“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” explores many complex and important ideas, but I think it would be especially interesting to discuss the theme of love, given the poem’s title. Additionally, the theme of love intersects with and highlights other important tropes in the poem, such as alienation and loss of empathy in modern society.
T.S. Eliot’s treatment of love in the poem is ironic, beginning from its non-heroic, balding protagonist to its lack of a beloved. Love is present in the love song more because of its absence. We aren’t very sure to whom Prufrock addresses his song, or if he even wants to find love with a flesh and blood human being.
Even before we delve into Prufrock’s “love song,” the epigraph, which alludes to Dante’s Inferno, sets the anti-romantic tone of the poem. In the epigraph, Dante converses with Guido, a soul in purgatory. The inference we can draw is that like Guido, Prufrock too is in a state of inaction and stasis. Unlike Dante, who has Beatrice—his true love and spiritual teacher—to guide him to Paradise, Prufrock has no one. Instead of Dante’s pure, impassioned love, the poem begins with Prufrock’s empty offer to a vague “you.”
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table … (Lines 1–3)
Not only is the evening described in sterile metaphors, Prufrock further imagines that his date will progress to "one-night cheap hotels /
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells," alluding to the tawdriness of petty, short-lived lust. Clearly, Prufrock looks down upon what he imagines is common love and wants to find a transforming passion that will rescue his dull life. To this extent, he often tries to initiate conversations and connections with women, but these tend to shrivel up and die, with the women saying:
That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all. (Lines 97–98)
However, Prufrock seems to mostly ignore the fact that his attitudes towards women may be playing into his lonely existence. His attitude towards women is problematic, with the women appearing interchangeable to him, as evidenced by the following lines:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo. (Lines 13–14)
He tends to imagines that women mock and deride him, and he gives up on human connection very easily. Thus, Prufrock represents contemporary man, who is too caught up in his own insecurities to risk love. Under these circumstances, his love song is bound to ring hollow. After all, he is no Dante or romantic hero of the past, or even a "Prince Hamlet," but just the eternal fool. Here, Prufrock’s failure to find love intersects with the poem’s prominent theme of the alienation inherent in modern society. Eliot suggests that wholesome, passionate love is incompatible with the spiritual emptiness of modern life, and Prufrock is emblematic of that dilemma.
Towards the end of the poem, Prufrock has a poetic, beautiful vision of “mermaids,” which can be said to represent perfect and unattainable women. Although he is convinced “they won’t sing” to him, he does allow himself to daydream about such women briefly.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown. (Lines 126-131)
But “human voices,” signifying reality, disturb Prufrock’s dream of co-existing with the “sea-girls.” Ironically, Prufrock does not realize that until he undergoes a spiritual transformation and attempts to forge a more meaningful connection with his own self and others around him, he will continue in his state of self-induced, loveless purgatory.