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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Discussion Topic

The motivations and influences behind T.S. Eliot's creation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Summary:

T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is influenced by his personal feelings of indecision and alienation, as well as the broader context of early 20th-century modernist concerns. Eliot's exposure to French Symbolist poetry and his academic background in philosophy also shaped the poem's themes and style, reflecting a fragmented, introspective narrative that captures the modern individual's existential angst.

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What influences inspired T.S. Eliot to write "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot was first published in June 1915 issue of Poetry magazine. Although the narrative is that of a middle-aged man worried about whether he should begin an affair with a woman, it responds more generally to what Eliot would have considered the problems of the modern, secular world.

Prufrock is not just an individual adrift, but rather emblematic of a period and generation. He is a moderately wealthy and successful member of the upper middle classes who is imbued with the social conventions of his time and period, and is inordinately concerned about how he appears to others. His obsession with how he appears and how people react to him signal the absence of an internal compass. He seems to care about conventions but to lack certain values. Politeness has become a substitute for morality. 

Several great certainties had been undermined. First, the social class system was shifting, leaving class identity uncertain and the bourgeois in particular undermined by Marxism, no longer secure and assured in their position. Next, Darwin had undermined the notion of humanity as somehow special and separate from nature. Freud had undermined the notion that we can know our own motives and desires, suggesting instead that much of our acts and beliefs are grounded in the unconscious mind. Higher Criticism had undermined the old certainties of religion. 

As modernity undermined the great certainties of the Victorian age, Eliot worried that it has not created anything that could substitute for them. The manners which were once grounded in a complete belief system seem to Eliot to have lost their ideological grounds and become empty and the people like Prufrock without purpose. Prufrock states:

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

In other words, the lack of grand, prophetic certainties leaves people adrift and afraid. For Eliot, the eventual answer to this was a return to the Anglican Church and literary tradition. 

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Why did a young T.S. Eliot mimic a middle-aged man in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

When poets write poetry, they may either write as themselves or they may write in the voice of a "persona." Taking on a persona when writing means that the writer imagines how another person thinks, feels, and talks and expresses that through the words of the poem. It is really no different than an actor who plays the role of someone else, except that an actor is given lines to say and actions to perform while the poet creates the settings and dialogue himself or herself. Students can sometimes feel surprised or even horrified if they cannot separate the poet from the persona. For instance, in Robert Browning's poem "Porphyria's Lover," the persona kills his girlfriend and is unrepentant of the atrocious act. Students are wrong to believe Browning was a horrible sociopath; he was imagining what thoughts might go through the mind of a criminally insane person. Eliot's creativity in this poem is not that big of a stretch! Eliot was taking insecurities that he probably struggled with himself, insecurities that we all have about social relationships and the contribution we will make in the world, and imagining how a man twenty or thirty years older than he was would think about those issues. All authors must demonstrate this "theory of mind," the ability to put themselves in other people's shoes. Good literature develops "theory of mind" in readers because it allows us to imagine what it would be like to be another person, in this case, someone like J. Alfred Prufrock.

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Why did T. S. Eliot write "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

There is not a known explicit statement of purpose from Eliot on his intent in writing this poem, but the reader can construct some ideas based on Eliot's life, history, and the construction of the poem.

T. S. Eliot wrote The Love Song of J. Alred Prufrock at some point between 1910 and 1911, when he was still completing his undergraduate degree. It was not published until 1915, when he was already settled in England. Eliot became a member of a cohort of writers that became emblematic of the "Lost Generation," those that came of age during World War I. This group of writers, which included Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, expatriated to Europe and convened in Paris.

Perhaps the identity of this Lost Generation is most indicative of a common mindset at the time Eliot wrote this poem. This generation was disillusioned by the horrors of World War I and, as a result, began questioning the status quo. Generally, as a result, this generation didn't feel the need to have permanent roots; they were more nomadic. They were concerned with mortality and its purpose (leading to a focus on youthful ideals) and challenged social conventions.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is regarded as signifying the transition to Modernism from Romanticism, before Modernism was a recognized form. There are many questions about its content that are unknowable—is Prufrock speaking to another, or is it all internal dialogue? What is his "overwhelming question"? These questions aren't answered, but the reader is able to know that Prufrock is a disillusioned middle-aged man confronting feelings of isolation and frustration with the modern world. He finds it difficult to be decisive, and the poem is a translation (perhaps word for word) of his own mental musings.

Comparing the ideals of the Lost Generation to the content of the poem would suggest that Eliot was capturing the concerns, fears, and emotions that many people felt at the time of its publication.

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Why did T. S. Eliot write "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

Eliot began writing the poem in 1910 through 1911 when he was twenty-two years old. He later stated that

It was partly a dramatic creation of a man of about 40 I should say, and partly an expression of feeling of my own through this dim imaginary figure.

The figure of Prufrock represented for Eliot a way to examine what he called a "complex." Eliot was interested in exploring an idea central to the poem, that of a man who is so afraid of doing or writing anything wrong, so caught up in being timid and hesitant, that he never produces anything at all.

If the poem is, as Eliot says, partially "an expression of feeling of my own," he seems to have been concerned with his own fear of being paralyzed by self-doubt or hesitancy. To better explore this feeling, he created the persona of an older man who truly hasn't achieved anything because of his fears.

While the poem may have stemmed from Eliot's personal fears, it caught a sense that the culture of the time, though it seemed prosperous and progressive, was actually caught in a malaise. This would become a central theme of modernism.

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Why did T. S. Eliot write "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

Eliot wrote this poem to communicate the intense feeling of alienation and of running out of time experienced by so many people in the time of Modernism. Eliot presents the reader with a man who is obsessed about the passing of time and how time is literally running out for him. He is a man who is shown to want to avoid commitment of any sort or limiting himself, but at the same time he is aware that he is being forced into making choices everyday that limit his freedom. Note the way that this is focused on in the following quote:

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The repetition of the phrase "there will be time" shows how important a concept time is in this poem. Not only does the concept of time reinforce the way in which a plethora of options gradually become less and less of a reality for humans as they grow old, it also parallels the concerns that J. Alfred Prufrock has about his appearance and his fear of being ridiculed for his "bald spot in the middle" of his hair and the thinness of his limbs. T. S. Eliot therefore wrote this poem partly in order to communicate the impact of aging on a Modern man such as J. Alfred Prufrock and to capture the frailty of the human condition.

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Why did T. S. Eliot write "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?

T.S. Eliot wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in 1910 and 1911, during which time he was living in Prison and studying at the Sorbonne. Though it is impossible to say precisely why T. S. Eliot wrote the poem, one way to approach the question is to consider how he may have been inspired by what he saw in Europe during the time of its composition.

The belle époque, or the beautiful age, in France, refers to the period between 1871, with the end of the Franco-Prussion War, and 1914, the beginning of World War I. Eliot could see, perhaps, that this way of life was coming to an end, that it simply was not sustainable. This turned out to be true, considering that World War I began just three years later. Perhaps, more importantly, Eliot could also see the limitations of the beautiful age, with its lack of emphasis on building human connections between individuals. The society that Prufrock describes in the poem seems outwardly beautiful but essentially empty. The speaker repeats,

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

These women do not speak of themselves, of their lives and feelings, of their successes and failures, or even of society and politics. Instead, they talk about art, and the breezy manner in which they "come and go" and the couplet's lightly humorous rhyme suggests that the conversation is somewhat superficial.

Other scenes in the poem evoke similarly superficial social encounters that seem to lack genuine connection. One can see this in a passage later on in the poem:

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!

Outwardly, there are signs of society, but Prufrock nonetheless feels that no meaningful connection has been made, that he cannot communicate what really matters. Thus, one can see how Eliot may have felt inspired by the social milieu in which he lived to write a poem about how polite society can fail to truly bring people together.

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Why might Eliot have called "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" a love song?

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” might not seem to be a traditional love song, but under its surface one finds that it serves two distinct purposes: first, to satirize the nature in which Prufrock’s affection reveals itself, and secondly, to lead the reader to question the real object of Prufrock’s affections.

For a love song, the poem is quite desolate. It opens with two lines of romance, only to quash them in the following line:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table

If Prufrock is attempting to be romantic, he fails quite badly: while he invites “you,” presumably his love interest, to accompany him, the distance between Prufrock and his unknown companion widens. By the end of the poem, Prufrock uses the second person to speak to himself, which creates ambiguity about his supposed companion. Prufrock hesitates, changes his mind, imagines only rejection from a woman: that this poem is called a “love song” highlights Prufrock’s failures.

However, is there any context in which Prufrock’s love song reads as such? If the object of his affection is loneliness, perhaps so. He speaks almost fondly of the “half-deserted streets” and rough parts of the city that he wanders at dusk, and prefers to imagine his old age alone, accompanied by mermaids and outside the reach of society. It is striking that Prufrock professes to want to propose to a woman, yet is so frustrated with the shallow women at the party:

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

That the woman speak only and unceasingly of Michelangelo, even as people come and go, highlights the shallow nature of their conversations; yet Prufrock desires a woman—presumably of his own social class—who would gladly wander the red-light district with him. Quite likely he recognizes the impossibility of such a thing, and chooses his own lonely independence over a woman.

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Why is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot a "love song"?

The reason that the title  of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot includes the words "love song" is that the situation of the poem is typical of the genre of love song. The narrator intends to propose to or proposition his beloved, but is worried about rejection:

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

..., should say:

"That is not it at all,

That is not what I meant, at all."

Although the basic situation is that of a classic love song, what is different is the nature of the narrator (shy, retiring, middle-aged, inarticulate) and the background of urban modernity, in which the old certainties (and old literary genres) are breaking down, leading to the problem of the failure of the lovers ton make meaning and communicate.

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