Although T.S. Eliot is one of the most influential English-language poet of the 20th century, his work has from the start held a reputation for being obtuse, fussily erudite, and even downright bizarre. For all of these qualities, T.S. Eliot’s poetry always explores deep thematic terrain. Therefore, readers can grasp “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by analyzing the themes explored in the poem, namely the condition of modernity, the tension between mundanity and meaning, and the crisis of mortality.
The “Overwhelming Question”
Perhaps the central thematic and tonal tension in the poem is between the mundane, day-to-day world Prufrock inhabits and the internal world in which his spiritual crisis unfolds. The mundane world is London, both seedy and dainty, full of “one-night cheap hotels,” “the soot that falls from chimneys,” and “the cups, the marmalade, the tea.” The internal world is where Prufrock reflects on his experiences and considers daring to ask the “overwhelming question” that looms over his thoughts... (Read more on The "Overwhelming Question.")
The Condition of Modernity
As both a poet and critic, T.S. Eliot investigated Western cultural history. Eliot was particularly interested in modern history, which begins with the Renaissance in the 15th century. From his 20th-century vantage point, Eliot was of the opinion that Western culture is in a state of decline and therefore that early modernity (the 15th through 18th centuries) surpasses late modernity (the 18th century onward). “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” reflects Eliot’s views on these cultural and historical trends... (Read more on The Condition of Modernity.)
The Crisis of Mortality
Prufrock faces the threat and mystery of time. In the poem’s early passages, Prufrock repeats to himself the reassuring refrain, “And indeed there will be time.” Yet beneath Prufrock’s attempted calm, he understands that time is an antagonist, a force that will draw him closer to his ultimate destiny. The menace of mortality first rears its head when Prufrock claims to have “Time to turn back and descend the stair,/With a bald spot in the middle of my hair…” The statement is nominally true but essentially false; with his hair thinning, Prufrock does not have a great deal of time... (Read more on The Crisis of Mortality.)
The Overwhelming Question
Perhaps the central thematic and tonal tension in the poem is between the mundane, day-to-day world Prufrock inhabits and the internal world in which his spiritual crisis unfolds. The mundane world is London, both seedy and dainty, full of “one-night cheap hotels,” “the soot that falls from chimneys,” and “the cups, the marmalade, the tea.” The internal world is where Prufrock reflects on his experiences and considers daring to ask the “overwhelming question” that looms over his thoughts.
The division between the physical and metaphysical dimensions of Prufrock’s life is significant for several reasons. It marks Prufrock’s detachment from his surroundings, which float through his awareness, dreamlike and disordered, altered as they are by his imagination. The division is important, too, in the way it produces a contrast that accentuates his spiritual angst, such as when Prufrock wonders,
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question…
The contrast between the bric-a-brac of tea and porcelain and the “overwhelming question” produces a note of comedic lightness while underlining the fundamental gravity of Prufrock’s situation. Finally, the gulf between Prufrock’s inner and outer worlds creates a problem of communication. He finds that “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” Given the intensity of his inner crisis and the frivolity of the...
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