Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The masterpiece of his poetic apprenticeship, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” remains one of Eliot’s most intriguing and challenging poems; it may be usefully examined by listening to the voices it embodies. Like much of the poetry of Robert Browning, it is a dramatic monologue. Like the poetry of Jules Laforgue, it is a Symbolist poem that explores the narrator’s stream of consciousness as he relates, in fragmented fashion, his seemingly random thoughts that are unified by the structure of the poem.
One key to this song of misprized, reluctant, hesitant love is in the epigraph from Dante’s Inferno (XXVII) in which the speaker, Guido, reluctantly reveals the reason he is in Hell. While Prufrock finds it difficult to say what he means, he relates his thought as Guido had to Dante, without fear that his secret will be revealed to the living. The Dantean clue places the reader among the dead: This is one of the several suggestive possibilities for reading the poem and viewing its world as one of the circles that hold dead souls. The reader immediately enters what the critic Hugh Kenner has called a “zone of consciousness,” not a realistic setting, and listens to a story that is not sequential: One is invited to share a dream with disturbing overtones.
The often perplexed reader needs to make numerous decisions about the teller and the tale. Is Prufrock actually addressing the reader, as Guido did Dante, or is he...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a psychological profile of a white, middle-aged, middle-class, late Victorian man suffering from an acute spiritual malaise as a result of his boring, unimaginative, routine, repressed bourgeois existence. The poem, T. S. Eliot’s first major publication, immediately established his reputation as an important poet. It also announced one of the themes that Eliot explored throughout his career: the emptiness of modern life, made tedious by habit, sterilized by convention, in which self-awareness does not lead to self-knowledge but only to existential paralysis.
Prufrock epitomizes a frustrated man hopelessly alienated from his imagination and yet desperate for imaginative salvation. His life is filled with meaningless gestures and predictable encounters; his seamy world is agonizingly uninspiring. Prufrock is an effigy representing the cultural decadence and moral degeneration that Eliot equates with the society of his time. He is the product of a world suffering from a break with its past cultural heritage, a loss of tradition, a failure of institutional authority, and an unhealthy emphasis on individualism.
Eliot incorporates hallucinatory imagery to create a lethargic world where “the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table.” The women who “come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” suggest the transience and shallowness of contemporary relationships while...
(The entire section is 457 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” marks the beginning of the modernist movement in Anglo-American poetry. It is the first English-language poem in the twentieth century to employ free verse, startling juxtapositions of allusion and situation, an intensely self-conscious speaker (or “persona”), and a truly urban setting. The initial quotation is from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the great fourteenth century epic describing the author’s descent into the Inferno and eventual ascent into Paradise. The lines (in Italian) are spoken by one of the damned souls to Dante as he journeys through Hell. Like souls in the Inferno, Prufrock exists in a kind of living death.
In the poem’s opening lines, Prufrock invites the reader to accompany him as he walks through a modern city making his social rounds. Perhaps he assumes that they share his comfortable wealth and socially active lifestyle. As his proper, even prissy, name implies, Prufrock is neurotic, fearful, sensitive, and bored. His upper-class friends—the women who “come and go”—apparently lead arid and pointless lives. At any rate, what is evident right from the outset of the poem is that Prufrock is unhappy with his life. His unhappiness, he suspects, has something to do with the society in which he lives: There is, for example, the jarring clash between the grim cityscape through which he walks and the mindless tea-party...
(The entire section is 835 words.)
Lines 1-13 Summary
This epigraph is 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." The words are spoken by a lost soul, damned to Hell for the attempt to buy absolution in advance of committing a crime. This correlates with Prufrock's need to know the answer to the question he wants to ask as a condition of asking it. Or perhaps in order for Prufrock to be able to ask the question he would have to not care what the answer would be; in that case, the answer wouldn't matter.
Prufrock, the persona of the poem, issues his invitation to an unspecified "you" to go with him to an as yet unspecified place. To establish when they will be going, he introduces the disconcerting simile "like a patient etherised upon a table." This peculiar use of simile reflects immediately back on the persona, for the sky itself would probably never be like this; however, Prufrock, looking up at the sky, might indeed perceive it pressing back down upon him in such a way that he would feel like he was "spread out" "upon a table." The word "etherised" indicates a sense of helplessness.
The route he and the "you" will be taking is through a tawdry part of the city where "cheap hotels" predominate, along...
(The entire section is 322 words.)
Lines 14-60 Summary
"Streets" are further described by a simile that indicates that even once you pass through them, the things you have seen there continue to affect you, specifically the idea of people engaged in the romantic or sexual encounters in the hotels and restaurants. This then affects Prufrock's thoughts about where he is going, causing him to consider what he characterizes as an "overwhelming" question. The use of the ellipsis indicates that the "you" who accompanies Prufrock has asked what that question would be.
The rhymed couplets of "I-sky," "streets-retreats," "hotels-oyster-shells," "argument-intent," and '"What is it?'-visit," along with repetition of the word "streets," create an emotional music in keeping with the idea of a song, and thus serve to carry the reader into Prufrock's emotional state.
The reference to the visit presented in the preceding stanza causes Prufrock to look forward in his mind's eye to the room he is walking toward, where he imagines women preparing the tea and talking of some intellectual or artistic subject quite at odds with the thoughts he has been having.
The near repetition in lines 21 and 22 signals that Prufrock's attention has returned from the imagined room to his actual surroundings. It is evening, foggy, and his attention focuses on the fog mixed with chimney smoke, and then takes off in a metaphorical process that...
(The entire section is 810 words.)
Lines 61-94 Summary
Prufrock indicates that he is familiar with people who appraise him according to some set of standards that have nothing to do with who he considers himself to be. Eliot uses metaphor here to illustrate that such appraisals make Prufrock incapable of human response because he feels as if he is as insignificant and helpless as a bug stuck by a pin for collection and examination. The image of the "butt-ends" are what he thinks his "days and ways" must be reduced to in order to explain what he does, as the "butt-ends" of cigarettes are what remains after the pleasure of smoking.
The tone softens here as Prufrock recalls a third thing that he has "known" as a result of social situations, symbolized by the image of feminine arms. These arms have a hint of the sensual in the bracketed information he provides that is suggestive of the earlier animal image of the fog as well as of the sexual associations of the hotels and restaurants. Prufrock realizes that this image of what he has "known" is at variance with those of the two preceding stanzas, and wonders what has shifted his thoughts. That it was the feminine appeal of a perfume he caught scent of continues the visual image of these arms, however, transforming the question asked at the end of each of those preceding stanzas. Now he asks, "Should I presume?" This implies that his desire for the female embrace is overriding his doubts. Indeed, the final line...
(The entire section is 836 words.)
Lines 95-141 Summary
Another question sets the tone for this stanza, as Prufrock considers whether he could ask his "overwhelming question" within the context of the social trivialities of having tea. The use here of the Egyptian religious symbol of the scarab beetle, which rolls its excrement into a ball, is an intricate image compounded of the vulgar and the divine. It precisely expresses Prufrock's view of his situation.
He also imagines himself, incongruously, as a kind of Lazarus (whom Jesus raised from the dead) at this tea, who comes back from the dead place inside himself to tell this woman everything he learned there. But his imaginings carry him off to the point where he sees her casually asserting that his "overwhelming question" has nothing to do with anything that she said.
Prufrock's thinking begins to fragment as a result of his frustration and dread. The stanza begins with an echo of the first line of the preceding stanza, then repeats a variation that leads into a series of recollections in two lines beginning with "After" as Prufrock recites a series of events. In line 113 he acknowledges that he cannot say what he means.
It becomes clear with line 114 that Prufrock believes that he must adequately and specifically communicate the scope, the depth, the magnitude of what he thinks and feels about this woman so that the "meaning" he communicates will correspond with the "meaning" of...
(The entire section is 1041 words.)