How does “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” reflect certain themes that characterize the time period?
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was written by T. S. Eliot, one of the great Modernist poets. Modernism as a movement arose as a response to the excesses of the Victorian era, and consequently is characterized by minimalism and sparse language. Nature and beauty were no longer central themes—instead, alienation and a sort of self-conscious reflection took a central role in many Modernist works, and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is no exception.
Alienation is a major theme throughout the poem. Prufrock begins:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
One might assume that he is speaking to a person, but as the reader comes to learn, he is alone; only in his mind does the unnamed woman to whom he speaks exist. The divide between “you” and Prufrock widens as the poem continues, creating a gap between Prufrock and the world. The imagery Eliot includes—the “certain half-deserted streets” that “follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent”—highlights the urban desolation of the poem. Similarly, nature is portrayed as ill: the evening is like a “patient etherised upon a table;” the smog is yellow and winds about the house as would a cat.
Heroics are also spurned in Modernism, to be replaced by a self-conscious, reflective narrator. Prufrock worries incessantly: about the women at the party, who he believes will spurn his advances and gossip about him; about the nature of time; about how to make a proposal to a woman; even about his own indecisiveness.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
He reflects on himself, not always in flattering ways:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
Eliot utilizes synecdoche, in which the entirety of something is reduced to a part of it (i.e. Eliot clearly references a crustacean in these lines); in doing so, Prufrock’s diminished sense of self-worth is magnified. Prufrock doesn’t even allow himself the dignity of being an entire crustacean: he is only a pair of claws, “ragged” with age and weariness. Self-consciousness is a clear theme throughout the poem.
Modernism is also driven by a willingness to break rules to create language that evokes its intended effect. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was one of the earliest poems to use free verse: it is a mix of cross rhymes, couplets, and unrhymed lines of various lengths.