The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Review

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T.S Elliot's poetry The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was his first significant publication. In 1915, it was first published in the Chicago journal Poetry. Elliot's work on J. Alfred Prufrock has been described as one of the earliest and finest works of Modernism in English, signaling a break with previous 19th-century lyrical romantic poetry. (David 13:3) The poem contains balladic stylistic elements such as rhyme, refrain, incantatory tone, and parallelism. The use of repetition, alliteration, and rhyme, most notably in lines 15–18, gives the poem a beat. The irregular nature of rhyme, refrain, and other devices, however, prevent it from being characterized as a song. The poem blends classical literature references flawlessly into the narration as with the Shakespearean and Biblical references in what is now a defining feature of modernist poetry (David 26). The poem is a monologue of a deeply emotional and self-conscious character in his middle age evident in the lines “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair-/They will say: how his hair is growing thin!” (Elliot 40-41). Prufrock is terrified to venture into social interactions with women because he may be rejected. The narrator has associated with women in the past as indicated in lines 62 through 67; he has known the bare bracelet hands downed in light brown hair in lamplight (Elliot). He has known these women and has nothing new to offer and he wonders how he should begin? (Elliot) Prufrock is sure that he is no appeal to women and to approach a woman would be to disturb the working of the universe.

Elliot’s choice of title for his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, is intended to convey meaning about the character and the nature of the poem in case there should be any confusion or mixed understanding on the reader’s part. The title of the poem is ironic seeing as the poem is not actually a love song with the theme of love hardly being mentioned. A reader of this poem, on reading the title, will have it seared into her subconscious and as the poem meanders into seemingly unrelated territories can understand the symbolic subjects to be part of the narrator’s Love Song. More importantly, the title introduces us to the narrator, J. Alfred Prufrock who we follow through the poem. According to Gardner, Elliot gets the name Prufrock from the Prufrock-Littau furniture company, which operated in his hometown in Missouri (Kenner, 3). Origin of the name aside, critics can agree that J. Alfred Prufrock is an ostentatious name that suggests its bearer lacks a grasp of the rules of social convention.

The setting of the poem is a lowly section of a city as gathered from the mention of one-night cheap hotels, sawdust restaurants and yellow smoke. Elliot uses the lines "In the room the women come and go/ talking of Michelangelo" as a refrain in the first part of the poem. The readers are reminded twice of the setting, where it is the narrator is taking us; in the room the women come and go. The room where Prufrock and the reader go is, however, more sophisticated. It is filled with women who speak of Michelangelo (Elliot). It is a proper tea party where the men wear neck ties and stiff morning coats and the women are sprayed in perfume and sit in lamplight (Elliot).

The poem is rife with religious symbolism and metaphors borne out of the Christian religion that lends understanding to the poem. Most prominent is the poem’s epigraph from Dante’s Inferno written in its original Italian. In Dante journey through Hell, he encounters Guido da Montefeltro who has been condemned to hell and his spirit is burning fire. Da Montefeltro only speaks to Dante because he is assured that since Dante is in Hell and no one leaves Hell, his wicked ways will not be made known to the living. The translation of the epigraph is “If I believed my answer was to a person who'd ever get back to the world, this flame would keep still without moving any further. But since from those undergrounds no one has ever come back alive, if I hear what's true, I answer you without fear of infamy.” In his analysis of the poem, Moody sees a parallel between Prufrock and Montefeltro’s situation. Both of them are in Hell with Prufrock’s hell being the social gathering which he lacks the means to navigate (Moody, 1994). Drawing the epigraph from a work as serious as Dante’s counters the levity in some parts of the poem suggesting that for Prufrock, his monologue is of a serious nature and it pains him to make his failings known to people.

Prufrock also refers to John the Baptist in lines 81 through 83. He is desperate for a connection with a woman having wept and fasted and wept and prayed (Elliot). He is, however, also sure of his failure having seen his head brought in upon a platter even though he is not a prophet. Prufrock implies that one does not need to have prophetic vision to know that he will fail in his moment of greatness; when he should have stepped up and spoken. This is in line with Prufrock’s awareness of his shortcomings never believing that he could be in any way desirable. In the closing lines, Prufrock says that he is “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--Almost, at times, the Fool.” (Elliot) His poor assessment of himself though exasperating to the reader makes him a character that can be sympathized with.

In line 11 and 12, the narrator says “To lead you to an overwhelming question…/Oh, do not ask, "What is it?" (Elliot) The question Prufrock fails to ask is significant to this poem. All through the poem, we follow a man paralyzed by the possibility of failure without a solid reason for this paralysis. It is unlikely that thinning hair and thin arms and legs would seal a man’s fate as unappealing. In the closing lines when cataloguing his failure, Prufrock asks himself, “would it have been worthwhile to have bitten off the matter with a smile, to have squeezed the universe into a ball, to roll it towards some overwhelming question?” (Elliot) The result of this alternative scenario would have been, she, rearranging the pillows by her head and saying to Prufrock; that is not what I meant at all”. The implication of these lines is that the Prufrock may have some glaring shortcomings either physical or a previous scandal known to many that he fails to reveal but is central, or he is certain is central, to his failure with women. These shortcomings, he feels, he should have bitten off with a smile and the woman in question would have been accepting of him not meaning what he thinks everyone else means.

Elliot employs dark metaphors in this poem that gives a picture of paralysis in the setting and Prufrock’s mental state as concerns interaction with women. In describing the setting, Elliot says “The evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table”. This is line 3 and it portrays a bleak atmosphere from the onset. After introducing the reader, the supposed you in “You and I” to the room filled with women, Prufrock says he has known the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase/and when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin/ When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall. These lines show that Prufrock is not in control of the situation. He is paralyzed by the eyes that fix him in a formulated phrase and pin him to a wall even before he speaks.

Works Cited

Ayers, David. Modernism: A Short Introduction. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2007.

Print.

Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969. Print.

Moody, Anthony D. Thomas Stearns Eliot, Poet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Print.

Elliot, T. S. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Retrieved from

http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html

October 20, 2022
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