Any analysis of the work of T.S. Eliot demands a careful look at his use of literary forms and devices. Throughout his career, Eliot sought to develop new modes of poetic expression, new ways of combining words, and new methods of conveying narrative, character, and theme. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot lays the formal groundwork for much of his later poetry.
A dramatic monologue is a poetic character study written from a first-person perspective. The speaker describes a series of events and scenes, inadvertently expressing aspects of his psychology. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock describes the modern urban world he inhabits. In the process, readers encounter his personality and visit his inner world.
The poem’s form and content mirror Prufrock’s patterns of thought and feeling. Just like Prufrock himself, the poem is imaginative, erudite, scattered, and detached. As Prufrock navigates the streets and parlors of London, he contends with insistent inner questions, both named (“So how should I presume?”) and unnamed (“an overwhelming question”). Ultimately, readers understand that Prufrock is brilliant, shy, and troubled.
As with the rhyme scheme of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the poem’s meter is carefully constructed but inconsistent. The poem’s guiding meters are pentameter, the five-beat line standard in English-language verse, and hexameter, the six-beat line standard in epic Greek poetry. The prominent use of hexameter is somewhat ironic, given that Eliot’s titular character is decidedly less gallant than the heroes of the Greek epic tradition.
The poem never settles long on a single meter, however. Throughout the poem, often within a given stanza, the lines shorten and lengthen. The poem includes lines of every metrical length from monometer, one beat per line, to nonameter, nine beats per line. The metrical flexibility allows the poem to capture Prufrock’s ever-shifting flow of thought, which quickens and slows, expands and contracts.
One of the poem’s central thematic concerns is the flow of time. Time is a continual source of perplexion for Prufrock, who laments his looming mortality and who accordingly consoles himself by repeating the refrain “there will be time.” The poem’s temporal embodiment through meter mirrors Prufrock’s predicament. Like Prufrock, the poem itself does not know what to do with time, coursing forward quickly before slowing to a lugubrious crawl, then quickening and slowing...
(The entire section is 613 words.)