"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was the author’s first published works. At the time, it was considered unusual as modernism was new. Though the piece seems to centre around the theme of love, the nature of its speaker, and perhaps of modernism itself, leads the reader to an end where the love is never fulfilled. Eliot uses a variety of poetic devices such as symbolism, metaphor and imagery. Furthermore, he uses a concoction of poetic forms within what is, essentially, a dramatic monologue.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a modernist poem. T.S. Eliot, the author, was an American who relocated to Britain. The poem is set in a large, unclean city. Its narrator is a miserable man who is trapped in his mind; he does not get out and enjoy life and, as a result, is suffering from boredom. As Williamson suggests, Prufrock desires “inactivity to the point of enforced release from pain.”
Eliot was born in 1888 “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was the first poem he had published; this was in 1915 (Biography). Generally speaking, Eliot is highly acclaimed as a poet, even fifty years after his death. However, as with any poet, he has his share of critics. For example, journalist Garrison Keillor, has termed “Prufrock” “a small, dark mope-fest of a poem." Nonetheless, modernist poetry by many authors tends to centre around somewhat depressing subjects such as cities and boredom. As Georg Lukas points out: “In modernism, that ‘concrete typicality’ of the realist view is replaced by an ‘abstract peculiarity’ that is grounded in a view of the human individual as essentially solitary and asocial, capable at best only of superfluous contact with others” (McNamara). This view of modernist literature certainly does seem to fit, using “Prufrock” as an example.
“Prufrock” is a dramatic monologue in which he is speaking to the woman whom he is in love with. However, even by the close of the poem, the reader knows very little about the woman in question. As with many dramatic monologue, this poem slowly reveals information about the speaker. At the start, Prufrock is an unusual man who wishes to go for a walk. As the stanzas progress, we find out about his physical appearance, and his passion for food and for good clothes, for example. He seems to want to give a certain impression, but in fact we get the reverse. He wishes people to believe he is decisive and proactive. However, it becomes clear that he does not ever make decisions and lets opportunities pass him by.
Although the poem is, first and foremost, a dramatic monologue, the author has in fact injected other poetic forms as well. One example is the presence of rhyming couplets, such as the opening two lines. Other lines do not contain rhyme or rigid metre. Furthermore, some lines use iambic pentameter but no rhyme. It is possible that Eliot chose to write in this way to emphasize the character of Prufrock; he is indecisive and misleading, just like the structure of his poem.
One of the most obvious themes of this poem is that of love. However, some readers may question whether the speaker is actually in love with the individual he speaks about. For much of the time, he talks about himself and she is overlooked. It seems that Prufrock is lacking in self-confidence, and this could account for the lack of conversation. There are several examples of where the speaker seems to be about to move past his fear. Line 38, in which he says, “Do I dare?” is one such example. However, he appears to be so consumed by trivial parts of life that it is questionable that he is actually experie4ncing true love. Whatever the nature of his feelings, it leads nowhere.
The poem starts with Prufrock asking the reader to go on a walk with him. However, very soon, we realise that we are being shown the run down and seedy side of the city. Remaining consistent with Prufrock’s repetitive and elusive style, the piece revisits more than once the imagery of this setting. This contrasts directly with the pompous, middle-class life that appears to be his. Similarly to the speaker, the streets are deceptive and do not lead anywhere.
An interesting part of the setting is shown in lines 4-7, where elements of the setting are portrayed via personification. It is not, strictly speaking, the "retreats" which are "muttering." However, it appears that way because muttering people are likely to be encountered in such places. Additionally, the night times are not really "restless.” Rather, the time of day serves to make people restless. Another interesting example of the depiction of the streets is in lines 13-22. Here, Eliot uses an extended metaphor in likening the streets to a cat. Prufrock does not directly name the "cat," but it is obvious that he is speaking of one because of his use of words such as "muzzled," "leap," and "curled," among others.
Imagery concerning food and drink are numerous in this poem. Quintessentially English traditions, such as indulging in afternoon tea, are mentioned frequently. In fact, it provides a caricature of this relaxed custom, as Prufrock continually reflects on what he has recently eaten of what he might eat in the future. Remaining true to the afternoon tea subject, the speaker especially talks about tea; he clearly drinks a great deal of it. An example of such discussion is in line 34, where Prufrock claims he needs to get things done before “toast and tea” later that day. The majority of the foods and drinks mentioned are appetising. However, the insalubrious restaurant he discusses, and indeed the oysters it serves, do not sound appealing. In fact, Prufrock even mentions that there is sawdust on the floor of the establishment, to deal with the constant spillage of drinks.
Though “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” appears to focus on the theme of love, many readers are not given what they expect in its outcome. The speaker is indecisive and self-absorbed, allowing love, among other things, to pass him by. As this was Eliot’s first published poem, it is easy to see how came to be so successful from this point onwards. As a modernist poet, his work fits the trend; however, “Prufrock” is entertaining and unique.
Biography Base. “T.S. Eliot Biography.” 2012. Web. 5 May 2012.
Keillor, G. “The Old Scout.” Prairie Home. 2007. Web. 7 May 2012.
McNamara, R. “”Prufrock” and the Problem of Literary Narcissism.” JSTOR. 1986. Web. 6
Williamson, G. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” A Reader’s Guide to T.S. Eliot. 1998.
Web. 6 May 2012.