How is the epigraph at the beginning of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" relevant to the meaning of the poem? Try in particular to address such matters as secrecy, duality,...

How is the epigraph at the beginning of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" relevant to the meaning of the poem? Try in particular to address such matters as secrecy, duality, emotion, and Prufrock's inferiority complex.

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The epigraph at the beginning of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is relevant to the rest of the poem in various ways, including the following:

  • The epigraph comes from Dante’s Inferno, thus suggesting that the ensuing poem will depict a kind of dark, hellish experience.
  • If we assume that the epigraph is by Prufrock himself (the speaker of the poem), then the epigraph implies Prufrock’s learning, his depressed state of mind, and his tendency to describe his own situation in somewhat hyperbolic terms.
  • If we assume that the epigraph is not by Prufrock but is Eliot’s comment on Prufrock, then the epigraph, if nothing else, adds to the dark tone of the poem and suggests that the poem has some relevance beyond Prufrock’s own limited situation. In any case, the epigraph is typical of Eliot’s tendency to examine modern experiences by comparing and contrasting them to experiences of the past as reported in classic literature. This epigraph is the sort of self-consciously learned allusion Eliot loved.
  • The epigraph already suggests the theme of secrecy: the speaker of the epigraph speaks with a sense of secrecy to Dante, just as Prufrock speaks with a sense of secrecy to the “you” mentioned in the poem’s very first lines:

Let us go then, you and I

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table . . . (1-3)

Ironically, neither the speaker in the epigraph nor Prufrock himself (the speaker of Eliot’s poem) seems to have anticipated that the “secret” speeches offered in both works would become parts of two of the most famous poems ever written.

  • The epigraph implies “duality” in several ways: just as the speaker in the epigraph addresses another person, so does the speaker in the poem address another person. Also, just as the speaker of the epigraph is ashamed of his hypocrisy, so the speaker of the poem is ashamed of the double life he leads – a life in which he behaves one way but feels another.
  • The previous comment is also relevant to what might be called Prufrock’s “inferiority complex”: he feels inferior to most of the people who surround him, just as the speaker of the epigraph feels inferior to the man he addresses and to the good people who avoided living hypocritical lives.
  • The epigraph exists in a kind of ironic relationship with the title of the poem. The title of the poem suggests that the poem will be laughable, even comic; the epigraph, which immediately follows the poem, implies that the poem will deal with evil, sin, suffering, and shame.  The actual experience of the poem thus consists of a kind of very dark humor, as the combination of the title and the epigraph already imply.  For more on this topic, and for a fuller discussion of the relevance of the epigraph, see, for example,

Robert C. Evans, “‘Almost Ridiculous’: Dark Humor in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’” Bloom’s Themes: Dark Humor, ed. Harold Bloom and Blake Hobby.  New York: Infobase Publishing, 2010.

You can search for this essay, by the way, and find the discussion of the epigraph, by searching for these words in Google Books: “The name ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’ sounds stiff, formal, pretentious, and affected.”


alaa-omairat | Student

The epigraph of this poem is a six-line quotation from Canto of the Inferno by the Renaissance Italian poet Dante Alighieri .. the italian term " Inferno" means  the horrors of Hell

And no, Eliot doesn’t translate it out of the Italian, which makes people think Eliot is a snob and showy.

 But why did Eliot quote Dante's poem "Inferno"  and did'nt even translate it out of the italian ?

He was absolutely and totally obsessed with Dante and maybe he thought other people loved Dante as much as he did – enough to translate the quote for themselves



Before we start  explaining  Dante's Inferno  we  should recognize 2 guys , Dante and Guido .. Dante who has messed up his life badly enough to require some help from heaven and In order  to scare him away from sin and other bad things, heaven sends him to hell  ,

Along the way he meets a lot of evil and misguided people including " Guido" this guy was  the worst of the worst people  are stuck in hell for eternity .


and when Dante asks  to hear his story,  here’s what he says:

"If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without  further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy."


So What does this quote mean? Well, Dante is really curious to know why Guido ended up so far down in Hell. But Guido is selfish. He’s afraid that people back on earth will find out about the horrible stuff he did – he’s concerned about his reputation


On the other hand, Guido knows that no one has ever entered Hell and made it out again, so he figures  that  it's safe to tell his story because Dante is stuck here.



Unfortunately  for Guido, Dante is the first human ever  to be allowed to pass through Hell and "return to earth," so people do eventually find out about Guido’s sins…from reading the Inferno


Last thing: What did Guido do? Essentially, Guido committed terrible atrocities in war.

But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that he tried to have himself forgiven before he committed these atrocities. He basically thought he could out-smart God and get into heaven despite doing things that he knew were really bad. It’s like if before you broke your mother’s favorite lamp you asked her, "Mom, if I broke this lamp right now, would you forgive me? . . . Yes? OK." CRASH



Why does Eliot choose this epigraph for his poem? Well, it suggests a couple of things. First, that "Prufrock" might not be a poem about good people, but about bad ones pretending to be good. The setting of the poem is a kind of hell.

Second, it tells us that this fellow Prufrock, who is singing his "love song," might be concerned about his reputation like Guido. In other words, Prufrock is going to tell us things because he thinks  we  won’t have a chance to repeat them to other people .

Read the study guide:
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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