“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is in part a satire. Its character is not the hero of romance but an antihero, one constrained by fear. He spends much of the poem contemplating what to him is to be a daring act, but is in fact only the effort to talk to women at a social event. The very name Prufrock is suggestive; the first syllable suggests the word “prude” without the final consonant, while a “frock” is a garment that would have been considered overly formal by young people of Eliot’s generation.
The urban setting for the poem is itself also the object of satire. The sunset at the beginning of the evening is not inspiring but instead is dormant, “like a patient etherized upon a table.” The streets through which the two will pass is full of cheap, sordid hotels and filthy restaurants. The twentieth century city is not a place of dreams.
The description of the social event suggests something shallow and superficial, where people show off their knowledge of art. The only details given are the women’s bare arms and long dresses, talk of Michelangelo and perhaps unnamed novels, and refreshments. Prufrock is vaguely aware of the contrast between the superficial, perhaps privileged world he is about to enter and the bleak, urban landscape outside: In the former, people have the leisure for superficial talk, while in the latter, “lonely men in shirtsleeves” are perhaps tired from work. Prufrock is too self-centered, too concerned with how he might impress the women he will see, to reflect on the desperation of the “muttering retreats”; the “yellow smoke” (clearly smog) might well be toxic to many, but to Prufrock it is vaguely something like a friendly cat.
Prufrock exaggerates his dilemma. He wishes to speak to women, he is vaguely attracted to them sexually, but he is afraid. This might be a “crisis” for a young man looking for a prom date, but Prufrock is old enough to have a bald spot in his hair and to fear growing “old.” Part of the poem’s irony comes from its allusions to the poetic and literary traditions that Eliot knows. The preface from Dante’s Inferno quotes a false counselor in Hell who will tell his crime only to those he thinks will keep it a secret. Prufrock, too, would not want his story known—he wants to create “a face to meet the faces that you meet”—but what he has to hide is trivial. A topic he might raise in conversation is an “overwhelming question.”
Prufrock momentarily compares himself to John the Baptist, the prophet who announces the good news of Christ’s coming and who is finally killed, with his head brought on a platter. Later, he compares himself to Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Christ. He also briefly thinks of Hamlet, whose “overwhelming question” involves taking the word of what seems to be his father’s ghost and avenging his murder by killing a king. Prufrock realizes that the best he can do in Shakespeare’s play is to be Polonius, who talks too much, annoys everyone, and is finally killed by accident when he is eavesdropping on Hamlet and his mother.
In the final lines of the poem, Prufrock is tempted to compare himself to Ulysses, since the mermaids “singing each to each” suggest the sirens Ulysses hears in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), but he quickly reflects that “I do not think that they will sing to me.”
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.
According to Vincent Miller, "By 1914 the age of the heroic achiever was over. That was ... the truth [this] love song pinned down in a startlingly new and creative way for an entire generation." Indeed, American poet John Berryman declares that "Modernist poetry begins"...
(The entire section is 142,327 words.)