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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Teaching Approaches

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Approaching Modernism: “Prufrock” is one of the poems most commonly used to introduce high school students to the concepts of literary modernism—a challenging task. Modernist poets sought to convey the disorientation, alienation, and self-doubt that they saw as products of major shifts in the structure of society during the first decades of the twentieth century. The resulting poetry was distinguished by its fragmentary structure and thematic complexity. 

One of the great virtues of “Prufrock” is that it poses the challenges of modernism in a manageable way. A common reaction upon first reading the poem is confusion: Who is the speaker? Where is he? What is he talking about? Why should we care? While Eliot doesn’t answer these questions explicitly, he provides clues that can be discovered through careful reading. Readers’ initial bewilderment is usually followed by a series of “a-ha” moments as they piece together Prufrock’s fragmented thoughts. There is enough information to help readers get their bearings, but there is also enough ambiguity remaining for them to understand that uncertainty and unease are inescapable realities, a fact central to the modernist message. The poem is not supposed to all make sense in the end. 

  • For discussion: The third line of the poem describes the evening sky as being “Like a patient etherised upon a table.” What kind of a mood does this simile create? What does it tell you about the evening? At the time “Prufrock” was published, many readers found this line shocking. Why might that be? 
  • For discussion: What basic facts does the poem reveal about Prufrock? What clues are there about where he lives, his age, race, religion, social class, marital status, and education level? 
  • For discussion: Clarity—of character, of narrative, of theme—is often considered an important element of good writing, but in “Prufrock” Eliot seems at times to be deliberately unclear. Why would he do that?

Comprehending Stream of Consciousness: A key to understanding “Prufrock” is recognizing that Eliot’s primary aim is not to tell a story or depict a setting. Instead, Eliot intends to reveal what goes on inside Prufrock’s head, using a literary technique known as “stream of consciousness” writing. (James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were among the contemporaries of Eliot who also experimented with this style.) The “stream” flows from one thought to another, often triggered by subconscious associations. The meaning of the poem is achieved less by traditional rhetorical or narrative techniques than it is by the associative cascade and juxtaposition of ideas and images. 

  • For discussion: How much of the poem sounds like it could be a description of actual events, and how much is coming from Prufrock’s imagination? Is it possible to tell the difference? How can you tell? 
  • For discussion: Who might the “you” be from the opening line, “Let us go then, you and I”? Is it the same “you” who’s mentioned later in the poem? 

Discovering Prufrock’s “Overwhelming Question”: In the first stanza, Prufrock refers to an “overwhelming question,” and for the rest of the poem frets about whether he dares “disturb the universe” by asking this question. He never articulates, though, what the question is, and ultimately he declares, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” A central topic for any discussion of “Prufrock” is “What’s his question?” 

  • For discussion: Prufrock is unable to put his question into words. Ask students to do it for him. What do they think he might be trying to say? Why can’t he say it?

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • Discuss Prufrock’s views about love. Why do you think Eliot titled this a “love song”? If you were to title it, would you keep it the same or change it? Why? 
  • Explain what “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” says about the way Prufrock has lived his life. 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

The Challenges of the Poem May Trigger Negative Responses: The first reaction to “Prufrock” is frequently one of bewilderment, which can lead to frustration. Students may want to reject the poem out of hand as meaningless or deliberately confusing. They may say something to the effect of “This is why I hate poetry.” 

  • What to do: Try to turn confusion from a roadblock into a starting point. Acknowledge that “Prufrock” is difficult to make sense of on a first reading. Challenge students to approach the poem like a puzzle. Ask them what initial impressions they have of Prufrock’s general character. Even if they can’t make sense of everything he says, they usually can pick up clues to his state of mind. Then ask them to examine what their impressions are based on, and use that as a starting point for a close reading. 

Students Won’t Understand Some of the Allusions: “Prufrock” is filled with details from early 20th-century urban life, many of which won’t be familiar to present-day students, and allusions to literary and historical works. A potential pitfall in teaching “Prufrock” is to give too much emphasis to Eliot’s scholarly acrobatics. Students may not benefit much from, or be frustrated by, learning that a line echoes a poem by Hesiod or John Donne. 

  • What to do: Devote some time to discussing the the culture of Eliot’s time. For homework you can assign students to research references, such as “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” or the fashions of the day (Prufrock’s morning coat and tie pin, women’s shawls and floor-length skirts), and have them present their findings to the class. Photos from the time can be helpful, including images of Eliot and his wife, Vivien. 
  • What to do: Explore selections from the literary allusions, such as Hamlet and “To His Coy Mistress.” Why would Eliot draw on these titles for his own work? What value does understanding the allusion bring to the poem? 

The Epigraph Adds to the Confusion: Eliot begins the poem with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno in the original Italian. Your students probably cannot read medieval Italian, and even when the lines are translated into English, making sense of them requires an understanding of the basic concepts behind the Inferno. Even with that explained, the significance of the epigraph is elusive. 

  • What to do: Start by setting the epigraph aside; tell students to ignore it. It’s not crucial to their basic understanding of the poem, and the effort to unravel it, especially on first reading, usually isn’t worth it—it may add another element of potential confusion. If students show enthusiasm for the poem, you might double back later to the epigraph and challenge them to make sense of it, or you could make an analysis of the epigraph into an extra-credit assignment. Ultimately, you can teach “Prufrock” successfully without ever addressing the epigraph. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

While the main ideas and discussion questions above are often the focal points of units on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the following suggestions represent alternative approaches that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the poem. 

Focus on parallels between Prufrock’s time and the present day. Have students “translate” the poem by substituting current social conventions for the ones Eliot mentions. What’s the contemporary equivalent to “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells”? In the 1910s, Prufrock wore a morning coat with a high collar and a necktie. What would he wear today? Would he still be drinking tea and eating toast and marmalade? 

Focus on humor in the poem. On first reading, students may not find much that’s funny about “Prufrock,” but there is a vein of humor, most of it at Prufrock’s expense. At one point he describes himself as “At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.” What does Eliot achieve by injecting humor into the poem? 

Focus on repetition. Eliot uses repetition in some distinctive ways. He has Prufrock repeat phrases within a single line (“And indeed there will be time / To wonder, ’Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’”). He begins successive stanzas with almost identical lines, changing only a word. He uses descriptions that are like muffled echoes of earlier lines in the poem (such as comparing the fog to a cat in stanza three, and then using feline metaphors nine stanzas later). What are some of the effects of such repetition in Eliot’s poem? 

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