, McNamara attempts to place “Prufrock” outside the ideology of literary narcissism of the modernist movement.]
The central failure of modernist literature, according to George 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 a historical, 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...
(The entire section is 8922 words.)
SOURCE: “Games of Consciousness,” in Auctor Ludens: Essays on Plays in Literature, edited by Gerald Guinness and Andrew Hurley, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 157-69.
[In the following essay, Spariosu examines the “modern crisis of consciousness” in “Prufrock.”]
The arts without intellectual context are vanity.
—T. S. Eliot
In what follows I shall discuss the ways in which Eliot addresses the problematic of consciousness in “Prufrock,” a problematic which has preoccupied thinkers at least since St. Augustine, but which has resurfaced with renewed vigor in our age; in other words, I shall attempt to see Eliot's poem in the intellectual context of modernism, in terms of the so-called “modern crisis of consciousness.”
The poem has the form of a dramatic monologue or, rather, if I may coin the phrase, “interior dialogue,” in which the self of Prufrock appears as divided and disrupted or in a state of despair. Prufrock's “sickness unto death” becomes manifest as he is confronted with imminent action: he is about to go for tea at a lady's house and considers the possibility of propositioning her. However, he does not so much as leave his room, engaging instead in a subtle game of rationalizing his lethargy.1
The “you” and “I” of the poem, as...
(The entire section is 5916 words.)
SOURCE: “Action and the Absence of Speech in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,” in Yeats Eliot Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 145-8.
[In the following essay, Bentley argues that Prufrock's failures are the result of his inability to articulate his needs.]
Late in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the demoralized persona sums himself up with the poignant line. “And in short, I was afraid.” Commentators on the poem usually assume that he is afraid of women, afraid of people, afraid of life itself. He is thus regarded as a pitiful neurotic and a failed dandy. I do not wish to dispute these commentaries. As far as they go they are correct even though they fail to see the aspect of Prufrock which can almost be called heroic. But when we read the poem with an awareness that Eliot was an apprentice philosopher when he wrote it, we cannot easily ignore the presence of arguments, questions, descriptions and other modes of verbal activity which occasion and give form to Prufrock's fear. In what follows I will argue that the cause of Prufrock's misery is the necessity of existing through the medium of speech.
Two preliminary points must be made before considering the poem as a set of variations on the fear of language. First, we must note that language is traditionally the means to both contemplation and worldly action. In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt...
(The entire section is 3407 words.)
SOURCE: “Knowledge and Experience in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,” in ELH, Vol. 55, Fall, 1988, pp. 685-99.
[In the following essay, Childs discusses the influence of the philosophy of F. H. Bradley on Eliot and “Prufrock.”]
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.1 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 Monist (1916).2 Not surprisingly, the publication of...
(The entire section is 6039 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Prufrock’ as Key to Eliot's Poetry,” in Approaches to Teaching Eliot's Poetry and Plays, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, The Modern Language Association of America, 1988, pp. 88-93.
[In the following essay, Smith argues that “Prufrock” shaped Eliot's entire career as a poet.]
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 feeling....
(The entire section is 2890 words.)
SOURCE: “The Function of ‘Prufrock’ for Criticism,” in T. S. Eliot Annual, Vol. 1, edited by Shyamal Bagchee, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1990, pp.155-96.
[In the following essay, Sultan examines “Prufrock”'s place in modern literary criticism.]
This is the second of two unforeseen essays on the most familiar English poem of the twentieth century. My original intention was simply to write a modest (and tractable) piece pointing to certain important qualities of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ I did not find mentioned in the extensive published criticism. It was frustrated by a gradual awareness of the extraordinary historical relationship Eliot's poem has both with (to use his word) the tradition behind it, and with English literature and literary criticism since its advent.
Remarkably, in 1911 a graduate student barely into his twenties, and working in virtual isolation, created the principal harbinger/archetype of the English poetry of Modernism; yet nothing appears ex nihilo, and Eliot himself was aware of a great deal behind ‘Prufrock’. During the half-century following its advent, the movement that evolved and prevailed granted Eliot's youthful poem special canonical status. In part, this was because it seemed perfectly suited to the objective literary criticism—and the related teaching method—that became dominant during Modernism; yet...
(The entire section is 16695 words.)
SOURCE: “Identifying the ‘Lazarus’ in Eliot's ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’” in English Language Notes, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 66-70.
[In the following essay, Campo discusses the sources for “Prufrock”'s Lazarus imagery.]
While Helen Gardner has warned that T. S. Eliot's poetry features “a deep ambiguity which is not the critic's business to remove,”1 determining which Lazarus Eliot is referring to in his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” should lead to a fuller appreciation of the poem, not a diminution of Eliot's work. The reference to Lazarus appears in line 94 of the poem; the stanza in which it appears reads as follows:
And would it have been worth it, after all, After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me, Would it have been worth while, To have bitten off the matter with a smile, To have squeezed the universe into a ball To roll it toward some overwhelming question, To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’— If one, settling a pillow by her head, Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.’(2)
Two Lazaruses are mentioned in the Bible. One, whose story is told in John 11: 1-44, is perhaps the more “famous” Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha,...
(The entire section is 1635 words.)
SOURCE: “How Old is Prufrock? Does He Want to Get Married?,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 59-68.
[In the following essay, Hayman contends that the meaning of “Prufrock” depends on Prufrock's age and intentions.]
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 answers to these questions. It could be...
(The entire section is 3332 words.)
SOURCE: “Romance of Self Doubt,” in Yeats-Eliot Review, Vol. 13, No. 1-2, Summer, 1994, pp. 1-6.
[In the following essay, Levy views “Prufrock” as an examination of individual insecurities.]
As Donald Childs has pointed out, the central concern of most interpretations of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has been “the notorious distinction between the ‘you and I’” invoked at the beginning of the poem:1 “let us go then, you and I. …”2 While some critics argue that the “you” is external and refers to an anonymous companion’3 or the author,4 or even the reader,5 more approach the poem as the expression of an internal conflict between two parts of Prufrock's self. In the most common formulation, the poles of this conflict are defined by the dichotomy between Prufrock's private emotional needs and the inhibition concerning their public expression. Joyce Meeks Jones, for example, cogently emphasizes the conflict between “… the demands of [Prufrock's] own individuality and those of his persona, or social mask.”6 A somewhat simplistic version of this view is presented by Angus Calder who reduces the poem to an “evocation of paranoid shyness.”7
Other critics apply to philosophy in an attempt to explicate the polarity at a more profound level. John Mayer, citing Eliot's youthful...
(The entire section is 5456 words.)
Donoghue, Dennis. “Beginning.” Southern Review 34, No. 3 (Summer 1998): 532-49.
Personal and critical essay recounting the author's first reading of “Prufrock.”
Gwynn, Frederick L. “Faulkner's Prufrock—And Other Observations.” Journal of English and German Philology 52 (January 1953): 63-70.
Examines the influence of Eliot's work on William Faulkner.
Harmon, William. “T. S. Eliot's Raids on the Inarticulate.” PMLA 91, No. 3 (May 1976): 450-59.
Discusses the “negative aspects of speechlessness” in Eliot's poetry.
Stepanchev, Stephen. “The Origin of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Modern Language Notes 66, No. 6 (June 1951): 400-401.
Briefly notes that Eliot may have subconsciously taken the name Prufrock from the Prufrock-Littau Company, furniture dealers in Eliot's birthplace of St. Louis.
Additional coverage of Eliot's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol 28; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 41; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, 13, 15, 24, 34,...
(The entire section is 189 words.)