History of the Text
Biography of T. S. Eliot: Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888–1965) was an American poet, critic, and dramatist. Although he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and educated at Harvard University, Eliot spent the majority of his life in England. After studying briefly at Oxford, Eliot moved to London, where he would reside for the rest of his adult life. As a young man, Eliot had a talent for philosophy and considered becoming an academic philosopher. However, Eliot’s real passion was poetry. After encountering the works of French poets such as Verlaine, Rimbaud, Laforgue, and Corbière, Eliot’s own writing began to mature and modernize. In England, Eliot met Ezra Pound, another young American expatriate poet, who took an immediate interest in Eliot and encouraged his poetry. At the time, Eliot’s most ambitious work was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which he had been composing since his Harvard days. Pound used his connections to get “Prufrock” published in Poetry Magazine in 1915, officially launching Eliot’s public career as a poet. In its tightly controlled free verse, dense allusiveness, vivid imagery, and bleak atmosphere, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a direct stepping stone to Eliot’s early masterpiece, “The Waste Land,” published just five years later.
Publication History: “Prufrock” was Eliot’s first published poem. He began work on it in 1910 while he was a 21-year-old graduate student in philosophy at Harvard. In 1915, while continuing his studies at Oxford, he showed the poem to a fellow American abroad, the poet Ezra Pound. Pound sent it with his enthusiastic endorsement to Harriet Monroe, the publisher of Poetry magazine where “Prufrock” first appeared in print. In 1917 it was published in a chapbook of Eliot’s poems, titled Prufrock and Other Observations.
Modernity and Modernist Literature: “Prufrock” is a prime example of modernism, an artistic movement that came to prominence in the early 20th century. Modernism was a response to modernity, a broader term for the profound societal changes taking place at the turn of the century. Over the course of a few decades, industrialization, urbanization, and population growth had so transformed the world—and particularly Europe—that individuals were forced to reimagine their place in it. These changes arrived alongside such radical new ideas as Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Marx’s economic theory, Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God, and Freud’s exploration of the subconscious. Modernity achieved its darkest manifestation in the brutal, mechanized carnage of World War I.
- Perhaps more than any other change, however, the waning of religious beliefs and practices motivated the mission of the modernist artists. The dream of modernism was to replace religion with art, to draw meaning from the experience of the individual rather than the collective credos of the organized religions. Without a spiritual or moral polestar, the modernists came to view aesthetic achievement as the pursuit with the highest value.
- Modernist literature is distinguished by its attempt to convey through language the disorientation and alienation of the era . The result is writing that appears random and fragmentary, often leaving readers feeling—by design—disoriented and alienated. Eliot’s employment of this new style in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was initially met with a hostile reception in many...
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