A summary of a classic modernist poem
‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ has been called, by the critic Christopher Ricks, the best first poem in a first volume of poems: it opened Eliot’s debut collection, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ had been written by T. S. Eliot, though, back in 1910-11, and made its debut in print in June 1915, when it was published in Poetry magazine. Previously, one poetry bookseller had rejected the poem on the grounds that it was ‘absolutely insane’: Harold Monro, an influential publisher and owner of the Poetry Bookshop in London, was offered the chance to publish ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. He flung it back, labelling it ‘insane’, as Peter Ackroyd records in his lucid and informative biography T.S.Eliot. This ground-breaking modernist poem has attracted many interpretations, involving everything from psychoanalysis to biographical readings, but it remains an elusive poem.
T. S. Eliot wrote ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ while he was still a student at Harvard, in his early twenties. The images of the modern metropolitan world which we find in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ as well as many of the other poems in Eliot’s first volume of poems – the cigarette ends, the cups of coffee, the ‘vacant lots’ – are partly a result of the influence of the French poet Charles Baudelaire on Eliot. It is partly what helps to make him a modern poet, focusing on urban social alienation and the landscape of the city rather than on nature and the pastoral. He treats his characters and his scenes without sentiment, but nevertheless his poems contain an emotional intensity which Baudelaire had shown the way for: modern poetry did not have to be cold and emotionless. Eliot could speak French fluently (as the French verses included in his Collected Poems 1909-62 attest), and he even spent a short time in Paris after his MA at Harvard, and before he came to England in 1914. His portrayal of modern urban life is heavily influenced by Baudelaire’s depictions of nineteenth-century Paris.
Another big influence on early Eliot, alongside Baudelaire, was Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), a Franco-Uruguayan Symbolist poet. Eliot’s early poetry leading up to, and including, ‘Prufrock’, was heavily influenced by the French Symbolists: in 1908 Eliot had read Arthur Symons’ manifesto, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), which argued that the poet should go in search of the perfect symbol that would help to illuminate life – poetry is talked up by Symons as being almost a new religion. In Symons’ book, Eliot underlined the passages that addressed the method of one particular Symbolist writer, Jules Laforgue. It was Laforgue’s poems that would have a profound influence on ‘Prufrock’ and Eliot’s other early poems. In 1882, Laforgue had had the idea of ‘a new kind of poetry which would be psychology in the form of dream … with flowers and scents and wind … complex symphonies with certain phrases (motifs) returning from time to time’. This new technique was what helped Eliot to create the stream-of-consciousness style of Prufrock’s interior monologue.
But what is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ about? It’s a dramatic monologue, but utterly unlike those written by Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the previous century. Tennyson and Browning virtually invented this new form of poetry in the 1830s and 1840s, and their names were synonymous with it. But Prufrock is a modern-day, urban speaker, who talks frankly about his failures: chiefly, his failure to ‘grasp the nettle’ or ‘seize the day’, his lack of sexual fulfilment, and his overall sense of failure. We cannot always be sure that what he is confiding to us is actually being uttered: we may instead have a direct line to his thoughts, to the inside of his head.
Who is he? Middle-aged, perhaps around 40 (his head has ‘grown slightly bald’), socially awkward, living in a world he considers stifling and unsatisfying, his own place in that world not clearly defined (he is not a prophet like John the Baptist, whose head was brought in on a platter to please the erotic dancer, Salome; nor is he Prince Hamlet, but ‘an attendant lord’ or ‘the Fool’ – in other words, a bit-part actor rather than the starring role, even in his own life). He has perhaps been tempted to approach prostitutes (see the reference to bare, braceleted arms in ‘the lamplight’, suggesting women he encounters in the street), but how much experience he’s ever had with women is doubtful. He seems reluctant to grasp the nettle and proposition any of them. But we cannot advance much more than this with real confidence. Many of the utterances in the poem remain enigmatic (why does Prufrock think he ‘should have been a pair of ragged claws’, for instance?), which is a key part of its effectiveness: we cannot ever arrive at a final analysis of the poem. Like all great works of art, it remains open to new interpretations and can mean lots of different things to different readers.
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, under the title 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.
Analysing ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ can only take us so far towards a ‘firm’ interpretation of the poem: it is constantly slipping out of our grasp. This is partly why the poem signalled the arrival of such a strikingly new voice in Anglophone poetry. But the original print run of 500 copies of Prufrock and Other Observations would take five years to sell out. Brian Eno once said that only 300 people bought the Velvet Underground’s first album, but everyone who bought it went out and formed a band. Eliot’s influence may have centred at first on a small group of people, but they included Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and E. M. Forster, each of whom would help to champion Eliot as the most exciting new voice in English verse.
Image: T. S. Eliot (picture credit: Ellie Koczela), Wikimedia Commons.