"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot was first published in June 1915 issue of Poetry magazine. Although the narrative is that of a middle-aged man worried about whether he should begin an affair with a woman, it responds more generally to what Eliot...
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot was first published in June 1915 issue of Poetry magazine. Although the narrative is that of a middle-aged man worried about whether he should begin an affair with a woman, it responds more generally to what Eliot would have considered the problems of the modern, secular world.
Prufrock is not just an individual adrift, but rather emblematic of a period and generation. He is a moderately wealthy and successful member of the upper middle classes who is imbued with the social conventions of his time and period, and is inordinately concerned about how he appears to others. His obsession with how he appears and how people react to him signal the absence of an internal compass. He seems to care about conventions but to lack certain values. Politeness has become a substitute for morality.
Several great certainties had been undermined. First, the social class system was shifting, leaving class identity uncertain and the bourgeois in particular undermined by Marxism, no longer secure and assured in their position. Next, Darwin had undermined the notion of humanity as somehow special and separate from nature. Freud had undermined the notion that we can know our own motives and desires, suggesting instead that much of our acts and beliefs are grounded in the unconscious mind. Higher Criticism had undermined the old certainties of religion.
As modernity undermined the great certainties of the Victorian age, Eliot worried that it has not created anything that could substitute for them. The manners which were once grounded in a complete belief system seem to Eliot to have lost their ideological grounds and become empty and the people like Prufrock without purpose. Prufrock states:
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
In other words, the lack of grand, prophetic certainties leaves people adrift and afraid. For Eliot, the eventual answer to this was a return to the Anglican Church and literary tradition.