The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

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Introduction

T.S. Eliot brought an intense visual imagination to bear in his poetry, and so his use of symbols and motifs is worth careful consideration. Though the images in “Prufrock” may appear to serve as scene-setting or whimsical diversions, many are suggestive of larger themes and patterns. In a poem as long as “Prufrock,” the tracking of symbols across the piece deepens our sense of the poem’s structure and meaning.

Baldness | Smoke | Teatime

Baldness

The chief symbol for J. Alfred Prufrock’s advancing age is the “bald spot in the middle of [his] hair.” The evidence of his aging offers him frequent reminders of his looming mortality, in turn compounding his spiritual anxieties. After all, his “bald spot” is the preliminary work of the “eternal Footman” of death, and such reflections reliably guide Prufrock back to his spiritual crisis. The specter of mortality looms largest in the poem’s final lines, which begin as Prufrock chants “I grow old… I grow old…” and wonders, “Shall I part my hair behind?” 

Prufrock’s baldness also bears social significance. One of the poem’s narrative threads follows Prufrock’s encounters with women, who often snub, censure, and baffle him. Prufrock worries about his physical presentation, expressed in speculative asides in the voices of women who “will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’”

Smoke

In the poem’s third stanza, a yellow smoke or fog appears, figured as an animal with a muzzle (perhaps a cat) skulking around in the London evening. The clearest resonance of the symbol is its color, which connotes the cowardice or timidity which Prufrock (and, in Eliot’s view, his contemporary society) suffers from. Thus the smoke is a projected symbol of Prufrock’s own sensibility: he sees himself as a cowardly animal lingering in the streets. It seems the cat has some desire to get indoors—it rubs its back and muzzle upon the windowpanes—and yet it doesn’t seem to make any effort to act on that desire. 

In British literature, urban smog is often a symbol of industrialization. Charles Dickens, amongst others, described the smog that literally blackened the buildings of many British cities. Eliot’s yellow smoke is not...

(The entire section is 549 words.)