illustration of a woman holding a glass of wine and a man, Prufrock, standing opposite her

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

by T. S. Eliot
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Analysis

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Last Updated on March 2, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

Style and Technique

The action is prefaced by a quotation in Italian from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). In it, a character in Hell agrees to tell his story, assuming that no one will be able to return from Hell and tell it to others. As the poem proper begins, J. Alfred Prufrock and his companion are about to depart for a social event, some sort of tea party or reception, that will feature a great deal of intellectual pretension and inflated talk about art.

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Prufrock tells his companion it is time to go but then lapses into a reverie (which may not be spoken) about the streets they are to pass through, streets that Prufrock finds depressing. His reverie is interrupted by his companion, whose “What is it?” seems to be about his thoughts. Prufrock brushes the the question aside in annoyance, and repeats “Let us go. . . . ” In lines 13 and 14, a kind of chorus interrupts the dialogue, as Prufrock imagines the women in the “room” where they are going. The women are talking, in Prufrock’s mind, about the Renaissance artist Michelangelo.

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The chorus is interrupted by another reverie about the “yellow fog” of the city, which finally curls up like a cat and goes to sleep. Prufrock replays his anxieties, imaged by disembodied faces, hands, and finally questions in the next paragraph (lines 23-34), which is followed by the repeated chorus imagining the destined room with its women and their talk about Michaelangelo. The next four paragraphs (lines 37-69) review Prufrock’s fears of how others will see him—will they notice, despite his proper dress, that he is going bald, that he is “thin?” Will he be able to speak? He has been to gatherings like this before, and although he is somewhat sexually excited as he imagines the women’s bare arms and remembers the smell of perfume, he is not sure he can “presume” to join the conversation, an act that he imagines in overly grandiose terms. He imagines the women will see him as he does not want to be seen, expressing this in an image of an insect pinned to a collector’s board.

The next few paragraphs (lines 70-98) fantasize about what Prufrock might say. He again grandiosely imagines himself as John the Baptist or Lazarus but then lapses into self-denigrating images of frightened little crabs in the ocean, finally admitting that he is “afraid,” that he might be dismissed as having entirely misunderstood the subject of the conversation. In a following paragraph (lines 99-110), he wonders if it would be worth risking such a disaster.

At last, Prufrock admits to himself that he is not an attractive figure, declaring that he is not Hamlet, the hero of William Shakespeare’s tragedy by the same name, but rather a figure like Polonius, a busybody old man who talks entirely too much and is a figure of ridicule. The poem ends with a fantasy of mermaids in the ocean, who might sing, but not to Prufrock.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” struck readers as an astonishingly original poem when it appeared in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine in 1915. Although it belongs to an established genre—the dramatic monologue—the tone, the language, and the character of Prufrock are highly original.

The ironies of the poem begin with a title promising a “love song” from the lips of a person with a decidedly unromantic name. Still, a lover’s name should not be held against him, and the first two lines of the poem do seem to promise a graceful lyric: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky.” In the third line, however, the reader is jolted by an unexpected and decidedly unromantic simile. The evening is spread out “like a patient etherised upon a table.”

After arousing, then abruptly defying, expectations, T. S. Eliot intimates that the “you” of the poem is not Prufrock’s ladylove but a confidante—in effect, the reader—who will accompany him on a visit to some sort of evening party or soiree. The reader is led on a route through a shabby urban neighborhood on a foggy October evening to a place where “women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” Prufrock, who has “an overwhelming question” to ask, is fearful. He suspects that he will not be acceptable. If he starts up the stair to the party and then turns back, “they” will have a perfect view of his balding head. Clearly, Prufrock is a middle-aged bachelor—thin, fussy, and self-conscious. How can he “presume” to ask his question?

Although he shrinks from the inevitable scrutiny of the women in general, his question is for “one” who may refuse to respond favorably to it. The question is, it appears, a marriage proposal, or at least a declaration of love. He agonizes over the possibility of rejection and rehearses all the likely reasons for it. He is an insignificant man who has “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons.” He is timid, ineffectual, and inarticulate, but he is driven by a desperate wish to escape the ranks of the men he has seen leaning out of windows along his route to the party.

Prufrock briefly fancies himself a heroic character: a beheaded John the Baptist, a Lazarus returned from the dead, a Hamlet who can assert himself and win the admiration of the woman and her friends. He quickly realizes, however, that he can never be “Prince Hamlet,” only “the Fool.” He makes a last effort to compensate for his failings. Perhaps he can comb his hair in such a way as to disguise his bald spot. Can he walk on the beach and attract the attention of mermaids in the surf? No, he concludes, and he wakens from his reverie with a sinking sense of drowning in reality. The question will never be asked, and Prufrock will remain a lonely and unhappy man.

Forms and Devices

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Eliot’s monologue differs markedly from those of nineteenth century poets such as Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Unlike the protagonists of Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Prufrock cannot control his situation, and he does not speak logically or coherently. Listening to him is more like overhearing one musing to oneself. The “you” of the poem disappears early; after line 12 (“Let us go and make our visit”), Prufrock is entirely self-absorbed.

The poem comprises 131 lines of various lengths with flexible rhythm and rhymes. Eliot uses couplets, cross rhymes, and unrhymed lines. The result is a blend of traditional poetic sound effects and free verse. The unpatterned nature mirrors the distracted state of Prufrock, who would like to produce a true love song but can manage only a confidential confession of his own ineptitude.

Prufrock’s repetitions reveal his anxieties: “Do I dare?”; “how should I presume?”; “I have known them all.” He also repeats the answer he expects from the woman if he ever does succeed in making his declaration to her: “That is not what I meant at all.” Like other features of the poem, these iterations come at irregular intervals.

The poem’s imagery is antiromantic: Like a “patient etherised upon a table.” The city streets are tawdry and depressing; the women Prufrock will meet chatter meaninglessly of “Michelangelo”; he feels himself “pinned and wriggling on the wall.” He contrasts “the cups, the marmalade, the tea” with the more momentous matters he would like to broach, but his grand visions always give way to bric-a-brac and bored tea drinkers. He sees himself as going down, descending a stair in defeat or drowning in the sea.

Eliot introduces in this poem a technique he would make famous in The Waste Land (1922): the ironic interjection of quotations from earlier poets. This poem commences with a six-line epigraph from Dante in which one of the denizens of his Inferno confides in his visitor because he cannot conceive of the latter ever escaping from hell, but whereas Dante will return to write his poem, Prufrock cannot escape his private hell. There are also references to or scraps from such varied sources as Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700 b.c.e.), William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600-1601), Andrew Marvell’s“To His Coy Mistress” (1681), and the Gospels.

When spoken by Prufrock, however, all sublimity drains from these passages. The comparison with Hamlet is particularly ironic. Hamlet, too, is an indecisive man who muses and delays, but he ultimately acts when sufficiently pressured. Prufrock has no prospect of such pressure: no ghostly father, no enormous wrong to rectify, not even an Ophelia—only a languid lady friend who will not take him seriously. He feels impelled to an antiheroic stance and compares himself to literary and biblical figures for the sake of denying any resemblance.

Historical Context

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In a review of Catholic Anthology 1914-15, edited by the poet Ezra Pound and containing "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," critic Arthur Waugh noted that if "the unmetrical, incoherent banalities of these literary 'Cubists' were to triumph, the State of Poetry would be threatened with anarchy." His remarks are clearly intended to frighten lovers of poetry and to dismiss the authors as bungling amateurs. Little could Waugh have guessed that he was identifying the very effects that the poets intended, and that his criticism is only of interest to us today because it signifies that, by the time he was writing, the Modern Age had arrived. Modernism is a blanket term that we use for a great number of artistic and philosophical movements (including Cubism in painting) that were intent on throwing away the old standards and replacing them with work that is closer to the way the people really live and think.

This struggle between life and theory has always gone on and continues to this day. In music, for example, rap has been embraced by its listeners as an authentic expression of how people feel, but it is scoffed at by music connoisseurs for its lack of melodic complexity—"incoherent banalities," as Waugh would say. After years of being underground and rejected, rap has now reached a level of acceptance that makes it a prime target to be dismantled by the next new upstarts. Similarly, the rise of Modernism was a reaction to Victorian-ism, which was a reaction to Romanticism, and on throughout history. Since the chain is unbroken, there is no clear place to start tracing Modernism's roots, but one good place might be in 1798, with the publication of William Wordsworth's and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. In response to the formal, strict poetry that had come before him, Wordsworth wrote that poetry should draw from "a selection of language really used by man." Poetry, he felt, was too far out of touch with reality, and he encouraged writers to change the way they thought about their job. Out of this grew the Romantic movement, which included such great early-nineteenth century writers as Keats, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, Emerson, Melville, Poe, and Dickinson. Romanticism was a spirit of intellectual freedom that affected all areas of society. The individual, especially the artistic individual, was held to be of the highest importance to Romanticism: creativity was worshipped.

The last half of the nineteenth century saw the triumph of industry and capitalism, and is considered a less humanistic time. Novels concerned themselves with social structure, and poetry became more formal, more stylized, emphasizing how things were said over what was said. The Industrial Revolution brought trains and eventually automobiles, stepping up the pace of life: reading became less and less relevant, a luxury to be enjoyed by those who were socially comfortable. Throughout the period, though, there were scattered elements that would eventually make it impossible for the forces of social order to hold: Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848; Darwin published Origins of the Species in 1859; Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams came out in 1900. Each of these created a revolution in its own intellectual area and lead to the Modernist suspicion of all previously accepted beliefs.

There is no particular philosophy of Modernism, but instead we measure its growth by looking at various revolutionary movements in the arts. In 1909, for instance, the Futurist movement in Italy released its "Foundation Manifesto of Futurism" (bold artistic movements often announce themselves with manifestoes), praising "aggressive action, the mutual leap, the punch and slap." At the same time, Pound fell in with a group of poets in London and discussed principles that eventually became known as Imagism, known for its rejection of poetic conventions. Pound was also instrumental in founding Vorticism, which was based on change and motion and was supposed, Pound said, to "sweep out the past century as surely as Attila swept across Europe." These three examples of literary movements at the time give us a sense of the new values that came with Modernism: embracing instead of avoiding the industrial world; an emphasis on powerful, not pretty, poetry; a willingness to use any tools and break any rules in order to capture what the world was really like; in general, a devotion to a higher social cause (think of all of those manifestoes) and an unwillingness to simply create art for its own sake.

Literary Style

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"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" begins with an epigraph, a quote that sets the tone for the poem to follow. This epigraph, included in the poem in the original Italian, is from Dante's Divine Comedy. Its use here emphasizes Eliot's belief in the instructive function of poetry, as well as his conviction that it was a poet's responsibility to be aware of and build on the established tradition of poetry.

This poem (exclusive of the epigraph) is structured into four sections, with each section separated by an ellipsis, a mark used in conventional punctuation to indicate an omission, but used here to signal either time passing between thoughts relevant to the subject under consideration, or information considered too obvious to be included.

Eliot's belief that "No verse is free for the serious poet" is apparent in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." This poem is written in free verse with varying line lengths, but Eliot employs rhyme as a major structural component in its composition.

In fact, in the 131 lines of the main poem structure, only 12 lines are unrhymed. Note the pattern of the rhyme in the first stanza, beginning "Let us go then, you and I....": a couplet—an unrhymed line—a series of three couplets—an unrhymed line—a couplet. Such a pattern serves to establish coherence in the stanza, as well as to create a distinctive music.

Eliot also found repetition useful to establish rhythms of ideas as well as sound rhythms. Note the repetition of the word "time" in the two stanzas beginning "And indeed there will be time...." in the first section.

Conventional punctuation and sentence structure are used in this poem, but capital letters at the beginnings of lines stress lineation, thus balancing the importance of the sentence with the importance of the line. While Eliot maintained that poetry should conform to current conversational speech, he emphasized the musical qualities of speech, as well as the imagistic and symbolic possibilities of words, by his use of lineation.

The varying line lengths and stanza lengths of this poem are indicative of Eliot's refusal to impose a form on the thoughts and emotions at the center of the composition. It was not his purpose to discover or create a new form for poetry, but to free the poet from set forms in order to allow each poem to create its own form—in this case a "love song" which Eliot sings onto the page for the reader.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on December 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 165

1915: The first long-distance telephone call from New York to San Francisco was made. Alexander Graham Bell repeated the words he spoke in 1868 over the first working model ("Mr. Watson, come here ... ") to Thomas Watson in San Francisco. The call took 23 minutes to go through.

Today: International telephone calls, as well as cellular communications and public phones on airplanes, all are transmitted by having their signals bounced off of satellites orbiting the earth.

1916: The new Ku Klux Klan was organized, taking its name from a 1860s group and receiving an official charter from the state of Georgia. Throughout the following fifty years, the Klan was responsible for a reign of terror against non-whites and non-Catholics, committing lynchings and firebombings across the south with little interference from the law.

1957: The first Civil Rights Act to be passed by Congress since the 1870s made it a federal crime to discriminate against people because of race.

Today: The Ku Klux Klan is still in operation, despite strong public opposition.

Media Adaptations

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"The Caedmon Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry." Audio cassette. Audio-books, order #4322.

"More T.S. Eliot Reads." Audio cassette. Audiobooks, order #4388.

"Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot." Audio cassette. Audiobooks, Order
#4393.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Ackroyd, Peter, T.S. Eliot: A Life, Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Berryman, John, "Prufrock's Dilemma," in The Freedom of the Poet, Farrar, Straus, 1976, pp. 270-78.

Brady, Ann P., Lyricism in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot, Kennikat, 1978.

Frye, Northrop, T. S. Eliot, Oliver and Boyd, 1963.

Grant, Michael, ed., T.S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1982.

Kenner, Hugh, The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot, McDowell, Oblinsky, 1959.

Knapp, James F., "Eliot's 'Prufrock' and the Form of Modern Poetry," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1974, pp. 5-14.

Miller, Vincent, "Eliot's Submission to Time," in Sewanee Review, Summer, 1976, pp. 448-64.

Rosenthal, M. L., "Adolescents Singing, Each to Each— When We and Eliot Were Young," in The New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1985, pp. 3, 37.

Sinclair, May, "'Prufrock and Other Observations': A Criticism," in The Little Review, Volume IV, December, 1917, pp. 8-14.

Schwartz, Delmore, "The Literary Dictatorship of T. S. Eliot," in Partisan Review, Vol. XVI, No. 2, February, 1949, pp. 119-37.

For Further Reading
Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.'" The Explicator, Volume 52, number 3, Spring 1994, p. 170.
It would have seemed that by the time this was written all that needed to be said about the poem would have been covered, but these authors bring to light new information about different interpretations and possible sources for the "ragged claws" line.

Bradbury, Malcom. The Modern World: Ten Great Writers. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1988.
Eliot is one of the great writers given his own chapter in this book, of course, but just as interesting is the introduction, which puts these ten writers (including Ibsen, Proust, Pirendello and Kafka) into perspective of one another like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

Symons, Julian. Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature 1912-1939. New York: Random House, 1987.
The author is a well-known biographer and critic who knew several of the important artistic figures discussed in this book, and who therefore sketches out the rise of Modernism as an interesting, personal story.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52

Suggested Readings

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Bush, Ronald. T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.

Wagner, Linda W. T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

"The Women Come And Go Talking Of Michelangelo"

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Context: The title of this poem is deeply ironic, because the speaker is a man far too timid ever to sing a love-song, or, indeed, ever to express what he really thinks. He is a guest at a reception at which the other guests are oppressively intellectual. He is never a part of the conversation: he is too shy and self-conscious to meet the company on equal terms. He is miserable and bored, yet his shyness prevents him from leaving, for he is afraid of being laughed at. The pretentious intellectuality and the brittle conversation of the guests at the party are summed up in the description of the women, as Prufrock hesitates between staying and summoning up enough courage to leave.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair. . . .

"When The Evening Is Spread Out Against The Sky"

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Context: The description of the evening with which the poem opens is a "conceit," as the metaphysical poets used the term; that is, a similarity between apparently unlike objects has been perceived by the mind of the poet. By this means, the reader is startled, almost shocked, into attention. The poem, ironically called a "love song," describes a timid, inhibited, ineffectual man as he goes toward a fashionable reception. He proceeds on his way hesitatingly: he knows that he will meet overwhelmingly intellectual people but that he will be too shy to talk and yet too shy to leave. So he goes through the side-streets, in a cheap part of the city, to the reception where he will be unhappy because of his awareness of his timidity and his fear of being laughed at. The poem begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels. . . .

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