How does “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” reflect certain themes that characterize the time period?

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ariel-mcgavock eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“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.

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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