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...
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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....
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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...
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In a review of Catholic Anthology 1914-15, edited by the poet Ezra Pound and containing "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," critic Arthur Waugh noted that if "the unmetrical, incoherent banalities of these literary 'Cubists' were to triumph, the State of Poetry would be threatened with anarchy." His remarks are clearly intended to frighten lovers of poetry and to dismiss the authors as bungling amateurs. Little could Waugh have guessed that he was identifying the very effects that the poets intended, and that his criticism is only of interest to us today because it signifies that, by the time he was writing, the Modern Age had arrived. Modernism is a blanket term that we use for a great number of artistic and philosophical movements (including Cubism in painting) that were intent on throwing away the old standards and replacing them with work that is closer to the way the people really live and think.
This struggle between life and theory has always gone on and continues to this day. In music, for example, rap has been embraced by its listeners as an authentic expression of how people feel, but it is scoffed at by music connoisseurs for its lack of melodic complexity—"incoherent banalities," as Waugh would say. After years of being underground and rejected, rap has now reached a level of acceptance that makes it a prime target to be dismantled by the next new upstarts. Similarly, the rise of Modernism was a reaction to Victorian-ism, which was...
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"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" begins with an epigraph, a quote that sets the tone for the poem to follow. This epigraph, included in the poem in the original Italian, is from Dante's Divine Comedy. Its use here emphasizes Eliot's belief in the instructive function of poetry, as well as his conviction that it was a poet's responsibility to be aware of and build on the established tradition of poetry.
This poem (exclusive of the epigraph) is structured into four sections, with each section separated by an ellipsis, a mark used in conventional punctuation to indicate an omission, but used here to signal either time passing between thoughts relevant to the subject under consideration, or information considered too obvious to be included.
Eliot's belief that "No verse is free for the serious poet" is apparent in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." This poem is written in free verse with varying line lengths, but Eliot employs rhyme as a major structural component in its composition.
In fact, in the 131 lines of the main poem structure, only 12 lines are unrhymed. Note the pattern of the rhyme in the first stanza, beginning "Let us go then, you and I....": a couplet—an unrhymed line—a series of three couplets—an unrhymed line—a couplet. Such a pattern serves to establish coherence in the stanza, as well as to create a distinctive music.
Eliot also found repetition useful to establish rhythms of ideas...
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Compare and Contrast
1915: The first long-distance telephone call from New York to San Francisco was made. Alexander Graham Bell repeated the words he spoke in 1868 over the first working model ("Mr. Watson, come here ... ") to Thomas Watson in San Francisco. The call took 23 minutes to go through.
Today: International telephone calls, as well as cellular communications and public phones on airplanes, all are transmitted by having their signals bounced off of satellites orbiting the earth.
1916: The new Ku Klux Klan was organized, taking its name from a 1860s group and receiving an official charter from the state of Georgia. Throughout the following fifty years, the Klan was responsible for a reign of terror against non-whites and non-Catholics, committing lynchings and firebombings across the south with little interference from the law.
1957: The first Civil Rights Act to be passed by Congress since the 1870s made it a federal crime to discriminate against people because of race.
Today: The Ku Klux Klan is still in operation, despite strong public opposition.
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Topics for Further Study
Rewrite this poem as a short story, covering one night in the life of Prufrock. Where does he go? What does he see that makes him bring up the subjects that he does? In your story, who will you have Prufrock talking to?
Read Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "Ulysses," also included in Poetry for Students. What does Prufrock have in common with Ulysses? What similarity can you draw between the two poems' styles?
Do you think Prufrock has a good sense of who he is, or do you think he is deluded? Give evidence to support your answer.
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"The Caedmon Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry." Audio cassette. Audio-books, order #4322.
"More T.S. Eliot Reads." Audio cassette. Audiobooks, order #4388.
"Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot." Audio cassette. Audiobooks, Order
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What Do I Read Next?
Eliot's works were collected in 1950 in T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950. Since "Prufrock" was one of his earliest published works, readers can follow the poet's development: almost everything he wrote was noteworthy.
A good literary biography of Eliot is Ronald Bush's T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style, published in 1983. The book portrays Eliot's artistic struggles with himself and ambition to always take art further than it had ever gone before.
A fascinating way to understand what was going on in the author's mind when he created this poem, and what he thought about it when it was done, is to read The Letters of T.S. Eliot, edited by Valerie Eliot, his widow, and published in 1988. Volume I covers 1898-1922, years when Eliot was an artistic revolutionary while working as a banker.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ackroyd, Peter, T.S. Eliot: A Life, Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Berryman, John, "Prufrock's Dilemma," in The Freedom of the Poet, Farrar, Straus, 1976, pp. 270-78.
Brady, Ann P., Lyricism in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot, Kennikat, 1978.
Frye, Northrop, T. S. Eliot, Oliver and Boyd, 1963.
Grant, Michael, ed., T.S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1982.
Kenner, Hugh, The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, McDowell, Oblinsky, 1959.
Knapp, James F., "Eliot's 'Prufrock' and the Form of Modern Poetry," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1974, pp. 5-14.
Miller, Vincent, "Eliot's Submission to Time," in Sewanee Review, Summer, 1976, pp. 448-64.
Rosenthal, M. L., "Adolescents Singing, Each to Each— When We and Eliot Were Young," in The New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1985, pp. 3, 37.
Sinclair, May, "'Prufrock and Other Observations': A Criticism," in The Little Review, Volume IV, December, 1917, pp. 8-14.
Schwartz, Delmore, "The Literary Dictatorship of T. S. Eliot," in Partisan Review, Vol. XVI, No. 2, February, 1949, pp. 119-37.
For Further Reading
Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'" The Explicator, Volume 52, number 3, Spring 1994, p. 170.
It would have...
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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.
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