On its face, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” does not appear to have much in common with Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. They were written over a century apart, in different countries, concerning different subjects.
Eliot’s Prufrock is a middle-aged man who has grown disillusioned with his middle-class lifestyle and wonders “would it have been worthwhile, after all?” Coleridge’s Mariner is a sailor who commits a senseless sin/crime/error and has to suffer the consequences, but who achieves a kind of redemption in the end.
However, the poems do share some similar imagery. Early in “Prufrock,” Eliot creates fog imagery, with a famous fog-as-cat metaphor:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes . . .
seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner also uses fog imagery:
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.'
Fog is often used as a metaphor that signifies an obscure or inscrutable element in a poem. It serves to make the reader wonder “what is out there,” or “what might happen next.” In each poem, the reader is not entirely sure what is menacing the poem’s subject.
Obviously, there is plenty of sea imagery in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as almost all of the poem takes place on the ocean. Surprising, however, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” concludes with two short stanzas of sea images:
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
While The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ends on a relatively positive note, as the Mariner appears to be absolved of his sin, the speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not as lucky. Notice that the last word of the poem is “drown.” There are many ways in which this term can be interpreted, not all of them entirely negative, but the speaker is not explicitly redeemed by his actions or by any other supernatural powers, as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.