Essays and Criticism
Comic Elements in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
It is a mistake to approach T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with the same seriousness as for The Waste Land. To enjoy this poem and get the most out of the verse, readers should have a wry sense of humor. Prufrock is an anxiety-filled, insecure, middle-aged bachelor who fears that his expressions of love will be rebuffed. First published in Poetry in 1915, and then collected in Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, Eliot used the traditional form of the dramatic monologue for the speaker, Prufrock, to express his romantic dilemma. The dramatic monologue is generally associated with nineteenth-century poets such as Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and is characterized by the voice of a single speaker who reveals something personal to the reader.
The memorable title of this poem may have been derived from an advertisement in Eliot's hometown. In The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, Hugh Kenner revealed that the "name of Prufrock-Littau, furniture wholesalers, appeared in advertisements in St. Louis, Missouri" at the beginning of this century. Although Eliot claimed that any approbation of the "now-famous German surname must have been 'quite unconscious,'" Kenner suggested that this is an early example of the "rich mischief" of Eliot's mind. By adding "J. Alfred" to the name, Eliot combines a sense of mysterious dignity to the ridiculousness of "Prufrock." Compound this with the title's claim that the work is a love song, and readers are on their way to appreciate the dry humor underlying this very famous work.
The poem opens with an epigram from Dante's Inferno in which Guido de Montefeltro, who is consumed in flames as punishment for giving false counsel, confesses his shame because he believes that it cannot be reported back on earth. In context, this excerpt is essentially Prufrock's assurance that he can confide in his reader without fear of shame for what he is about to disclose. And so the poem opens: "Let us go then, you and I," which is to say, "come along and hear my story because I can trust you." The speaker then entreats his reader to join him on an evening stroll, presumably through Boston (where there are "sawdust restaurants with oyster shells"), but not to ask "What is it?" just yet. Instead of just laying bare his quandary, the "overwhelming question," Prufrock says, "Let us go and make our visit"; he takes his reader along on a social call to reveal his inadequacies. As the poem progresses, however, it becomes apparent that the "you-and-I" format begins to collapse and Prufrock is merely talking to himself.
Prufrock first travels through the grunge of the city, filled with yellow fog and smoke (not unlike the industrial waste of Eliot's native St. Louis). Eliot imbues the scene with catlike characteristics, giving the evening a somewhat seductive feline tone: "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes"; "Licked its tongue"; "Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap" "Curled once about the house, and fell asleep." Prufrock next enters into a world of butlers and tea. Here, in an arena of vacuous social chatter, "the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo." This is the world of writer Henry James, in which proper etiquette and social grace must prevail. By opening the fourth stanza with "And indeed there will be time," Eliot echoes the memorable line "Had we but world enough and time," from Andrew Marvell's seduction poem, "To His Coy Mistress." Ironically, Prufrock does not feel compelled to seize the day. There is plenty of time for indecision as Prufrock pictures his mind racing through "a hundred visions and revisions" in the short span of time between the serving and "the taking of a toast and tea."
Prufrock repeats his conviction that "indeed there will be time" to wonder "'Do I dare?' and 'Do I dare?'"—that is, first, does he dare to make a declaration of love, and, if not, does he then dare to flee down the stairs after he rang the doorbell, knowing that the subject of his affections may spot the "bald spot in the middle" of his hair. Prufrock makes a desperate attempt to attire himself accordingly and not to overdo it with his "necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin." Yet, in his mind, Prufrock envisions his contemporaries commenting on his deteriorating appearance, imagining the remarks, "How his hair is growing thin!" and "But how his arms and legs are thin!" Balding and scrawny, the self-deprecating Prufrock again wonders, "Do I dare / disturb the universe?" In other words, does he dare to shake up the stasis...
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Understanding "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
T.S. Eliot is one of the best known poets in the twentieth century. And yet, when "The Waste Land," which is Eliot's longest, his most difficult, and certainly his most controversial poem, was first published in the year 1922, T.S. Eliot was comparatively unknown, despite a volume of poetry he had written entitled Prufrock and Other Observations, which appeared in 1917, and which contained, among other poems, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."...
Eliot's poems certainly are complex poems; they're never simple ones, and Eliot himself justified their complexity by arguing that the poet, who is to serve as the interpreter and critic of a complex age, must write complex poetry; and certainly, I think, we would all agree that our age is a complex age. Eliot's constant use of allusions in his poems is based upon his theory that the poet of today should write as if all the poets of the past were looking over his shoulder. The modern poet, then, must be conscious of the tradition which he has inherited, and he must carry on that tradition himself. "The Waste Land" is a cluttered mass of altered quotations: Eliot alters these quotations deliberately in order to suggest the loss of the vitality of the traditions of the past: poetic, moral, aesthetic, religious, social. It is the debasement of that tradition which has brought about the spiritual and the intellectual sterility of the modern age. And it is this wasteland of the twentieth century, this intellectual, spiritual, moral, aesthetic sterility which is the theme of the poem.
Allusion-jammed, though Eliot's poetry is, and dealing with complex emotions and complex ideas as he does, the language of his poems is still concrete; the images which he uses are fresh; they are striking and never completely decorative. And so, for instance, in the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" the evening is described as being spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. This image is fresh and striking; it is a most unusual kind of image, and the image is also functional: that image describes the passivity of the evening as Prufrock sees it. Of course, everything in the poem is seen through Prufrock's eyes. The image also describes something of the half-dead condition of Prufrock himself, who is helpless, finally, as is a patient who is etherized upon a table. Or take the description of the yellow fog as if it were a cat. That description is a striking, vivid image, describing the slow settling of the fog over the city, and it suggests possibly also Prufrock's renunciation of his decision to disturb his universe of dilettante ladies by bringing a breath of real life to them. "The fog," we are told, "curled once about the house, and fell asleep." And so, too, in the course of the poem, Prufrock allows his decision to fall asleep. The cat image, here, also suggests sex. This is another desire of Prufrock which ends finally in inertia. Prufrock's failure in love is synonomous, you see, with the whole failure of society; his hopeless isolation is synonymous with the isolation of each trimmer from his fellow trimmers in Eliot's "Waste Land."...
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" concerns one of Eliot's Wastelanders. Prufrock is a member of the decadent aristocracy, just as Sweeney, in "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," is representative of Eliot's proletariats in the Prufrock volume of poetry. The various characters that Eliot depicts in this, his first volume of poetry, are almost below the level, really, of animals and human beings. These characters seem to feel no real passions and they have no real thoughts; they are machines without the gas or oil that keeps a machine going. They run on momentum without a genuine spark of life within them. Prufrock himself is something of an exception, but not much of a one.
Prufrock lives in a world in which art and music have become the idle conversation of dilettante women, who are spiritually, sexually, and intellectually dead, who spend their lives in an eternal round of afternoon tea parties, who may talk of art because it is expected that the class to which they belong should know something about it, but for whom the meaning and the vitality of art have long since been drained in the cycle of their teacups. Prufrock is one of this group. Prufrock is a dilettante like "the women who come and go—talking of Michaelangelo." Prufrock, we come to see, is as fastidious about his dress as they are, is...
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To begin with Eliot's title, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," is the second half quite what the first led us to expect? A man named J. Alfred Prufrock could hardly be expected to sing a love song; he sounds too well dressed. His name takes something away from the notion of a love song; the form of the title, that is to say, is reductive. How does he begin singing?
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky ...
That sounds very pretty—lyrical—he does seem, after all, in spite of his name, to be inviting her for an evening; there is a nice rhyme—it sounds like other dim romantic verse. Then comes the third line:...
(The entire section is 1519 words.)