I'd like to write an essay on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" using New Historicism's theories and practices. Any ideas for a second text (preferably non-literary) that can be used to...

I'd like to write an essay on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" using New Historicism's theories and practices. Any ideas for a second text (preferably non-literary) that can be used to illuminate and enrich a discussion on how power is represented in the poem?

Expert Answers
theyellowbookworm eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To write an essay using a New Historicist framework, you will want to start by acknowledging the cultural moment in which the poem was composed and published. With the help of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in Poetry magazine in 1915. Critics classify Eliot’s work, including “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” as modernist, meaning that it was written at a time when new technologies emerged and changed the civilized world. Although Eliot was American, he was living in England when he composed and published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the poem, Eliot addresses modernist themes such as isolation and city life.

Moving forward, there are a few non-literary, secondary texts that acknowledge the modernist roots of Eliot’s work and provide a New Historicist theoretical frame. These include: 

  • Bradshaw, David, Kevin Detttmar, eds. A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture . Malden MA: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Childs, Peter,  Modernism. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Kalaidjian, Walter B. The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism. Cambridge UP, 2005.
  • MacGowan, Christopher, ed. Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Malden MA: Blackwell, 2004.
  • Nicholls, Peter.  Modernisms.  Palgrave, 2009.

You mention that you might be interested in a newspaper article. If so, you could look at the reception of Eliot's poem (it was not generally well received).

Try the "Literary Supplement" of The London Times, which reviewed the poem as follows: "The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry…"

  • You can find this article in your school's library database. Look for: Times Literary Supplement 21 June 1917, no. 805, 299.

As you consider your theme, it may be helpful to draw connections between Prufrock’s isolation and early 20th century conceptions of masculinity. Prufrock’s society places a very high value on physical appearance. The speaker fears rejection because he doubts his physical appearance. He is ashamed of his balding hair and thin arms and legs. He fears that the women will laugh at his appearance. Youthfulness also plays a part in physical appearance. Prufrock imagines himself in old age. He depicts his attire as well as his actions. Although he seems to fear old age, he accepts that it must occur. Therefore, Prufrock plans how he will act and what he will wear. Even in old age, Prufrock’s life remains monotonous and predictable.

Prufrock’s thin arms and legs symbolize a lack of physical strength (ll.44). In a society that values appearance, masculine qualities become very important. Prufrock’s lack of these qualities demeans his manhood and results in his inadequacies. Prufrock fears the women will judge him based on societal standards, which he cannot physically live up to. Prufrock values physical beauty as well. He references the women’s eyes (ll.55-58). The eyes of the women represent their judgment. Prufrock illustrates “eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, / And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall” (ll.56-58). The women’s eyes have the ability to criticize Prufrock’s appearance. He finds himself ensnared in their judgment, which he cannot avoid.

As a male, Prufrock is expected to embody strength and stability. His character obviously falters in these areas and he questions his masculine features. As a result, Prufrock becomes insecure about his appearance and ability to take action. He lacks the masculine qualities that his society values and therefore becomes inconsistent in his commitments and ability to ask the “overwhelming question.” Prufrock’s social class also holds him to higher standards. He is expected to hold dominance and authority. Prufrock questions this dominance, though, and his insecurities lead him to hesitate. Gender roles and societal expectations lead to Prufrock’s awkward nature. He fails to fulfill his masculine identity, and as a result becomes a societal outcast.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What an interesting essay topic!  Yes, of course I can help you!  Let me do a brief overview for you of New Historicism and follow it up with how it fits with Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and then give you the texts you have asked for (which will be perfect to use as secondary sources). 

If I were you, I would focus mainly on the introduction to a collection of essays written by Veeser.  It's called The New Historicism and was published in 1989.  You can use Veeser's list of ideas to compare them to Eliot's poem.  Here is a shortened form of his list:

  1. All actions we take in society are effects placed in context of culture and intellect.
  2. All negative actions of exposure actually use the same ideas they are exposing.
  3. All literature (as well as works deemed "non-literary") can be applied to this theory and, as such, prove their worth.
  4. All truths are subject to change and no piece of literature should say otherwise.

These are the fundamentals of New Historicism and, even though other scholars may add or detract from this list, this list is commonly known by those who attempt a description.  Now let's see how Veeser can help us understand Prufrock.

1. All actions we take in society are effects placed in context of culture and intellect.

The very opening lines of the poem point to the speaker's intellect in that they echo the words of Dante's Divine Comedy.  Repeated numerous times in the poem is the line, "In the room the women come and go, / Talking of Michaelangelo."  With regard to culture (in addition to the cultural intellect mentioned above), this poem is absolutely full of references!  Note this particular quotation:

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.

2. All negative actions of exposure actually use the same ideas they are exposing.

Can you think of anything more true with regard to this poem?  Consumed by the discussion of the negativity of Prufrock's surroundings, he is absolutely guilty of that same negativity!  Right amid the "half-deserted streets" is Prufrock's own description as follows:

When the evening is spread out agains the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table

Of course there are a million more examples of negativity all throughout the poem that can be used as primary source quotes as well.

3. All literature (as well as works deemed "non-literary") can be applied to this theory and, as such, prove their worth.

Although "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is certainly a poem deemed "literary," due to this particular part of the list, it is definitely worthy of New Historicism.

4. All truths are subject to change and no piece of literature should say otherwise.

A good example of this delineation of New Historicism is the repetition of the line "there will be time."  This shows that even though the "truth" isn't applicable now, it might be perhaps in the future, such as in this quotation:

There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create

In fact, anything that is a question can show that truths are subject to change.  Another example is the "Do I dare?" question that Prufrock poses.  Either truth (that he DOES dare, or he DOESN'T dare) could be possible and changing.

Of course, you may wish to add yet another secondary source to your essay, so here are a couple more you can check out that are even more recent:

  • New Historicism, by Dixon published in 2005
  • New Historicism explained, by Hedges, published in 2000
Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Rather than detail the aspects of New Historicism--mainly because they are already listed in the answer above--I want to add some comments about the application of New Historicism as a critical theory.  Traditional Historicists  attempt to explain a work of literature in terms of historical and social forces that may have affected the author (and, therefore, the work)--an attempt, essentially, to place the work of literature within its time.  New Historicists, however, often go beyond the history that might be directly related to the work and consider texts from many disciplines--economics, social science, philosophy, technology, popular culture--that may have played even a small part in the writer's creative consciousness.

In your question, you indicate that you would like to examine the theme of power as discourse but, as a New Historicist, you need to move beyond literary criticism and reach out to another discipline.  I suggest that you take a look at the following article, and its bibliography, at the site below:


This article, which is titled "The Power of Discourse and the Discourse of Power: Pursuing Peace Through Discourse Intervention," discusses the concept of power as it is articulated in non-literary contexts.  A New Historicist would mine such an article for insights (by looking at the bibliography) into how the discourse of power--that is, how power is articulated--works in a political, rather than literary, context.  And then the New Historicist would try to make the connection between the discourse of power in Eliot and how that discourse manifests itself in a completely different context.  The goal of this might be to establish a framework to explain that the discourse of power in a literary and political or social context is identical or, alternatively, to conclude that power is articulated in vastly different ways depending upon the context--literary, social, political.

summer-worsley | Student

Thank you for your answer.

More specifically, I am looking for a 'co-text' to apply New Historicism theory/practice to, alongside the Prufrock. I'd like something that will allow an enriched discussion of the presentation of power as discourse in the Eliot poem. Which I can then tie into the theory. Perhaps a newspaper article or a 'lesser' work. Any further thoughts?

Read the study guide:
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question