Last Updated on September 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634
In 1915, T.S. Eliot published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” his first major poem and the work that established the style, tone, and themes that would define Eliot’s early literary career. With its slippery rhymes, fluctuating meter, and unpredictable structure, the poem embodies the new style of vers libre—free verse—then coming into vogue. However, Eliot strikes out for a new poetic idiom without losing his footing in the poetic tradition. Indeed, while the poem’s form is avant-garde, its scope of allusion encompasses a vast expanse of Western literature. In tone, the poem is rife with contraries, at once whimsical and bleak, quotidian and cosmic, dreamy and gritty. These dissonances define both the world of modern London and Prufrock himself, who wanders the city, hapless and wistful. In “Prufrock,” Eliot strives to express the character of modernity, exploring the complexity and anonymity of urban life and, more importantly, the condition of a culture in the process of cutting itself away from its religious foundations. Prufrock’s universe is fragmentary, exhilarating, and lonely, and Eliot succeeds in offering readers a stirring—and perhaps recognizable—glimpse into it.
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Facts at a Glance
- Publication Date: 1915
- Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level: 6
- Approximate Word Count: 1,100
- Author: T. S. Eliot
- Country of Origin: Eliot was born in the United States and spent most of his adult life in England
- Genre: Poem
- Literary Period: Modernism
- Conflict: Person vs. Society
- Literary Devices: Free Verse, Stream of Consciousness
- Narration: First-Person
- Setting: Unnamed Early-20th-Century City
- Tone: Wistful, Indecisive, Self-conscious
Texts That Go Well With "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
“A Supermarket in California” by Allen Ginsberg. This poem, published forty years after “Prufrock,” shows how poetry continued to change with succeeding generations, while maintaining ties to the past. Ginsberg shares Eliot’s sense of isolation and his inclination toward self-mockery, but he also expresses a near-manic euphoria that stands in contrast to Eliot’s hand-wringing anxiety. While Prufrock worries, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Ginsberg exalts the peaches—and tomatoes, and avocados, and watermelons—he finds in the produce aisle.
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, by William Shakespeare. Prufrock declares, “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” A look at Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy presents some clear parallels and differences between the two characters. Is Hamlet asking the question that Prufrock finds himself unable to articulate?
Inferno by Dante Alighieri. While the 14th-century epic poem bears little resemblance to the modernist “Prufrock,” Dante’s journey to hell represents a quest for understanding one’s relationship with the world—similar to Prufrock’s wandering the city streets.
“Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield. This short story, published five years after “Prufrock,” exhibits the disorientation and alienation of the early 20th century that the modernists sought to convey. The titular Miss Brill’s sojourn to the park serves as an exploration of her relationship to others, much in the same way that Prufrock seeks understanding, and culminates in a stark realization about self-delusion.
“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning. This poem is not exactly a love song, but like “Prufrock” it offers a monologue from a fictional male narrator who discusses his relationships with women. Comparing the poems is a good way to highlight the characteristics of modernism. Ask students to identify the differences that make “Prufrock” modern and “My Last Duchess” not.
“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. Eliot makes several allusions to this poem in “Prufrock,” and as with Hamlet, there are interesting similarities and differences between the two works. Both are, in their ways, love poems, and both devote many lines to the passage of time, but the sensibilities of the narrators are polar opposites.