Introduction

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Last Updated on September 2, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 97

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...

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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.

Dante's Inferno | Hesiod's Works and Days | Lazarus | Marvell's "Coy Mistress" | Michelangelo | Shakespeare's Hamlet | St. John the Baptist

Dante's Inferno

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 169

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

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 141

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.

Lazarus

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332

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 from death. At different stages of the poem, Prufrock embodies the alternate perspectives of Guido and Lazarus. Fundamentally, Prufrock adopts Guido’s attitude that, in the face of death’s inevitable oblivion, one ought to be completely candid. However, Prufrock also entertains the fantasy of heroically mastering death as Lazarus did. Ultimately, Prufrock is unsure of how to face “the eternal Footman.”

Marvell's Coy Mistress

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 172

Eliot’s repetition of the phrase “there will be time” subtly alludes to Andrew Marvell’s 1681 poem “To His Coy Mistress.” Marvell’s bold speaker leverages the swiftness of time’s passage to convince his lover that they should “sport while [they] may.” “Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball,” he commands, “And tear our pleasures with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life.”

By contrast, Eliot’s Prufrock is timid and uncertain. He dithers and delays, examining and reexamining his actions and inactions. In a nod to Marvell’s decisiveness, Prufrock wonders whether it would “have been worth while… To have squeezed the universe into a ball/To roll it toward some overwhelming question…” Prufrock’s reframing of Marvell’s “ball” metaphor reveals a great deal about his character. For Prufrock, the ball encompasses the universe, not merely the small world of the lovers. The ball is ultimately a symbol that points to the inconceivability of the world, not to romance or heroism.

Michelangelo

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 139

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) was an artist of the Italian Renaissance. An accomplished poet and architect, Michelangelo was a masterly painter and arguably the greatest sculptor to ever live. In Eliot’s poem, Prufrock finds himself at a party in a cosmopolitan parlor, where “the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” The reasons for the allusion are several:

  • The reference to fine art sets the scene, establishing a cultured milieu. 
  • The allusion serves as an assessment of the modern age. In critical essays, Eliot described his vision of Western culture being in a state of centuries-long decline. 
  • The allusion to Michelangelo, a towering figure from the High Renaissance, puts Prufrock’s modern world to shame. 
  • Finally, Michelangelo’s multivalent genius makes him the embodiment of the heroic artist, a figure who puts Prufrock—and perhaps the young Eliot—to shame. 

Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

As the poem approaches its conclusion, Prufrock makes a bold allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet, declaring:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two. 

This is an anti-allusion, one which reaches toward a cultural touchstone, only to veer and select the unnamed lackey standing to Hamlet’s side. Prufrock’s self-caricature as “an attendant lord” captures much of his personality and does so in ways that Prufrock himself can articulate: “Deferential, glad to be of use,/Politic, cautious, and meticulous;/Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse.” Ultimately, it is Prufrock’s supreme self-consciousness that shines through more than any other quality. He is an ironist in the sense that he can view himself from a great distance, as though he were sitting in the audience of a Shakespeare play while simultaneously flitting about on the stage, “swelling a progress, starting a scene or two.”

The phrase “nor was meant to be” reveals another important dimension to the allusion. In the play’s most famous soliloquy, Hamlet asks, “To be or not to be: that is the question.” Prufrock’s assertion, then, bears two meanings: he was not meant to be Prince Hamlet; and, taking up Hamlet’s ontological question, he was in the broadest sense not “meant to be” at all. 

St. John the Baptist

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247

Late in the poem, Prufrock compares himself to John the Baptist, an important biblical figure who baptized Jesus Christ. John is beheaded at the request of Salome, King Herod’s daughter. Prufrock says, “I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter.” In the biblical story, John’s head is brought in on a platter as a trophy for Salome. The parenthetical remark in the middle of Prufrock’s comparison signals the self-conscious irony involved in his comparing himself to a Christian prophet. Later, he admits “I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter.” The primary function of the allusion is to dramatize this point: whereas John the Baptist was concerned with great, historical matters, Prufrock is concerned with trivialities such as his own hair loss. And the decline of religious faith in Prufrock’s era may be part of what prevents him from grappling with such great matters or embodying the piety of John.

Another important aspect of the John the Baptist story is that he is killed at the insistence of two women. Impressed with Salome’s dancing, Herod offers to grant her anything she wants, and her mother suggests that she ask for John’s head. Prufrock may feel that the women who don’t take any interest in him are partly responsible for the feebleness of his character. The image of his head's being displayed as a trophy on a platter resonates with Prufrock’s paralyzing self-consciousness.

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