T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Poetry, 6 (June 1915): 130-135; collected in Prufrock and Other Observations (London: The Egoist, 1917)
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was among the most important writers of the twentieth century and the most widely recognized of the literary modernists. A member of a prosperous family from St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot graduated from Harvard University in 1909, then began spending extensive periods of time in Europe—first Paris, then Oxford and London. This trend culminated in his permanent relocation to England, marriage to an Englishwoman (Vivienne Haigh-Wood), eventual conversion to the Anglican church, and English citizenship. In 1910-1911 he composed “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
The poem was not published until 1915, when, thanks in large part to the efforts of Eliot’s eventual friend and rival, Ezra Pound, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” appeared in the important journal Poetry (Chicago). Eliot’s other major poetic works include The Waste Land (1922), his masterpiece and arguably the most important single poem written in English in the twentieth century, and Four Quartets (1943). He was also the author of verse dramas, including Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), and The Cocktail Party (1950); his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) was the basis for the long-running Broadway musical Cats (1982-2000).
Despite Eliot’s growing reputation as an innovative poet, his daily life during this time was quite stable after his employment by Lloyd’s Bank and assumption of the editorship of The Egoist. His transformation from avant-gardist to premier poet of the establishment was completed by 1932, with his acceptance of the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard and confirmed by his winning of the Nobel Prize in 1948. He died in 1965, survived by his second wife, Valerie.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. One initial approach to “Prufrock” is suggested by the contrast between the title, with its invocation of the traditional “love song,” and the epigraph from Dante’s Inferno (XXVII, 61-66):
If I believed that my answer were to a person who should ever return to the world, this flame would stand without further movement;
but since never one returns alive from this deep, if I hear true, I answer you without fear of infamy. (trans. Robert Scholes)
The speaker, Guido da Montefeltro, continues to fear infamy on earth even while condemned to hell. He is willing to address Dante truthfully because he fails to realize that Dante is human and still able to return to the living. What is suggested by the epigraph, the overwhelming concern with reputation, how one is perceived, will become one of the key themes of the poem. But how does this concern for reputation fit with the traditional concept of a “love song”? What type of “love song” could the speaker of the poem be planning on singing with an epigraph whose imagery is so dark?
- 2. The opening line of the poem, “Let us go then, you and I,” may initially return readers to their first notion of the poem as a traditional “love song,” with the speaker as the (male) lover and the addressee as the (female) beloved. But, again, the parameters of a traditional love song seem quickly to fall to the side as the invitation is modified by the following lines: “When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Eliot’s use of juxtaposition in these lines will become another key feature of the poem. A reader might profitably consider how the unusual imagery used here (clinical/surgical/urban) helps to develop or resists the notion of a “love song.” This can also be used to extend the first question, which asks what type of love song this can be?
- 3. As the poem progresses, it becomes less clear whether the speaker is addressing a (female) beloved, the reader of the poem, or, in fact, anyone at all. A related approach to this poem could therefore attempt to determine the status of the addressee. Though the “you” makes several reappearances (at lines 10, 27, 30, 31, 56, 78, 89, and 95), the forms of address and the subjects on which the speaker meditates become increasingly bizarre if the addressee is a beloved. At lines 37-46, the speaker repeatedly questions his own ability to take action:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin— (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
Who exactly is the speaker addressing? Consider the multiple settings, which include a grimy urban street scene, as well as one or more sophisticated social gatherings, and the final walk on the beach. Does the speaker in reality visit these places or do they too exist only in his mind (and the reader’s)?
- 4. Another potential, but not necessarily related, approach to the poem would entail an analysis of the themes of failed communication, especially those between men and women. For instance, in lines 87-98, the speaker speculates about what is at stake in these moments of failed communication:
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,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”— If one, setting a pillow by her head, Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
Prufrock shares his fantasies of heroic action—and they do remain, fundamentally, fantasies—with his beloved, but her reaction seems to indicate utter incomprehension. How is this theme related to the overall structure of a poem that purports to be a “love song”?
- 5. One of the most important aspects of the structure of this very strange, “modern” love song is the way in which Eliot has adapted the form of the dramatic monologue, a concept popularized by the nineteenth century poet Robert Browning, through his own concept of the “persona.” That is to say, Eliot is not Prufrock, though they may appear to share some similarities, at least superficially (Eliot was at one point well-known for wearing his hair “part[ed]. . . behind,” in what was considered a fashionable style). The dramatic monologue is a poetic form not unlike the monologue in a play, where the speaker speaks uninterrupted to another, usually silent, interlocutor (who may be named or, as in “Prufrock,” implied). Readers are “listening in” on this one-sided conversation, becoming aware through the performance of the speaker of information that he often inadvertently reveals—and may not even fully realize himself. The dramatic monologue in the Browning tradition tended to direct heavy irony toward characters who were criminal, insane, unsavory, or possibly all three. For Eliot, this new notion of the person as persona becomes an integral part of the subject of the poem as well as the form.
- 6. An approach to the poem that attends to the notion of the modernist dramatic monologue might assess what type of speaker Eliot has created for the poem, and why? That is, what kind of person is Prufrock? Is the reader meant to admire him, sympathize with him, despise him, or some tenuous combination of these reactions? The dramatic monologue form allows the reader insight into Prufrock’s mind even while it ensures a kind of ironic distance from him. What insights does this notion of the “persona” provide for this speaker? This approach could be extended to reveal the way the poem represents the “persona” as theme as well as form: Prufrock, the persona, admits repeatedly that his “self” is propped up, if not wholly supported, by such surface niceties as clothing, hair style, and social graces.
- 7. Though Eliot adapted Browning’s use of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) in the dramatic monologue into what is purportedly free verse in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he uses other formal effects to structure his poem. A formal approach to this poem could focus on any of these. One of the first of these is his use of repeated sound structures and rhyme. Though “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” does not have a regular rhyme scheme, the use of rhyme within the poem remains important. Why would a poet who chooses to eschew both meter and a traditional rhyme scheme retain the use of such structured sounds? What effects do these patterns of sound add to the poem?
- 8. Eliot’s use of end rhymes exemplifies a principle that is repeated in different ways throughout the poem: repetition with a difference. This can be found in the series of rhyming words from lines 87-98, including “ball” and multiple uses of the word “all.” In other instances, the repetition of certain key phrases, which are shifted slightly from line to line, is one of the ways in which this notion of “repetition with a difference” works to organize the poem. How do these changes influence the reader’s impression of the speaker? Is he a typical romantic hero? Or is Prufrock someone else entirely? A reader can think about any of the repeated and varied features to make an argument about how the “poetic” use of language informs “meaning” of free verse.
- 9. The poem employs a type of repetition without a difference in the refrain, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” This refrain is repeated after the first and second verse paragraphs, and, as refrains go, it seems a strange one. Rather than tying together or summarizing ideas put forward in the previous lines, it seems to come from out of nowhere; it emphasizes pointless movement and phatic speech in two lines of pentameter, the first characterized by rising rhythm, the second by falling rhythm. What is the meaning of this refrain? And what is its structural purpose within the poem? Who are these “ladies” and where are the “rooms” in which they “come and go”? It may be that the “present” of the poem takes place in the “rooms” in which the ladies come and go, and the opening invocation and street scene occurs only in the speaker’s mind—or the reverse may be true. Or both settings could be fantasies of sorts. The interpretive option the reader chooses helps to determine the ultimate “meaning” of the poem.
- 10. A final approach to “Prufrock” would consider the conclusion of the poem, which is marked by a very striking extended image, in relation to the poem as a whole:
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown. (lines 119-131)
While Prufrock’s ruminations on aging seem to lead to a renewed assurance of risk-taking, the next three lines, unusually suffused with color, describe the speaker’s vision of the mermaids, “Combing the white hair of the waves blown back.” Curiously, in the next line, the first-person singular pronoun shifts to the first-person plural with the final lines 129-131. The pronoun “we” has not been used in the poem until these final lines, and readers are left to wonder, who is this “we”? Is it the speaker and his listener, the “you and I” from line 1? If so, how can the reader reconcile the image of the relationship that is created here, which is vastly different from the one given earlier? Likewise, how can one account for the change in tone between the earlier lines and the conclusion? One clue to the meaning of the conclusion to this poem may lie with lines 73-74, which is another blank-verse couplet in iambic pentameter that weighs against the refrain:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
The speaker’s own estimation of his worth, that he would have been better off as a scavenging crab underneath the ocean, is the only other moment of such imagery in the poem, but it resonates with the “mermaid” section, invoking very different reactions to and depictions of a dramatically dark solitude. This imagery and affect offer additional opportunities for thematic analysis and close reading.
- 11. The mermaid section, unlike the silent and solitary crab fantasy, involves communion between human and nonhuman beings as well as between beings and nature. How should a reader understand this communion, and what impact can it have on the speaker’s life? And how is a reader to interpret the role of the “mermaids”? Is it viable to characterize the closing lines
of the poem as a statement on art, and art’s efficacy to intervene in the daily human world? “We”—perhaps humanity? the speaker and his beloved? or the reader and the poet?—have been engaged in a beautiful dream, engaged fully with a work of art, but when daily life interrupts that dream, what happens to it?
Jewel Spears Brooker, “Eliot Studies: A Review and a Select Booklist,” in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by A. David Moody (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 236-246.
The most definitive, accessible, and recent of many bibliographies.
Ronald Schuchard, Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
The most current and authoritative study of Eliot’s life, which interprets his literary contributions in order to generate insights about his career, relationships, and times.
John Xiros Cooper, The Cambridge Introduction to T. S. Eliot (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Offers an approachable, jargon-free overview of Eliot’s life and work that is specifically intended for an audience of readers with little background in modernist literature.
James Longenbach, Modernist Poetics of History: Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).
Provides background on the “historical sense”—or complex attempts to understand the past in the present—which both animated Eliot’s work and made it possible.
Louis Menand, Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context, revised edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Assesses from an analytical and evaluative perspective Eliot’s place in literary history, focusing on questions of reputation, influence, and “consequentiality” for popular as well as high culture.
Marjorie Perloff, “Avant-Garde Eliot,” in her 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002).
Makes fresh claims for Eliot’s status as a meaningfully innovative poet whose early work (including “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) uses qualities of “instability” and “dislocation” in ways that are finally compatible with postmodern writing.