"The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot, is considered a dramatic monologue. Some call the poem the "first Modernist poem." The poem is described as a "drama of literary anguish," and Eliot uses stream of consciousness to impart the poem's messages. Eliot is writing as the Modern Age arrives. Modernism, with regard to literature, is the break with tradition that writers experienced, in this case in Britain, after World War I. The institutions that had been the backbone of society become suspect as modernists believed that these institutions had led the country into a "bloody conflict."
Modernism is characterized by:
...a strong and intentional break with tradition [that] includes a strong reaction against established religious, political, and social views.
[the belief] that the world is created in the act of perceiving it; that is, the world is what we say it is.
...[the absence of] absolute truth. All things are relative.
[the lack of] ...connection with history or institutions. Their experience is that of alienation, loss, and despair.
[the act of championing] the individual and celebrat[ing] inner strength.
[a belief that] life is unordered.
[shows a concern] with the sub-conscious.
T.S. Eliot was 18 when he first started the poem. Prufrock is on his way to meet a woman for tea—to propose, it would seem—though he never arrives. On the way, he composes analogies between himself and "familiar cultural figures." One such figure is Hamlet, who considers suicide in his "To be or not to be speech," which Prufrock manipulates to his own purposes as "to be what," or who am I or what am I that makes me think I can ask this woman to marry me?
Because of his youth, the poem might well have been considered typical of the angst of a young man of a certain age, however as the poem develops and takes on a new, broader scope, it moves on to study "peculiarly Modernist alienation of the individual in society." In this way, its appeal is much broader.
The poem is not so much about Prufrock's destination as it is about his puzzlement over what his destination is, and how he might get there. The picture of the world that the poet describes is a shadowy place: seedy places of ill-repute, secretive actions, and Prufrock's confusion as to where he fits in, in this kind of world. He is looking for answers, but is he certain yet of the question?
While some critics found this form of poetry undesirable because of its "unmetrical, incoherent banalities...", it was exactly these elements that the poets of the time meant to imbue their poetry with, reflected in their break with tradition.