“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

I realized that in my last blog post I might have been a little harsh on the modernists, so I decided to balance my criticism by reviewing a modernist poem that I think is truly an amazing work, and that is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This poem is a masterpiece that successfully evokes imagery and emotion in a way that the average person can relate to, while at the same time incorporating allusions and imagery that will challenge erudite readers. I have to say, as far as poetry goes, this is flawless.

The poem is essentially the musings of a person nearing the end of his life and contemplating what he has and has not done. This is a feeling everyone can relate to, regardless of age. Who can honestly say they have not sat alone and relived scenarios from their past, or played out events in their heads where the outcomes were different, running through the endless possibilities?

The poem is prefaced with a quote from Dante’s Inferno (Canto 27; Lines 61 – 66), which is followed by what may be the greatest opening lines ever:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

The first two lines are kind of the set up, creating a pleasant sense that is then slaughtered by the third line. This sets up the motif of juxtaposition that carries through the rest of the poem, where images of sickness and death are superimposed upon those of beauty and life.

The following short stanza repeats several times throughout the poem, almost like a refrain:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Something about this has haunted me for years, but I could never put my finger on why until today. Prufrock finds himself in a social situation, where people are engaged, talking with each other and comfortably interacting. But Prufrock is alone, an outsider who is unable to participate in the play of life that unfolds before him. He is a classic introvert. This explains why the lines affect me on such a visceral level, because like Prufrock, I am painfully introverted and feel like an outsider in social situations, watching life unfold before me but unable to step in and participate. Even as I write this, I feel like I am somehow going through a cathartic experience.

There is one more line that I want to write about:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

This line is deeper than it appears. While it sounds like what is being stated is that he was not meant to be Hamlet, we must keep in mind the classic “to be or not to be.” It is a rephrasing of the great existential question and he is saying that he is not meant to live, to participate, or to be a part of existence. Hamlet, despite his hesitance, eventually acts, and then dies tragically and magnificently at the end. But not Prufrock. He feels that his life has been little more than a “Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

While this has turned into one of the longer blog posts I’ve written, there is still so much to say about this poem. You can read it over and over and continue to uncover new ideas and imagery. This is, without question, poetry at its finest.

Click here to read the poem online.


Filed under Literature

5 responses to ““The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot

  1. Excellent post.

    Your insight into the fact that this is an internal dialogue is so important. I thought I might expand on the significance of the epigraph from Dante. The quote follows Dante’s run in with Ulysses in the realm of the fraudulent counselors (or those who use language for deception). Dante quite cleverly enshrouds Ulysses and Guido da Montefeltro (the speaker of the epigraph) in ‘tongue[s] of fire.’ The narrator of Prufrock is, like his double Guido da Montefeltro, unable to vocalize his feelings through the tongue of flames of his mental inferno. Prufrock thus engages in a dialogue with himself, as you mentioned, thinking of what he might have said to the ladies if he were in fact a fraudulent counselor. In this way, we should respect Prufrock in a way. He is old, awkward, and shy but he is not a fraud. He is totally enthralled by the women of his reverie, or his sirens, and is reluctant to awake from his dream state because it would be salvation—and the elimination of the carnal desires he can only live out in dream states; it is in fact a type of death.

    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.
    (‘Prufrock’ 129-31)

    The Dantean connections run deep. Lastly, the line you highlighted: ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’ might come from the second canto of the Inferno where Dante-pilgrim states: ‘I am not Aeneas, nor am I Paul!’ And so I might reassert that he is in fact a hero of sorts. He doubts himself like Dante did, but Dante reached Paradise….

    I read your post on Wallace Stevens, too. Check out my new blog for a reading of Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man.’

    • jeff japp

      Wow, excellent response!! I think you nailed it regarding the connection to Dante. The tongues of fire imagery that you tie in also makes me wonder whether Prufrock may have been burned by the words of women in his past, possibly a harsh rejection, which led to his internal torment about whether or not to approach any of the women at the party. Lots of good stuff to think about.

      I will definitely check out your post on “The Snow Man” and thanks again for your response.