The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The action is prefaced by a quotation in Italian from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). In it, a character in Hell agrees to tell his story, assuming that no one will be able to return from Hell and tell it to others. As the poem proper begins, J. Alfred Prufrock and his companion are about to depart for a social event, some sort of tea party or reception, that will feature a great deal of intellectual pretension and inflated talk about art.
Prufrock tells his companion it is time to go but then lapses into a reverie (which may not be spoken) about the streets they are to pass through, streets that Prufrock finds depressing. His reverie is interrupted by his companion, whose “What is it?” seems to be about his thoughts. Prufrock brushes the the question aside in annoyance, and repeats “Let us go. . . . ” In lines 13 and 14, a kind of chorus interrupts the dialogue, as Prufrock imagines the women in the “room” where they are going. The women are talking, in Prufrock’s mind, about the Renaissance artist Michelangelo.
The chorus is interrupted by another reverie about the “yellow fog” of the city, which finally curls up like a cat and goes to sleep. Prufrock replays his anxieties, imaged by disembodied faces, hands, and finally questions in the next paragraph (lines 23-34), which is followed by the repeated chorus imagining the destined room with its women and their talk about...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” struck readers as an astonishingly original poem when it appeared in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine in 1915. Although it belongs to an established genre—the dramatic monologue—the tone, the language, and the character of Prufrock are highly original.
The ironies of the poem begin with a title promising a “love song” from the lips of a person with a decidedly unromantic name. Still, a lover’s name should not be held against him, and the first two lines of the poem do seem to promise a graceful lyric: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky.” In the third line, however, the reader is jolted by an unexpected and decidedly unromantic simile. The evening is spread out “like a patient etherised upon a table.”
After arousing, then abruptly defying, expectations, T. S. Eliot intimates that the “you” of the poem is not Prufrock’s ladylove but a confidante—in effect, the reader—who will accompany him on a visit to some sort of evening party or soiree. The reader is led on a route through a shabby urban neighborhood on a foggy October evening to a place where “women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” Prufrock, who has “an overwhelming question” to ask, is fearful. He suspects that he will not be acceptable. If he starts up the stair to the party and then turns back, “they” will have a perfect view of his balding head....
(The entire section is 494 words.)
Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Eliot’s monologue differs markedly from those of nineteenth century poets such as Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Unlike the protagonists of Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Prufrock cannot control his situation, and he does not speak logically or coherently. Listening to him is more like overhearing one musing to oneself. The “you” of the poem disappears early; after line 12 (“Let us go and make our visit”), Prufrock is entirely self-absorbed.
The poem comprises 131 lines of various lengths with flexible rhythm and rhymes. Eliot uses couplets, cross rhymes, and unrhymed lines. The result is a blend of traditional poetic sound effects and free verse. The unpatterned nature mirrors the distracted state of Prufrock, who would like to produce a true love song but can manage only a confidential confession of his own ineptitude.
Prufrock’s repetitions reveal his anxieties: “Do I dare?”; “how should I presume?”; “I have known them all.” He also repeats the answer he expects from the woman if he ever does succeed in making his declaration to her: “That is not what I meant at all.” Like other features of the poem, these iterations come at irregular intervals.
The poem’s imagery is antiromantic: Like a “patient etherised upon a table.” The city streets are tawdry and depressing; the women Prufrock will meet chatter meaninglessly of “Michelangelo”; he feels...
(The entire section is 477 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Bush, Ronald. T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.
Wagner, Linda W. T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
(The entire section is 52 words.)