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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Why is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" a love song?

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," while not adhering to the traditional idea of a love song, still qualifies as one because it describes the longing of the speaker for his beloved.

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"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is certainly no traditional love song, but that is why the poem is so unique. It is a love song as only its titular speaker could create: neurotic, awkward, and filled with uncertainty. This subversive intent is illustrated in the first three lines of the poem proper:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

A normal love poem would make the night seem beautiful. Prufrock is instead uneasy and so evokes uncomfortable imagery to make his point.

A traditional love song features a lover or would-be lover speaking of or to their beloved. They might describe how lovely the object of their affection is, their romantic longings, their erotic desires, and their hopes for the future. They might compare their love to an endless ocean or some other beautiful metaphor. Think of Robert Burns's love poem "A Red, Red Rose," in which the speaker professes a love so powerful that it will last until the seas go dry and the sun melts the rocks.

Prufrock does none of this. The reader never knows who the beloved is or even what they might be like. Instead, Prufrock gives the reader (and presumably, his beloved) a detailed catalog of his own deficiencies: his balding head, his simple attire, his routine life, his self-loathing, and his neurotic personality. He longs to ask this beloved an "overwhelming question," which might refer to a marriage proposal, a sexual proposition, or even just something as simple as a declaration of love, but he is too terrified of rejection to try. He imagines his beloved taking on an attitude of indifference (adjusting a pillow or shawl) and telling him, "That is not what I meant at all," rejecting him entirely.

Prufrock's hesitation and fear make him a subversion of the usual love poem speaker. He is clearly in erotic thrall of his beloved (observing the fine hair on women's arms and "perfume from a dress") and yearns to be the more assertive romantic hero of fiction. He longs to "force the moment to its crisis" during tea, implying he wants to move to the next stage of his romantic relationship but feels powerless to do so in the face of daily routine and his own insecurity. His comparison of himself to Polonius from Hamlet, as opposed to Hamlet himself, shows how minimally he regards his appeal. He can only imagine himself as a minor character in the grand drama of his own life, doomed to passivity, especially in the realm of love.

Unlike the Burns love poem, "Prufrock" does not end with the speaker claiming his love will last until the end of time. Instead, it ends with the image of Prufrock and his beloved drowning as they hear the voices of mermaids singing. Rather than evoking eternal love, Prufrock ends his love song with the would-be lovers dying...

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in the sea, a conclusion consistent with the pessimistic tone of the poem as a whole.

So while "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is not a traditional love song, it certainly is a love song, only spoken from the perspective of an insecure, sexually frustrated man.

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In a typical love song, the singer might tell their loved one just how much they care, that they cannot live without the other person, or that their life will not be complete without that other person's love in return. However, Prufrock's love song does not feel particularly love-songlike at all. He never says how much he loves this woman with whom he attends the party and never states that he cannot live without her. Instead, he considers asking her an "overwhelming question" -- possibly if she loves him too, or even if she will agree to marry him -- but he never actually asks it because he is too afraid of potential rejection. The typical singer of a love song makes themselves vulnerable as they confess their feelings, but Prufrock simply cannot bring himself to do the same. Therefore, the title of the poem is ironic: he does not have the courage to sing a real love song, and this is the best he can muster.

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“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is, perhaps, not a traditional love song—Prufrock’s longing runs throughout the poem but is neatly concealed, his despair projected elsewhere. The beginning of the poem begins in an expected manner:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

And yet the lovely beginning is instantly put to rest by the following comparison: “Like a patient etherised upon a table.” Instantly the poem is dampened and expectations subverted. The high-flown language of the opening succumbs to the dreariness of reality, and so too does the reader’s expectations of what is to come. One begins to suspect an unrequited love.

Prufrock takes the unknown woman on a tour of the lonely parts of his city—the red-light district with its brothels and “sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells;” the narrow back-alleys with their “lonely men.” In doing so, he appears to long to let go of his loneliness by sharing it; but his companion exists only in his mind’s eye, and so he finds himself in the gathering with the women who “come and go” once more.

His longing transmutes into despair for the majority of the poem. Prufrock hesitates, revises, loathes, fears; he worries that the women at the party will force him “sprawling on a pin” with their questions and gossip. Reality is not a place in which Prufrock is entirely comfortable, and so he retreats to the depths of his imagination.

Yet even there he denigrates himself, unable to believe that the woman would return his affections; he imagines her insouciantly adjusting a pillow or a shawl as she explains,

That is not what I meant at all.

That is not it, at all.

While love songs might include an element of hesitation, Prufrock’s seems rather excessive: “In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Triumph is an alien concept to him: the poem provides no vicarious success, ending instead with Prufrock “drowning” as he is woken from his dreams by human voices. It is an important distinction, at this point, to recognize that this is the love song of Prufrock, and not just a typical love song. His hesitating sort of love runs throughout the poem, linking together the disparate elements. 

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To what extent is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" a love song?

This is a very pertinent question to ask about this strange "love song." Surely, out of all of the love songs that have ever been composed, this must be one of the most peculiar, as signified by one of the first images included in the third line:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table.

This is hardly the most romantic image to start off your "love song"! As we read on, we see that J. Alfred Prufrock is a man who definitely has feelings but he can only entertain them in the privacy of his own mind. Although his thoughts and emotions are clearly complex, it is evident that they do nothing to help him overcome his biggest barrier, which is fear of participation in the world and commitment or engagement. Thus it is that the song actually shows how he as a character has to take refuge in heroic fantasy, as he compares himself to a variety of heroes. We are left with a haunting image of a man who is unable to commit, who measures out his life "in coffee spoons" and faces a lonely future burdened by the fear of what others think about him:

I grow old... I grow old...

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shal I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

Such questions and preoccupations are what fills J. Alfred Prufrock's day. What is unique about this love song is that it actually reveals far more about the speaker than his "love" and focuses more on his hang-ups and worries.

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