What is the meaning of the title of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?
To call this poem a “love song” might at first seem to be deeply ironic, given the sense of alienation and despair that pervades the poem, and yet the poem is a love song nonetheless.
To understand the context of the poem, one must examine the epigraph, taken from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, that precedes it. In the epigraph, a damned soul from Hell agrees to share his story, given that he does not believe that anyone will hear it. Similarly, Prufrock does not imagine that his words have an audience: he is free to be authentically self-conscious and neurotic, to reveal his innermost self. Therefore, his vulnerabilities and weaknesses are on full display.
Moving on to the poem itself, Prufrock begins the poem with romantic lines:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
However, he promptly quashes the sentiment with the following simile:
Like a patient etherised upon a table
He entreats an unknown companion to wander “certain half-deserted streets” with him in the rougher parts of town; judging by the “one-night cheap hotels” and “sawdust restaurants,” he is speaking of the red-light district. This is decidedly unromantic and so seems to dispel the idea of the poem being a love song, but in fact it imparts critical information: Prufrock’s love song is necessarily limited by his own weaknesses. In attempting to express his love, he retreats to grimy streets and memories of isolation—writing a love song is a new endeavor, and not one that he is comfortable with.
Prufrock dithers over whether it would be worth it to make a proposal of a woman:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."
Rejection is not just a possibility, to Prufrock’s mind—it is the only possible outcome, as seen by his repetition of the unnamed woman’s lines. In anticipating rejection, he clings to his remove: Prufrock no longer speaks to an unknown woman, but to himself; he imagines spending his old age alone, unchanging.
In the end, Prufrock’s love song to a woman is feeble and self-absorbed. But if one views it as an ode to the alienation and loneliness of modern life, it seems more like a love song. Eliot paints isolation tenderly, with a sort of wistful melancholy; Prufrock feels more lonely surrounded by people than walking aimlessly by himself. It is not a happy love song, of course: but he chooses isolation in the end, and gives it a sort of mystical glamour by speaking of mermaids singing on a beach. Regardless, Prufrock's love song is unconventional, but wholly unique to him.
The title is an example of Eliot's use of irony. The ironic tone runs throughout the poem. Instead of "Love Song" one might read "Song of Despair." The theme of the piece is announced in the first line with "a patient etherized . . ." Prufrock is, for all intents and purposes, virtually unconscious to his life and surroundings. The poem exemplifies Eliot's own sense of disillusionment and despair about the world of the early 20th century.