illustration of a woman holding a glass of wine and a man, Prufrock, standing opposite her

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by T. S. Eliot

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How is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" a modern poem?

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is modern in that it explores modernist themes like mortality, alienation, and urbanization. Prufrock is a passive observer in a dirty city full of “yellow smoke” and “soot.” He is alienated from the rest of society around him. He desires beautiful women but knows they will “not sing for him.” He is self-conscious of his age but struggles to express his understanding that one day he will die.

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T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is considered a modern poem for many reasons. Characteristics of modern poetry--specifically poetry from the early 20th century--include classical allusions, use of foreign language, open verse, juxtaposition, intertextuality, and often times the theme of disillusionment. This poem is open verse and contains all of these features, beginning with the opening quotation from Dante's Inferno in Italian. The poem also juxtaposes images throughout and incorporates intertextual elements like the references to Hamlet. The theme of disillusionment is evident in the narrator's frustration with his inability to make a bold move or even make a decision because he is unhappy with himself--an aging man who is balding and has skinny legs. He is so disillusioned, he cannot even bring himself to talk to women who are speaking of the great Michelangelo. Like most modern poems, Eliot's is high-brow and challenging to read--there are many references and allusions to explore.

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How is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” modern?

Modernism arose in the early 1900s as a reaction to the sociopolitical climate of the time. Artists and writers broke traditional rules of their form and explored themes like loss, alienation, mortality, and isolation. A lot of this was the result of World War I, which began a year before T. S. Eliot wrote this poem. The Great War brought out some of the worst possible behaviors in human beings, as young men lived in dirt trenches killing one another over politics. It transformed society and made many people, especially writers, reflect on how pointless brutal exercises like war really are.

Eliot deals with many modernist themes in this poem, including mortality and alienation. The war was making people come face to face with the reality of death, and the speaker, J. Alfred Prufrock, is one of these people. Prufrock is aware that he is aging and that he does not have much time left. “I grow old … I grow old…” he says; yet while he is aware of this, he struggles to express how he feels about it. He is also alienated from the world around him. He passively observes people around him, like the women who talk about Michelangelo and the mermaids who represent the women he desires. He says,

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

This line shows how Prufrock feels separate from the rest of the world and how he is lonely and isolated. Eliot also uses the image of the mermaids and the sea to depict an idyllic, beautiful world, one that sharply contrasts reality. This contrast makes the grim nature of reality stand out even more.

A lot of modernist writing and art also reflects on the urbanization and industrialization of the time period. Eliot does that in this poem with the descriptions of the city as filled with “yellow smoke” and “soot.” Unlike the romantics, modernists presented the world exactly as they saw it in front of them, even if it...

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made things seem dark and hopeless.

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Describe the "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S Eliot as a modern poem?

In many ways, the Modernist movement for poetry was a response to the harshness of the time period which lasted from around the 1880s to the 1940s.  Considering the sorts of events that were occurring at this time, industrialization followed by World War I which resulted in widespread unhappiness and suffering, many poets, including T.S. Eliot, decide to stop following the traditional rules and motifs of the old, established poets; it was like they had collectively had enough of the status quo and wanted to try something new.  Modernism embraced the breaking of rules and conventions; many modern poems also focus on attributes of the new modern world, positive or negative.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a modern poem for several reasons.  T.S. Eliot first published it in 1915, and many critics hated it instantly.  The experimental quality of the poem, the organization of the verses and Prufrock's random rambling, did not appeal to many of the more traditionally minded readers.  Another modernist aspect of the poem is its portrayal of city life; Prufrock, the well-dressed gentleman, meanders through the city with his predilection for restaurants with sawdust floors, thinking of what he wished he might have said to the woman he never ends up meeting.  Through Prufrock and his unconventional point of view, the poem addresses several key modernist themes, such as fear, alienation, and city life. 

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What are the characteristics of writing poems in the modern age which are in the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' exhibits many qualities that came to be hailed as the trademarks of modern, and particularly modernist, writing – Modernism being an umbrella term that covers several bold and revolutionary new movements in the arts around the beginning of the twentieth century. Applied to literature, the term denotes works both of poetry and prose that dispense with traditional literary forms and conventions. In poetry this often meant getting rid of certain traditional  elements like regular verse and rhyme in favour of freestyle, where no set pattern is followed. It is true that 'Prufrock' doesn’t venture too far down this road, but it is certainly edging towards it.

While the overall structure of the poem is relatively uncomplicated, in terms of content it is rather difficult to follow, and this is a characteristic of much modern, and particularly modernist writing. Modernist writers often aimed deliberately to mystify the reader, by leaving things unclear or unexplained. This is often achieved through the literary technique known as 'stream-of-consciousness', following a character’s or speaker’s train of thought which often appears disconnected, meandering, skipping from one thing to another and not arriving at any proper conclusion. This is certainly true of 'Prufrock'.

Modern and modernist writing often does not bother to fill in background information for the reader’s benefit;  we are not told anything directly at all by Prufrock and we have to piece things together from his rambling thoughts as they are presented to us. The stream of consciousness of 'Prufrock' might be seen at least in part as evolving from the psychological poetry of the nineteenth century, notably the dramatic monologues of Browning; but it aims to take us even further into the mind of the speaker.

Modern writers also liked to include erudite cultural references. For example, the very title of James Joyce's ultra-Modernist and difficult novel, Ulysses, harks back to classical mythology, although the mythological references are not spelt out clearly. In 'Prufrock' we also get this, for example with the phrase ‘works and days’(29) which is the title of a work by the Ancient Greek poet Hesiod. However this reference is not really developed to any purpose. This can also be seen as part of the modernist poet’s strategy to tease and tantalize the reader, to throw out allusions and echoes of other works now and then without them really leading anywhere.

 Another modern, or modernist trait in this poem is the sense of alienation in a modern urban environment. Depictions of the city are frequent in modern poetry and are usually cast in an unfavourable light.  We see in this poem how Prufrock feels bored and stifled by modern urban life and routines, trapped in unending 'streets that follow like a tedious argument’(8) and the yellow fog which drapes itself over everything, and dreams of escaping to the beauty and wildness of nature, to the sea.

A final thing to consider is the overall tone and approach of the poem. The overriding tone is irony; Prufrock is fully aware of his own failings and general insignificance in the scheme of things and is all the time wryly commenting upon himself. Irony is a favourite mode of modern poets, replacing the more romantic and sentimental moods of previous poetry, particularly of the Victorian era.

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What are the characteristics of writing poems in the modern age which are in the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

The characteristics of writing poems in the modern age that are in T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" include writing in free verse. Free verse withdraws from formal structures such as regular rhyme and strict meter. More poetry today is written in the free verse form and this poem has free verse elements in it.

In this poem, though, Eliot does use rhyme quite often, however, he employs lines of varying lengths that do not ascribe to the aforementioned strict meter. This poem is a combination of formal and informal elements. It's as if Eliot was beholden to some formal rules while attempting to break away from them at the same time.

Another characteristic of this poem that is seen in today's contemporary poetry is the use of "everyday imagery" of what one would see in their community on any given day as they go about their life. This is not flowery, romantic, ethereal poetry. It is more attuned to the grittiness of everyday existence as evidenced by a line like...

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?...

There's an industrial society feel to this poem in a sense, and of a man trying to come to terms with his existence in a world that is changing on multiple fronts. The narrator of the poem is aging in an increasingly complicated world. Much modern poetry today deals with this feeling of alienation in society. 

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How is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" modern?

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can be seen as a quintessentially modern poem in that it lays bare the condition of modernity as understood by a generation of artists and intellectuals in the opening decades of the twentieth century.

When Eliot published the poem, the First World War was erupting, with all its bloodshed and mechanized slaughter. It seemed to many that the confidence in human progress that was so central to nineteenth-century culture had been exposed as somewhat misplaced. Perhaps more importantly, religious belief was in steep decline as a result of scientific discoveries and intellectual discourse. Inevitably, this general attitude of cultural despair found its way into numerous works of art, of which “Prufrock” is a fairly representative example.

With so many of the old certainties being swept away, modern society was becoming more atomistic. People no longer shared many of the same cultural and intellectual assumptions that used to bind them together. As a result, they became more estranged from one another, occupying their own isolated little worlds.

Prufrock is one such individual. There is a significant chasm between himself and the world outside his overactive consciousness. The city in which he lives is a frightening place: intimidating, "etherized," shrouded in a permanent haze of yellow fog. In the modern world, the old bonds of community have broken down, and so many people like Prufrock lack the resources to forge new connections between themselves and others. And so he remains forever trapped in his own subjectivity, with no realistic hope of escape.

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