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

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One theme of this poem is time . Prufrock complains that "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." One meaning of that statement is that Prufrock has frittered his life away in small, pointless activities. Yet he is obsessed with time. He is getting older, has a bald...

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One theme of this poem is time. Prufrock complains that "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." One meaning of that statement is that Prufrock has frittered his life away in small, pointless activities. Yet he is obsessed with time. He is getting older, has a bald spot, and has to keep reassuring himself that there it still time. In fact, in the fourth stanza, he shows his obsession with time by repeating the word time over and over again, thinking,

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions . . . .

The word "time" appears elsewhere in the poem, showing that it is a central preoccupation for Prufrock. Yet the more he tries to capture time, the more it eludes him. He keeps saying there will be enough time for what he wants to do, but a central irony, and message, of the poem is that the more one tries to grasp time, the more it eludes the grasp. Thinking about time instead of just living leads to paralyzing indecision.

Time also brings us to the theme of modernity. Modernity is contrasted with the past. The past is described at the end as a time of myth and mermaids—a time where one could "linger," a time where the word "time" never appears. Modernity, in contrast, is the age of the factory, of dividing time into ever smaller pieces in order to possess and control it. The factory model of time is, in fact, comparable to measuring out life in "coffee spoons." This way of understanding time, the poem suggests, leads to one losing what is most essential in life, the ability to step out of time and into a world of myth and poetry. (We might note, too, that Eliot is ever obsessed with time in his writing.) If the past has a timeless quality, modernity is associated with repetition—Prufrock is the modern man, going through the motions over and over again—and thus Prufrock is associated with the modern factory machine.

Finally, a theme of despair threads through the poem, culminating, at the end, in Prufrock's fear he never will find the land of the imagination symbolized by the mermaids.

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'Prufrock' is an extremely complex poem synthesizing many of what Eliot considered important ideas about history, poetry, and the personal. As Eliot himself points out in his seminal essay, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', poetry at its most profound is the tradition of culture as a whole mediated through an individual sensibility. Thus in 'Prufrock' we hear voices of Shakespeare, Hesiod, Renaissance art, Matthew Arnold, etc.

The first major theme is that of indecision. Prufrock, like 'Hamlet', is a man who cannot make up his mind -- but unlike Hamlet, this is applied to the personal choice of his relationship with a woman rather than to the fate of a kingdom.

Another theme is modernity, and the way in which it dislocates the self from place, religion, and tradition, not only making the individual isolated and atomistic, separate from land and community, but also fragments the individual himself, separating emotion from intellect, reason from religion, etc.

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