“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” T. S. Eliot
The following entry presents criticism on Eliot's poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” See also The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Criticism (Volume 13), T. S. Eliot Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6.
Widely acclaimed as one of the world's greatest modern poets, Eliot has maintained an influence on literature some critics claim is unequaled by any other twentieth-century writer. While Eliot often is associated with the Symbolist-metaphysical tradition, his bold experiments with form, phrasing, and tone helped usher in the Modernist period in American and English letters. In fact, his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in its entirety for the first time in Eliot's first volume of poetry in 1917, often is credited by critics as being the first Modernist poem. Written as a dramatic monologue, “Prufrock” explores through the voice of its middle-class male persona a bleak and superficial world bereft of cultural depth and the fulfillment of personal relationships.
Several themes permeate “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that would later come to characterize both Modernist literature specifically and twentieth-century literature in general: particularly alienation and loneliness, the disintegration of culture in bourgeois society, and the fear of aging and mortality. Critics are divided as to Prufrock's main concern in the poem; some believe he is anxious about proposing marriage to a woman while others argue that he is troubled by the prospect of having his sexual advances turned down. Regardless, however, Prufrock's predicament is shaped by his own paralyzing fear of rejection and his depressed perception of the world as desolate and decaying. Much critical attention has been paid to the epigraph with which Eliot's poem begins. Taken from Dante's Divine Comedy, it reads, “If I thought my answer were to one who could ever return to the world, this flame would move no more; but since no one has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer you.” In Dante's work the lines are spoken by a lost soul; in “Prufrock” they are seen as representative of Prufrock's inability to ask, much less accept the answer to, his important question, and his dread that the woman to whom he asks the question would respond with, “‘That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all.’” Another of Eliot's—and Prufrock's—concerns in the poem is the matter of the shallow pretense of cultural refinement and understanding that he believes he witnesses around him. This is particularly evident in the repeated lines “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” and the fact that Prufrock is throughout the poem apprehensive about taking part in the middle-class tradition of “the taking of a toast and tea.” This is contrasted in the poem with the dingy world of “one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oystershells” through which Prufrock moves. Perhaps most important, though, is Prufrock's preoccupation with aging and death that recurs throughout the poem. He repeatedly expresses worry about what others will think of his aging body: “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair— / [They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’] / My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin— / [They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’]” He also is concerned about own ability to age with dignity: “I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. / Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?” Ultimately, Prufrock is aware of the absurdity of existence despite his constant fears. He admits, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” and seems content with his role in life as an “attendant lord, one that will / To swell a progress, start a scene or two,” in short, to play a supporting role to the more dynamic men of the world, and even to be “At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.” With his reference to the Shakespearean Fool, however, Prufrock ironically suggests that, while he is not to be considered a heroic figure, he nonetheless possesses some wisdom and deserves respect. In the end, Prufrock fails to ask his question of the woman. Instead, he falls into a fantasy of mermaids that ends with imagery of drowning, suggesting that Prufrock has not solved any of his problems in his monologue but has rather become overwhelmed and incapacitated by his fears and insecurities as well as by his perception of the universe he inhabits as menacing and cruel.
Because Prufrock's specific intent is unspoken, critics have read the poem on many different levels. For example, critics who interpret Prufrock's dilemma as revolving around whether or not he should propose marriage to a woman tend to take Eliot's tone and subject matter seriously and at face value. Those who read the poem on a more sexual level tend to find humor and irony in Prufrock's self-examination, particularly in such lines as “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” where Prufrock seems to wonder if he will have the energy to perform sexually after tea-time. M. L. Rosenthal has commented that, read in this way, “Prufrock” evidences “a strongly adolescent flavor,” asserting that the poem “positively sweats panic at the challenge of adult sexuality and of living up to one's ideal of what it is to be manly in any sort of heroic model.” Ann P. Brady has written that Eliot was aware of this, maintaining that the poem reflects Prufrock back “from the world in which he moves” in a “clinically hard” way, and that this contrast with romantic aspirations—the “juxtaposition of lyricism with the tone of satire”— creates the Modernist tension.