The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot - Essay

T. S. Eliot


(Poetry Criticism)

“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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Prufrock and Other Observations 1917

Poems 1919

Ara Vos Prec. 1920

The Waste Land 1922

Poems, 1909-1925 1925

Journey of the Magi 1927

A Song for Simeon 1928

Animula 1929

Ash-Wednesday 1930

Marina 1930

Triumphal March 1931

Two Poems 1935

Words for Music 1935

Collected Poems, 1909-1935 1936

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats 1939

East Coker 1940

The Waste Land, and Other Poems 1940

Burnt Norton 1941

The Dry Salvages 1941

Little Gidding 1942

Four Quartets 1943

A Practical Possum 1947

Selected Poems 1948

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees 1956

Collected Poems, 1909-1962 1963

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound [edited by Valerie Eliot] 1971

Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry (lecture) 1917

The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (essays) 1920

Homage to John Dryden: Essays on Poetry of the Seventeenth Century (essays) 1924

Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca (lecture) 1927

For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (essays) 1928

Dante (criticism) 1929

Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (selected essays) 1932

Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama (drama) 1932

The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry (criticism) 1933

After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (lecture) 1934

Elizabethan Essays (essays) 1934

The Rock: A Pageant Play (drama) 1934

Murder in the Cathedral (drama) 1935

Essays Ancient and Modern (essays) 1936

The Family Reunion (drama) 1939

The Music of Poetry (lecture) 1942

What Is a Classic? (lecture) 1945

Milton (lecture) 1947

On Poetry (lecture) 1947

From Poe to Valèry (lecture) 1948

Notes towards the Definition of Culture (nonfiction) 1948

The Aims of Poetic Drama (lecture) 1949

The Cocktail Party (drama); 1950

Poetry and Drama (lecture) 1951

The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (poetry and drama) 1952

Selected Prose [edited by John Hayward] (nonfiction) 1953

Murder in the Cathedral [film revision of Eliot's drama, with George Hoellening] 1952

The Three Voices of Poetry (lecture) 1953

The Confidential Clerk (drama) 1954

The Frontiers of Criticism (lecture) 1956

On Poetry and Poets (essays and criticism) 1957

The Elder Statesman (drama) 1959

Collected Plays (drama) 1962

To Criticize the Critic, and Other Writings (essays and criticism) 1965

The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (poetry and drama) 1969

Ezra Pound (essay date 1917)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prufrock and Other Observations,” in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. 10, 1917, pp. 264-71.

[In the following essay, Pound reviews “Prufrock and Other Observations,” finding in it some of the best poetry of the time.]

Il n'y a de livres que ceux où un écrivain s'est raconté lui-même en racontant les moeurs de ses contemporains—leurs rêves, leurs vanités, leurs amours, et leurs folies.

—Remy de Gourmont

De Gourmont uses this sentence in writing of the incontestable superiority of Madame Bovary, L'Éducation Sentimentale and Bouvard et Pécuchet to...

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John C. Pope (essay date 1945)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prufrock and Raskolnikov,” in American Literature, Vol. 17, No. 3, November, 1945, pp. 213-230.

[In the following essay, Pope traces similarities between Prufrock and Raskolnikov, the brooding hero of Dostoevski's novel Crime and Punishment, finding in the character Prufrock a similar existential darkness.]

It is now over thirty years since J. Alfred Prufrock entered the literary world. He has become so familiar a figure that he can travel without credentials. Nobody asks where he came from. Yet it is misleading to set him down as one of Eliot's amusing and innocuous “observations,” the abject little man hiding a sensitive soul behind the brassy...

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John C. Pope (essay date 1947)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Notes and Queries,” in American Literature, Vol.18, No. 4, January, 1947, pp. 319-21.

[In the following essay, Pope reprints and comments on a letter from Eliot explaining some of his sources for “Prufrock” and its connection to Crime and Punishment.]

Mr. T. S. Eliot has supplied me with some important corrections for my article, “Prufrock and Raskolnikov,” which appeared in American Literature, XVII, 213-230 (November, 1945). I was wrong in attributing the resemblances between “Prufrock” and Crime and Punishment to Mrs. Garnett's translation, and in supposing as a consequence that the poem had been composed (I rashly said...

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George Williamson (essay date 1955)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in A Reader's Guide to T.S. Eliot: A Poem-By-Poem Analysis, Thames and Hudson, 1955, pp. 57-70.

[In the following essay, Williamson provides a close analysis of “Prufrock.”]

The mixture of levity and seriousness immediately confronts the reader in the title poem of Prufrock and OtherObservations. For he transposes his epigraph from the serious context of Dante's Inferno to the lighter context of Prufrock's love song. The epigraph is never to be ignored in Eliot for while it is not an essential part of the poem, it conveys hints of the significance or even genesis of the poem. Together with the title,...

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Hugh Kenner (essay date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prufrock of St. Louis,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XXXI, No.1, Spring, 1957, pp. 24-30.

[In the following essay, Kenner suggests possible influences for “Prufrock,” and analyzes Eliot's prosody.]

The name of Prufrock-Littau, furniture wholesalers, appeared in advertisements in St. Louis, Missouri, in the first decade of the present century; in 1911 a young Missourian's whimsical feline humor prefixed the name of Prufrock to what has become the best-known English poem since the Rubaiyat. The savor of that act had faded from the memory of the sexagenarian London man of letters who wrote to a mid-century enquirer that his appropriation of the...

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John Berryman (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prufrock's Dilemma,” in The Freedom of the Poet, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1960, pp. 270-78.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1960, Berryman describes “Prufrock” as ushering in the era of modern poetry with its ability to subvert and invert the reader's expectations.]

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...

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Frederick W. Locke (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dante and T. S. Eliot's Prufrock,” in Modern Language Notes, The John Hopkins Press, Vol. 78, 1963, pp. 51-9.

[In the following essay, Locke discusses Eliot's use of an epigraph from Dante in “Prufrock.”]

In the course of this essay I shall have occasion to refer to F. O. Matthiessen's work The Achievement of T. S. Eliot in several contexts. I would like to begin with a quotation from that book: “Eliot's conceits sometimes have the look of being too studied; that is to say, of coming into existence not because the poet's mind has actually felt keenly an unexpected similarity between unlikes, but as though he too consciously set out to shock...

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John Halverson (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prufrock, Freud, and Others,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 75, Autumn, 1968, pp. 571-88.

[In the following essay, Halverson provides a psychoanalytic reading of the sexual elements in “Prufrock.”]

It is hardly possible to find any criticism of Eliot's “Prufrock” that does not assert an important strain of sexuality in the poem. There is nearly uniform agreement that in the poem Prufrock wants to propose to a lady, or at least declare his passion, but is finally too timid to do so. “J. Alfred Prufrock is unable to make love to women of his own class and kind because of shyness, self-consciousness, and fear of rejection,” says Delmore Schwartz. And...

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Donald R. Fryxell (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Understanding ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,” in Robert Frost's Chicken Feathers and Other Lectures, edited by Arthur R. Husboe, The Augustana College Press, No. 1, November, 1969, pp. 33-44.

[In the following essay, Fryxell discusses major themes in “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...

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Leon Waldoff (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prufrock's Defenses and Our Response,” in American Imago, Vol. 26, Summer, 1969, pp. 182-93.

[In the following essay, Waldoff examines Prufrock's defense mechanisms of passivity and self-criticism.]

In The Dynamics of Literary Response (Oxford, 1968), Norman Holland writes: “the literary work acts out a psychological process which we introject. That process is the transformation of a central fantasy toward a central meaning” (p. 101). The key term is “introject.” With it Holland shifts our attention from the mind of the author and the supposed minds of the characters to the mind of the reader or audience. This shift, similar to the one...

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Elisabeth Schneider (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Prufrock and After: The Theme of Change,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 87, No. 5, October, 1972, pp. 1103-8.

[In the following excerpt, Schneider discusses the role of “Prufrock” in Eliot's transformation from skeptic to religious believer.]

The transformation of T. S. Eliot from skeptic to religious believer was a public event and to the literary world quite a spectacular one. Criticism has been busy with it ever since, following often at considerable length—now and then at considerable distance too—the course of his journey from a view of the Church as Hippopotamus “wrapt in the old miasmal mist” to a...

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Marcia Leveson (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ as a Cubist Poem,” in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1983, pp. 129-39.

[In the following essay, Leveson explains the influence of Cubist art on “Prufrock.”]


The year 1910-1911 in Paris marked the focal point of that extraordinary intellectual and artistic revolution of the beginning of the twentieth century known as Modernism. The unfamiliar sounds and rhythms of Stravinsky's music were heard from the stage where Diaghilev's Ballets Russes were performing the Firebird ballet. Poincaré introduced a fourth dimension to Euclidean mathematics. The...

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Stanley Sultan (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tradition and the Individual Talent in ‘Prufrock’,” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 77-90.

[In the following essay, Sultan argues that “Prufrock”'s success is due in part to its role as a harbinger of the modernist movement.]

“The best known English poem since the Rubaiyat”; it was called in 1959, and probably both was so and is.1 Certainly no other one is more likely to be included in a collection of English poetry of this century; and two generations of teachers have introduced it to secondary-school seniors and college freshmen. Long before 1959 “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had...

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Mihai Spariosu (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Games of Consciousness,” in Auctor Ludens: Essays on Plays in Literature, edited by Gerald Guinness and Andrew Hurley, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 157-69.

[In the following essay, Spariosu examines the “modern crisis of consciousness” in “Prufrock.”]

The arts without intellectual context are vanity.

—T. S. Eliot

In what follows I shall discuss the ways in which Eliot addresses the problematic of consciousness in “Prufrock,” a problematic which has preoccupied thinkers at least since St. Augustine, but which has resurfaced with renewed vigor in our age;...

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Joseph Bentley (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Action and the Absence of Speech in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,” in Yeats Eliot Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 145-8.

[In the following essay, Bentley argues that Prufrock's failures are the result of his inability to articulate his needs.]

Late in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the demoralized persona sums himself up with the poignant line. “And in short, I was afraid.” Commentators on the poem usually assume that he is afraid of women, afraid of people, afraid of life itself. He is thus regarded as a pitiful neurotic and a failed dandy. I do not wish to dispute these commentaries. As far as they go they are correct...

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Donald J. Childs (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Knowledge and Experience in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,” in ELH, Vol. 55, Fall, 1988, pp. 685-99.

[In the following essay, Childs discusses the influence of the philosophy of F. H. Bradley on Eliot and “Prufrock.”]

But what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning—or without forgetting, merely changing.

—T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Although scholars and critics...

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Stanley Sultan (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Function of ‘Prufrock’ for Criticism,” in T. S. Eliot Annual, Vol. 1, edited by Shyamal Bagchee, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1990, pp.155-96.

[In the following essay, Sultan examines “Prufrock”'s place in modern literary criticism.]

This is the second of two unforeseen essays on the most familiar English poem of the twentieth century. My original intention was simply to write a modest (and tractable) piece pointing to certain important qualities of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ I did not find mentioned in the extensive published criticism. It was frustrated by a gradual awareness of the extraordinary historical relationship Eliot's...

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Carlos Campo (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Identifying the ‘Lazarus’ in Eliot's ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’” in English Language Notes, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 66-70.

[In the following essay, Campo discusses the sources for “Prufrock”'s Lazarus imagery.]

While Helen Gardner has warned that T. S. Eliot's poetry features “a deep ambiguity which is not the critic's business to remove,”1 determining which Lazarus Eliot is referring to in his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” should lead to a fuller appreciation of the poem, not a diminution of Eliot's work. The reference to Lazarus appears in line 94 of the poem; the stanza in which it...

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Bruce Hayman (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “How Old is Prufrock? Does He Want to Get Married?,” in College Language Association Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 59-68.

[In the following essay, Hayman contends that the meaning of “Prufrock” depends on Prufrock's age and intentions.]

Before I try to answer the two questions which entitle this essay, I would like to pose a third question and try to answer it: what difference does it make? What difference does it make whether Prufrock is young or middle-aged, or whether he wants to get married or not? For a number of reasons, I think that it makes a significant difference.

First, it is a question of reading T. S....

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Eric P. Levy (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Romance of Self Doubt,” in Yeats-Eliot Review, Vol. 13, No. 1-2, Summer, 1994, pp. 1-6.

[In the following essay, Levy views “Prufrock” as an examination of individual insecurities.]

As Donald Childs has pointed out, the central concern of most interpretations of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has been “the notorious distinction between the ‘you and I’” invoked at the beginning of the poem:1 “let us go then, you and I. …”2 While some critics argue that the “you” is external and refers to an anonymous companion’3 or the author,4 or even the reader,5 more approach the...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Donoghue, Dennis. “Beginning.” Southern Review 34, No. 3 (Summer 1998): 532-49.

Personal and critical essay recounting the author's first reading of “Prufrock.”

Gwynn, Frederick L. “Faulkner's Prufrock—And Other Observations.” Journal of English and German Philology 52 (January 1953): 63-70.

Examines the influence of Eliot's work on William Faulkner.

Harmon, William. “T. S. Eliot's Raids on the Inarticulate.” PMLA 91, No. 3 (May 1976): 450-59.

Discusses the “negative aspects of speechlessness” in Eliot's poetry.


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