A short introduction to the landmark poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot
1. One poetry bookseller rejected the poem on the grounds that it was ‘absolutely insane’. Harold Monro, influential publisher and owner of the Poetry Bookshop in London, was offered the chance to publish ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. It’s a curious fact that he could have been the first person to get T. S. Eliot’s groundbreaking modernist poem into print, but he wasn’t interested. He flung it back, labelling it ‘insane’, as Peter Ackroyd records in his lucid and informative biography T.S.Eliot. In the end, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was published by a different Monro(e), Harriet Monroe, in the June 1915 issue of the magazine Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. (Poetry is still going, and is currently edited by the wonderful Don Share.)
2. Eliot actually began work on the poem some five years before it was first published. The common belief is that ‘Prufrock’ first appeared in 1917, when Eliot published it at the head of his first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations. In fact, as we’ve just seen, it was first published two years earlier, in Poetry magazine. But Eliot began to write the poem when he was just 21 years old, in February 1910, and worked on it sporadically over the next few years before he finally got it into print. Much of it was written by around 1911.
3. The original draft of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ had an interesting section that was cut out of the final version. A 38-line section, titled ‘Prufrock’s Pervigilium’ (after the ‘Pervigilium Veneris’, a late Latin poem about the Roman goddess Venus), was originally meant to be part of the poem but was excised by Eliot before ‘Prufrock’ appeared in print. You can read the lines here. ‘Prufrock’s Pervigilium’ was not published until 1996, when Eliot’s early, previously unpublished poetry appeared. Titled Inventions of the March Hare: T.S. Eliot Poems, 1909-1917, after the name Eliot originally gave to the little notebook of poems he compiled in his early years (though he later crossed out the title), the book is a fascinating insight into Eliot’s evolution as a poet and a book that Eliot fans should not be without. (It’s worth it alone for the poem that bears the glorious title, ‘While You Were Absent in the Lavatory’).
4. The curious style of the poem was a result of some surprising influences. Eliot drew inspiration for his poetry from a number of unusual places, and many of these can be seen in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The poet’s adoption of a persona (the comically named J. Alfred Prufrock of the title) is a result of Eliot’s reading of the French-Uruguayan poet Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), who liked to adopt different masks and personalities in his poetry, which he would then invite the reader to view ironically (we can see this in Eliot’s poem: are we supposed to feel sorry for Prufrock because of his indecision and social awkwardness, or laugh at him as silly and pathetic – or both?). Eliot’s use of iambic pentameter and the dramatic monologue form owes more to the Elizabethan dramatists such as Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe (and, of course, William Shakespeare) than it does to Victorians like Alfred, Lord Tennyson or Robert Browning. Eliot’s vision of urban alienation also owed much to nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire (as did his love of feline imagery – but then Eliot, of course, had a fascination with cats, as we know from the musical he inspired!).
5. The original print run of the volume in which the poem appeared didn’t sell out for five years. 500 copies of T. S. Eliot’s 1917 debut volume Prufrock and Other Observations were printed, but the final copy would not be sold until 1922, the year that Eliot achieved a whole new level of fame with The Waste Land, his long modernist poem of postwar alienation and despair. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ has continued to find new generations of readers, and in 1995 was voted Britain’s 26th favourite poem of all time.
If you wish to read ‘Prufrock’, and indeed the rest of Eliot’s poetry, the cheapest available edition (though there is a scholarly edition due out soon) is currently the Collected Poems 1909-62. If you enjoyed our ‘Prufrock’ facts, you might also enjoy our short biography of T. S. Eliot.