illustration of a woman holding a glass of wine and a man, Prufrock, standing opposite her

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by T. S. Eliot

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What is the theme of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

The themes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” include the alienation in modern life, the desire for love, and the isolation and loneliness of the individual.

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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 skyLike 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 goTalking 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,...

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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 wavesCombing the white hair of the waves blown backWhen the wind blows the water white and black.We have lingered in the chambers of the seaBy sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brownTill 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.

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"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of the first modernist poems, has at its center a modernist theme: the alienation, paralysis, and timidity of the early 20th-century man. Prufrock, whose interior, stream of consciousness monologueis the poem, represents the impotent intellectual of the pre-World War I period. The poem was begun in 1910, before the war began, and published in 1915, after the war had started.

Prufrock might possibly like to do daring things, asking "Do I dare?"—but in reality, he doesn't dare. Instead, he fritters away his time at pointless parties, all the while knowing he is wasting his powers. He complains that he "[has] measured out my life with coffee spoons," yet he is so paralyzed that he continually turns away from the "overwhelming question" he seems to want to ask. Instead, he focuses on petty issues: his bald spot, his thinning hair, whether to eat a peach or not. Rather than feeling powerful, he feels like an insect pinned to a wall. He projects this sense of impotence onto all of London; and describes it as a patient etherized upon a table.

At the end, he mourns the poetic time embodied in Greek myths of mermaid on the sea, but he doesn't think the imagined mermaids (symbols of inspiration) will sing to him. We can rest assured that they probably won't.

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One of the main themes throughout the poem concerns a lack of self-esteem. Prufrock is obsessed with his own sense of inadequacy and insecurity. The speaker is extremely self-conscious and considers himself a failure. Prufrock is concerned about what others, particularly women, will think of him. Upon entering the room where women are discussing Michelangelo, Prufrock begins to worry about the bald spot in the middle of his hair. He also expresses his concern that the women will ridicule him for his thin arms and legs. The speaker does not dare confess his desires or express himself in front of these women because he fears being judged. Prufrock's lack of self-esteem creates a dilemma where he cannot ask a certain question. Throughout the poem, Prufrock is continually questioning himself and is filled with a sense of anxiety because he is self-conscious. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker expresses his pathetic existence by comparing himself to a crab crawling on the silent ocean floor. Prufrock admits that he is "not Prince Hamlet" and compares himself to Polonius. Prufrock's inadequate perception of himself leaves him powerless and unable to act upon his emotions.

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According to the enotes Study Guide on Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," three themes exist in the poem:

  1. Alienation and Loneliness
  2. Time
  3. Doubt and Ambiguity

The speaker is so alone and lonely that most likely, the "you and I" in the poem represents a dialogue with himself.  He is inept socially, and worries that he will feel "pinned and wriggling on the wall," like an insect being studied, simply from making eye contact with others. 

First, he knows there's time, then he knows that time is running out.  He worries that he will grow old with time and he will be a clown.  And magic and beauty and mermaids will never be for him.

The speaker is filled with doubt and ambiguity (as is the poem, of course).  He is like Hamlet, unable to overcome doubts and questions and indecision and actually do something.  He questions his own existence. 

This peom is extremely complex, but this short breakdown of the poem's themes should help you get a handle them.

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What does "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" mean?

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” offers a variety of meanings, given its formal, thematic, and allusive richness. At one level, the poem’s meaning can be found in its exploration of loneliness. The eponymous Prufrock wanders the streets of London in the early twentieth century, unable to find any genuine connections with other people. Prufrock repeatedly refers to a social gathering where “the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” These lines connote a lack of social connection, in particular suggesting Prufrock’s sense of distance from the other people. Prufrock’s isolation reaches a culmination in the poem’s final three stanzas, when Prufrock says “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. // I do not think that they will sing to me.” This image mirrors the scene of the party but places it in a heightened, mythical context. Again, Prufrock observes life from a distance, feeling that he is not—and cannot be—involved.

Another meaning of the poem concerns the question of meaning itself. At two points in the poem, Prufrock alludes to “an overwhelming question” that he feels compelled to ask but cannot voice. Thus, the question itself is never formulated, but one can make certain inferences about it. First, the scale of the question is broad, even cosmic. Prufrock discusses “squeez[ing] the universe into a ball / To roll it towards some overwhelming question.” This image suggests that the question is one of ultimate meaning and is perhaps religious or spiritual in character. Second, Prufrock cannot communicate his question with others. Indeed, later in that same passage are the lines

“That is not what I meant at all;That is not it, at all.”

Thus, this matter of ultimate meaning cannot be addressed in the wider social world, contributing to Prufrock’s isolation.

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What is the meaning of each line of the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

I have heard the mermaids singing each to each

I do not think they will sing to me.

Prufrock is an intelligent and well-educated man, but he suffers from a paralyzing lack of self-esteem. His sense of inferiority and his self-consciousness are inextricably intertwined with his feelings of alienation from the society around him. He is always in society and yet always apart from it. In the quote above, he can hear the mermaids, or perhaps, metaphorically, the women "in the room," but they are separated from him and do not sing to him. He is in the room, but the women talk to each other and not to him. He lives in a urban setting but walks through "half-deserted streets," ostensibly alone.

One of the most powerful images of Prufrock's alienation is also a mark of his self-consciousness. He says he "has known the eyes already, known them all," eyes that have been watching him as if he were a bug "pinned and wriggling on the wall." The eyes are not embracing him, they are studying him like a specimen. Again, he is in the world, but alienated and judged by that world.

The motif of his self-consciousness is echoed when worries about his appearance and imagines what people will say about him:

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
He is so concerned about the judgment of others, he is not sure that he "dares to eat a peach." Prufrock's concern stops him from making his romantic approach to one of the women in the room. As he imagines the world judging him, he imagines her rejecting him. His lack of confidence makes him believe he has misread any cues that she might have given off: "That is not what I meant at all." He doesn't imagine her just saying "no." He places the guilt on himself and imagines he misunderstood her intentions. It is all his fault.
The summary of his sense of self exists in these lines:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the the floors of silent seas.
He wishes he were a crab, far away from the world. His interior monologue is dominated by a lack of self-worth. For more information, check out one of's critical essays entitled "Understanding 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'." The link is included below.
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What is the meaning of each line of the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a poem of despair. On the surface, its primary theme is that of an aging man who longs for youth, dreads social encounters, is sexually frustrated, and struggles with feelings of loneliness and isolation. More deeply, it reflects the struggle of modern intellectual humanity to find meaning and purpose in the world.

The poem itself is the interior monologue of a man who is wandering the streets on his way to a social engagement of some sort, and through contextual clues (as well as the poem's title), we can surmise that this social engagement will include the opportunity for romance and that the narrator is filled with feelings of dread and inadequacy in anticipation of this meeting.

Further, we can surmise that the narrator is educated, and in part his anxiety is driven by his anticipation of tedious conversations with people who try too hard to appear educated themselves. On the other hand, it also portrays a man who lacks confidence and does not wish to be scrutinized too closely.

The narrator's erudition is displayed in lines like the following:

"And time for all the works and days of hands"—a reference to Hesiod's poem Works and Days;

"I know the voices dying with a dying fall"—a reference to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night;

"Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter"—a biblical story from the gospels of Mark and Matthew, referring to Salome's request to have the head of John the Baptist brought in on a platter.

Contrast this with the following line, which shows utter disdain for a group of women who name-drop famous Renaissance artists to make themselves appear more "cultured":

In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.

In essence, the poem is a cry of anguish from a man who ponders the question "Why bother?", and it is this question which so clearly establishes it as one of the earliest and best portrayals of modern angst and alienation.

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What is this "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" all about?  

I remember the first time I read this poem I felt completely lost and didn't understand what was going on, so you are not alone in feeling confused by this poem! I have included a few links below to the relevant study guide section on enotes to help you negotiate the poem, but I will also give you a summary here to hopefully give you a few "hooks" that you can use to understand the poem and what Eliot is trying to achieve.

Firstly, let us observe that this poem is a dramatic monologue, in that it is a poem where one character is speaking to one or more listeners. Thus it is that the words of the poem are spoken by the J. Alfred Prufrock of the title. The poem therefore gives us access to his mind and character, and a vitally important question to consider is what the poem tells us about him, and what kind of man he is.

As it begins, it is obvious that as Alfred Prufrock is walking, he is thinking about asking a question, but he cannot bring himself to ask it. He remembers roaming through deserted streets. He shows himself to be concerned and obsessed about his appearance, worrying about what others will think of him. He draws attention to his own physical deficiencies, such as his baldness. He expresses an intense desire to have the courage that he needs to assert himself, and he clearly longs for romantic love, but at the same time his fear of being made fun of or being misunderstood acts as a profound barrier to his interactions with others. The poem ends with the crushing realisation that his timidity and fear of failure will mean he will never acheive his dreams.

In short, he is a man who is obsessed with his own insecurities and what he thinks others might think and might say about him. Note one of the most famous lines from the poem:

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Resoundingly, Alfred Prufrock does not dare to disturb the universe, and his focus is always on the impact of "decisions and revisions" and what the effect of various actions could be. He is paralysed by indecision and his own personal hang-ups.

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What are the major themes of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

The major theme of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is indecision. Although the narrator claims not to be a Prince Hamlet, but merely an attendant lord, in fact he suffers from the indecisiveness that was Hamlet's hallmark. In the case of Profrock though, the background of the revisoons and indecisions is not heroic Denmark but the modern world of London society, marked by an self-consciousness spawned by the great intellectual revolutions of the Victorian era. In a world after Freud, Marx, and Darwin, our decisions are interpreted as always reflecting forces somewhat beyond our control, all acting upon us and pulling us in multiple different directions. Life was less complex before evolution (when we were ragged claws scuttling on a seabed) or in the medieval world where romantic activity was guided by the secure and unquestioned authority of the Roman Catholic church.

Prufrock can see all sides of the possibilities of both inaction and action from multiple perspectives -- making it harder rather than easier to make choices. In fact, this superfluity of knowledge makes any choice as good as any other -- thus :Do not ask what is it/ let us go and make our visit."

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What is the theme of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”?

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an exemplar of the modernist literary movement, both in its form and its themes. It was written at a time when Western society was going through a crisis, at least in the eyes of artists and intellectuals such as T. S. Eliot.

The poem was mostly composed a few years before the First World War and published in 1915, shortly after the war had begun. During this time, many of the old cultural and intellectual certainties were under attack. Religious belief was waning, and technological advancements were quickly altering modern life. Moreover, the surges of collective nationalistic feeling that had defined the nineteenth century were being undermined by the unimaginable horrors of mechanized warfare in Europe.

In response to the disintegration of these shared certainties, many people in society began to feel somewhat isolated, no longer experiencing any real connection with the people around them. Such isolation is one of the main themes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Try as he might, no matter how many times he ventures forth into the city to meet with various people, Prufrock cannot help but feel that he does not really belong, that society is moving on without him and that he is in the process of being left behind. Prufrock clearly does not understand modern society, with its “half-deserted streets” and “muttering retreats.” For him, life is something that he can only observe from an isolated distance.

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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.

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What is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot about?

This can certainly be a challenging poem to understand at first reading. However, key to understanding this poem is recognising that Alfred Prufrock is a man who is considering asking a question. This question haunts him, but he cannot force himself to utter the words needed to ask it. We can infer that this question is a proposal of marriage to a woman that he is on his way to meet while walking through the city. He is a man who is preoccupied and concerned about his personal appearance. He feels confident that he is well dressed, but expresses concern about the thinness of his arms and legs and his bald patch:

Time to turn back and descent the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--

(They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!")

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--

(They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!")

He is thus a characted who is dogged profoundly by self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence. He intensely desires to have the courage necessary to assert himself and is a character that longs for love, yet he is also constantly in fear of others making fun of him or being misunderstood. This fact makes real connection with others impossible. In the end he is forced to concede that his natural timidity and lack of confidence, combined with his fear of failure will prevent him from achieving his goals and gaining a meaningful relationship.

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What does the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" talk about?  

The poem is spoken, we assume, by J. Alfred Prufrock himself, who is on his way to a party with a woman whom he cares for. He seems incredibly uncomfortable, believing that the people there are going to judge him and talk about him:

They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!" . . .They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"

To make matters worse, no one seems to really show interest in one another or to talk about things that seem important or personal. Instead, they "come and go" from room to room, discussing art. Art is vital to life, but it is an impersonal topic that someone might bring up in order to make themselves sound smart. One doesn't make oneself personally vulnerable when one discusses Michelangelo, for example.

Further, Prufrock seems quite aware that everyone is wearing a mask and that he must do so himself. He says,

There will be time, there will be timeTo prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

To suggest that one must "prepare" their face seems to mean that they must ready themselves—to put on figurative armor, so to speak—so that they are "prepared" for interactions with others. These interactions, then, are not entirely genuine but take place between people's masks rather than between their true, authentic selves.

Finally, Prufrock is tempted to

[squeeze] the universe into a ballTo roll it towards some overwhelming question, . . .If one, settling a pillow by her head Should say: "That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all."

This overwhelming question seems to be either a proposal of marriage or a request as to whether Prufrock's love interest can, in fact, return his love for her. However, he never asks it, for fear that her answer, to either question, would be "no." It is too painful and risky to make himself so vulnerable, and so he misses his opportunity to make a real human connection. In the end, then, he says that "the mermaids" that he hears singing "will [not] sing to [him]." Love will never be his, because he is not brave enough to face the possibility of rejection. He will grow old, alone.

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What does the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" talk about?  

J. Alfred Prufrock is going to ask his love to marry him, or if she loves him.

Prufrock is trying to decide whether or not to tell the love of his life how he feels about her.  He is troubled, divided, and frightened.  He is taking a long walk to pop the question.

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question ...

Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"

Let us go and make our visit.

Less a love song than an interior debate, Prufrock diverts to the third person plural because the subject seems to be too painful for him.  Does he resolve his issue?  It is not entirely clear.  But he has talked himself through the process.

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.

The overwhelming humans emotion of love and fear, and fear of unrequited love, are the main focus of this poem.

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