Compare and contrast the images, tone, and theme of the poems "One's Self I Sing" by Walt Whitman and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot.

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At first sight, the most notable difference between the two poems is the difference in structure and length. Whitman's short poem represents a brief foray into the mind of the speaker, while Eliot's lengthy version is an extended monologue in which the speaker expresses many different sentiments and ideas.


The images contained in Whitman's poem relate to the purpose of his writing. The alliteration accentuates the lyrical quality and celebratory nature of his work. He proclaims that his writing does not only relate to the individual but to everyone. Its message is, therefore, both individual and universal. Whitman paints a picture of a "simple" person in the first line, which is not to say that the person is stupid, but that the one he refers to is an uncomplicated individual—humanity in its most basic form. 

In the second stanza Whitman makes it clear that his praise and celebration is not limited to one aspect of existence only. It does not solely relate to the physical but engenders all aspects, both physical and spiritual. In this he proclaims men and women as equals. His writing values them the same and does not discriminate. 

The third stanza conveys the image of a vibrant, vivacious life, full of vitality—a life filled with "passion, pulse, and power," as emphasized by the alliteration. Such a life (which is the life he celebrates in his writing) is one of joy. It is a life guided by divine law and is, therefore, free of malice. The image of "Modern Man" in the last line makes it obvious that his writing is not inspired by the past but by the present. Whitman does not seek heroes from history to celebrate and praise but focuses on humanity in its current guise.

Eliot's poem, in contrast, features many bleak and disturbing images throughout. These are represented as confusing insights by the speaker into his situation. The images lack the vivacity and power of Whitman's poem. Eliot, for example, compares the night to an "etherized patient," which obviously implies that it is without feeling and seems lifeless. Further images such as "cheap hotels," "sawdust restaurants," "tedious argument" and "insidious intent," create a bleak picture. It is clear that the speaker is frustrated and wishes to perform a task without being questioned about it.

This cynical imagery is extended in each stanza, and in each it seems as if the speaker is bemoaning his lot. His obsession with time is evident and accentuates his uncertainty, for he continuously reiterates that there will still be time to make decisions. He does, however, seem concerned about growing old, since he refers to his hair and his arms and legs growing thin. It is apparent that he is anxious about his fading looks as well. Furthermore, the speaker makes it evident that he deems his life worthless, for he has "measured out my life with coffee spoons." He deems himself insignificant and without purpose.

The speaker's allusions are to characters who were either the victims of tragedy or unfortunate circumstances, such as his references to Hamlet, Lazarus, and John the Baptist. These images are a reflection of his cynicism.


It should be evident that the two poems are direct contrasts in this regard. Whitman's poem is a positive affirmation of his desire to celebrate all of humankind in his poetry and has a positive, appealing tone, best symbolized by the line "Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine."  Eliot's poem has a depressing and cynical tone, which is best represented by the last two words in the poem: "we drown."


Whitman's poem is about the celebratory nature of his writing and his desire to eulogize everything good about humankind, while the theme in Eliot's poem deals with the disillusionment felt by an individual for having lived a purposeless, dissatisfied life with no hope of recovery.