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 quarters, epitomized by a withering dismissal from the Times of London: “The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry.” However, these were the words of the conservative old guard. The modernists soon came to reign over the literary world,...
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- and “Prufrock” would go on to become one of the most widely read and influential English-language poems of the 20th century.
Structure of the Text
Narrative Structure: In broad terms, “Prufrock” is the 131-line stream-of-consciousness internal monologue of a well-read, middle-aged, city-dwelling man. J. Alfred Prufrock, presumably the speaker, feels paralyzed by indecision and self-consciousness. The poem lacks a clear narrative structure and follows his train of thought as he worries over his fear of rejection and exclusion, often doubling back on ideas and images. Perhaps his greatest anxiety stems from a fear of intimacy—physical, intellectual, and emotional—with women. The “Love Song” in the title is ironic, but it is also central to the poem’s meaning. Prufrock’s expressions of angst are intermixed with descriptions of the routines and decorum of daily life—activities that help to ease his anxiety but at the same time create an insurmountable barrier against intimacy.
Formal Structure: “Prufrock” does not follow a strict formal structure, but it uses familiar poetic devices—rhyme, meter, metaphor—with great facility. If Shakespeare were to read Prufrock he’d likely find it disjointed, but he’d still recognize in it lines of beautiful poetry. The graceful language lends an air of dignity and pathos to a narrator whose melancholy might otherwise come across as simply pitiful.