"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" T. S. Eliot
(Full name Thomas Stearns Eliot; also wrote under the pseudonyms Charles Augustus Conybeare; Charles James Grimble, Reverend; Gus Krutzch; Muriel A. Schwartz; J. A. D. Spence; Helen B. Trundlett) American-born English poet, critic, essayist, dramatist, and editor.
The following entry presents criticism on Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915). See also The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Poetry Criticism, T. S. Eliot Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is considered one of Eliot's finest and most important works. With the help of Ezra Pound, the poem was accepted for publication in Poetry in 1915—four years, it is believed, after Eliot (1888–1965) completed it. Through this poem Eliot established himself as a modern voice in literature, creating profoundly innovative, erudite poetry which mixes classical references with industrial twentieth-century images. It is the first work among many which would earn him a place as one of the most important and revolutionary poets of the twentieth century.
Plot and Major Characters
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a lyrical, dramatic monologue of a middle-class male persona who inhabits a physically and spiritually bleak environment. The title of the poem is misleading since it is neither a love poem nor a song in the classical sense. Approximately 130 lines long, it follows the ramblings of J. Alfred Prufrock, the would-be suitor of an unnamed and nebulously developed woman. While Eliot provides little description of Prufrock's person, he does reveal a great deal about Prufrock's personality and state of mind.
Major ThemesPrufrock is full of self-doubts, with a pessimistic outlook on his future, as well as the future of society and the world. This pessimistic view renders him unable to declare his love to the unnamed woman. He describes himself as "almost ridiculous," "almost … the Fool." Although aware of the possibility of personal fulfillment, Prufrock is afraid to act, unable to claim for himself a more meaningful existence. The poem also contains numerous biting images of the industrial land-scape with its insidious "yellow fog," "narrow streets," "lonely men in shirt-sleeves," and "soot that falls from chimneys." "Prufrock" is also replete with classical references to such literary and historical figures as John the Baptist, Lazarus, and Hamlet and to the literary works of Hesiod, Andrew Marvell, Dante, and Jules Laforgue.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has sparked tremendous interest and dissension among literary scholars. It is considered by many to be one of the principal poems of this century, and is listed with The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943) as Eliot's best work. Often analyzed by line, incident or reference, the poem continues to confound scholars. Eliot pioneered an innovative and often fragmentary style centered upon modernity and the use of startling metaphors; Louis Untermeyer calls it "sensitive to the pitch of concealment." Critics such as Robert M. Seiller, Elizabeth Drew, George Williamson, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren all argue that Prufrock never articulates a question: he is too overwhelmed by modernity and the state of his existence to formulate it. J. Peter Dyson contends that Eliot utilizes a literary reference to Hamlet in which to indirectly frame Prufrock's question. In a separate but related inquiry, Bruce Hayman questions whether Prufrock is proposing marriage or making a sexual proposition to the woman in the poem. Critics agree that in the end Prufrock is too overwhelmed by the bleakness of his own life and his view of the urban landscape to take any action, so paralyzed is he with fear and uncertainty. Scholars have focused a great deal of energy on unraveling the meaning of the literary references with which Eliot peppers the poem. There is disagreement over the allusions to John the Baptist and Lazarus, and argument over which Hamlet reference he employs. Several scholars have marked Dostoevsky's influence on Eliot, although Eliot himself pointed out that Crime and Punishment was not available to him when he wrote this poem. Critics list among Eliot's influences Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, and Laforgue.