The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis

The Poem (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 Michaelangelo. The next four paragraphs (lines 37-69) review Prufrock’s fears of how others will see him—will they notice, despite his proper dress, that he is going bald, that he is “thin?” Will he be able to speak? He has been to gatherings like this before, and although he is somewhat sexually excited as he imagines the women’s bare arms and remembers the smell of perfume, he is not sure he can “presume” to join the conversation, an act that he imagines in overly grandiose terms. He imagines the women will see him as he does not want to be seen, expressing this in an image of an insect pinned to a collector’s board.

The next few paragraphs (lines 70-98) fantasize about what Prufrock might say. He again grandiosely imagines himself as John the Baptist or Lazarus but then lapses into self-denigrating images of frightened little crabs in the ocean, finally admitting that he is “afraid,” that he might be dismissed as having entirely misunderstood the subject of the conversation. In a following paragraph (lines 99-110), he wonders if it would be worth risking such a disaster.

At last, Prufrock admits to himself that he is not an attractive figure, declaring that he is not Hamlet, the hero of William Shakespeare’s tragedy by the same name, but rather a figure like Polonius, a busybody old man who talks entirely too much and is a figure of ridicule. The poem ends with a fantasy of mermaids in the ocean, who might sing, but not to Prufrock.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock The Poem (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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. Clearly, Prufrock is a middle-aged bachelor—thin, fussy, and self-conscious. How can he “presume” to ask his question?

Although he shrinks from the inevitable scrutiny of the women in general, his question is for “one” who may refuse to respond favorably to it. The question is, it appears, a marriage proposal, or at least a declaration of love. He agonizes over the possibility of rejection and rehearses all the likely reasons for it. He is an insignificant man who has “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons.” He is timid, ineffectual, and inarticulate, but he is driven by a desperate wish to escape the ranks of the men he has seen leaning out of windows along his route to the party.

Prufrock briefly fancies himself a heroic character: a beheaded John the Baptist, a Lazarus returned from the dead, a Hamlet who can assert himself and win the admiration of the woman and her friends. He quickly realizes, however, that he can never be “Prince Hamlet,” only “the Fool.” He makes a last effort to compensate for his failings. Perhaps he can comb his hair in such a way as to disguise his bald spot. Can he walk on the beach and attract the attention of mermaids in the surf? No, he concludes, and he wakens from his reverie with a sinking sense of drowning in reality. The question will never be asked, and Prufrock will remain a lonely and unhappy man.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Forms and Devices (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 himself “pinned and wriggling on the wall.” He contrasts “the cups, the marmalade, the tea” with the more momentous matters he would like to broach, but his grand visions always give way to bric-a-brac and bored tea drinkers. He sees himself as going down, descending a stair in defeat or drowning in the sea.

Eliot introduces in this poem a technique he would make famous in The Waste Land (1922): the ironic interjection of quotations from earlier poets. This poem commences with a six-line epigraph from Dante in which one of the denizens of his Inferno confides in his visitor because he cannot conceive of the latter ever escaping from hell, but whereas Dante will return to write his poem, Prufrock cannot escape his private hell. There are also references to or scraps from such varied sources as Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700 b.c.e.), William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600-1601), Andrew Marvell’s“To His Coy Mistress” (1681), and the Gospels.

When spoken by Prufrock, however, all sublimity drains from these passages. The comparison with Hamlet is particularly ironic. Hamlet, too, is an indecisive man who muses and delays, but he ultimately acts when sufficiently pressured. Prufrock has no prospect of such pressure: no ghostly father, no enormous wrong to rectify, not even an Ophelia—only a languid lady friend who will not take him seriously. He feels impelled to an antiheroic stance and compares himself to literary and biblical figures for the sake of denying any resemblance.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Historical Context

In a review of Catholic Anthology 1914-15, edited by the poet Ezra Pound and containing "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," critic...

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Literary Style

"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...

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 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...

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 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...

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Media Adaptations

"The Caedmon Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry." Audio cassette. Audio-books, order #4322.

"More T.S. Eliot...

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 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...

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Ackroyd, Peter, T.S. Eliot: A Life, Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Berryman, John, "Prufrock's Dilemma,"...

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

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.