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

Start Free Trial

What does the epigraph in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" mean?

Quick answer:

The epigraph in “Prufrock” is a quotation from Dante's Inferno in which Guido da Montefeltro, who is being tortured, says he feels safe revealing the truth of his horrible deeds to Dante because he believes that Dante will never make it out of hell to tell the rest of the world. Like most characters in the Inferno, Prufrock exists in a kind of hell, and the epigraph signifies both Prufrock's concern for his reputation and wish to discuss it.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The epigraph to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” comes from Dante's Inferno, a work of literature that had particular resonance for T. S. Eliot throughout his life. The words are spoken by Guido da Montefeltro, a character stuck in the eighth circle of hell for all eternity:

If I but thought that my response were made
to one perhaps returning to the world,
this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.
But since, up from these depths, no one has yet returned alive, if what I hear is true,
I answer without fear of being shamed.

Essentially, what this means is that Guido feels able to tell his story to Dante's protagonist—a fictional version of Dante—because he is sure that the poet will never leave hell and so will be unable to tell anyone else about all the horrible things Guido did that put him in hell in the first place. Guido, however, is profoundly mistaken. Dante is indeed passing through, and he will eventually make it out of hell and tell the story of what this wicked man did when he was alive.

The relevance of the epigraph to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not immediately apparent. It seems to be the case that Prufrock believes that by singing his song, no one else will ever hear it. It is as if he were sharing a confidence with the addressee—who is arguably himself—about all his insecurities, neuroses, and anxieties, safe in the knowledge that no one will divulge the information.

One could also say that Prufrock, like Guido from Inferno, lives in a kind of hell from which it is impossible for him to escape.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial