Eliot spent his early adulthood studying philosophy and literature at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford. He was an intellectual and an unapologetic elitist, and his poetry contains abundant allusions, many of them obscure. While “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” can reward readers who don’t examine every reference, certain allusions are central to understanding the poem. Each allusion is ultimately a tool Prufrock uses in his struggle to define his own identity and his place in the world.
Eliot’s first allusion arrives before the first line of the poem. It is an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. Eliot includes lines 61–66 of Canto XXVII in the original Italian. The lines are spoken by Guido da Montefeltro, a politician eternally damned for his fraudulence, who agrees to tell Dante his sordid story because he believes that Dante will never return to earth to tell it. Translated, his lines are as follows:
“If I believed that my reply were made
To one who to the world would ever return,
This flame would stay without another quiver.
But if I heed the truth that I have heard,
That none return alive from this abyss,
Fearless of infamy I answer you.”
Like Montefeltro, J. Alfred Prufrock risks self-disclosure in his dramatic monologue. His own account of his thoughts and actions, which reveal his cowardice, shame, and uncertainty, form an unflattering portrait. Nonetheless, Prufrock chooses to speak, perhaps sensing that there is no superordinate reality where his name can be meaningfully marred.
Hesiod's Works and Days
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…
These lines allude to Works and Days, a poem written by the Greek poet Hesiod around 700 BCE. Works and Days is a practical and moral guide that instructs the poet’s wayward brother in the rugged art of the farmer’s life. Eliot’s allusion to Hesiod combines the commonplace with the metaphysical. One would expect “the works and days of hands” to be food—the product of agriculture—but instead the hands “lift and drop a question on your plate.” Thus in this scene arises one of the central tensions of the poem: the “overwhelming question” tugging on Prufrock’s psyche, experienced against the backdrop of the workaday world of Hesiod’s poem.
Prufrock envisions himself as “Lazarus, come from the dead, / come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.” In the Gospel of John in the New Testament, Lazarus is a man who dies of an illness and whom Jesus Christ brings back to life. Thus, Lazarus is a solitary figure with the privileged position of having conquered death. Like Lazarus, the isolated Prufrock feels that he may possess a wisdom of his own, but he cannot find the words to express it. As he declares in the next stanza, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!”
Given his pressing fear of death, Prufrock’s reference to Lazarus is logical. Lazarus defeats death, making him a heroic figure—or at least a cause for hope—to Prufrock. Prufrock relishes his momentary reverie as Lazarus, rising above the clutches of death and claiming, “‘I shall tell you all.’” However, his reverie crashes against reality when the woman to whom he imagines “‘tell[ing…] all’” replies, “‘That is not what I meant at all.’” Ultimately, Prufrock’s imagining that he is Lazarus is a grandiose delusion that allows him to dream of heroism and immortality.
The allusion to Lazarus bears an important relation to the poem’s epigraph, itself an allusion to Dante’s Inferno . In the text of the epigraph, the hell-bound Guido da Montefeltro agrees to divulge his story to Dante in the knowledge that none in hell have ever returned to the mortal world. Set against Guido’s words, the story of Lazarus represents a contrary case, for he is the rare man who did return...
(The entire section is 1,529 words.)