A summary of a classic modernist poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ has been called, by the academic literary critic Christopher Ricks (one of the finest living critics and the co-editor of Eliot’s poetry), 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. You can read the poem here and listen to Eliot reading the whole poem here.
Background for ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
T. S. Eliot wrote ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ while he was still a student at Harvard University, 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.
‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: A Short Summary
It’s difficult to summarise what happens in Eliot’s poem, since it’s not a narrative poem and more a collage of thoughts, wishes, fears, meditations, and images – spoken to us by Prufrock himself – than it is a coherent speech, as we find in earlier dramatic monologues or in Shakespeare’s soliloquies (where characters often mull over a situation, debating the various aspects of it with themselves, before deciding upon a course of action).
Instead, in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Eliot offers us a portrait of a middle-aged man, named J. Alfred Prufrock, who is attending social events (almost certainly in New England, such as in the Massachusetts area which Eliot knew well from his time studying at Harvard), probably in the hopes of finding a woman he can court and then marry. Prufrock talks of an ‘overwhelming question’ but does not state what this is (he tells us, or his unseen companion, not to ask ‘What is it?’, so we’re left to ponder what this ‘question’ might be – perhaps ‘popping the question’, i.e. asking a woman to marry him).
He is indecisive, anxious, self-conscious (he worries that the women are muttering behind his back about his thinning hair) – perhaps a bit like the famously indecisive and delaying Prince Hamlet from Shakespeare’s play, except that Prufrock doesn’t consider himself important enough to be compared to Hamlet (‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet …’). He’s a bit-part actor or walk-on part … even in his own life.
He also dreams of escaping the suffocating social world he inhabits, of tea parties and pretentious chatter about art (‘Talking of Michelangelo’). See the metaphors he uses to describe himself: he doesn’t just wish he’d been born someone else, but that he’d been born a completely different species, a crab or pair of ragged claws that roams the ocean bed. At the end of the poem, this oceanic imagery returns, with Prufrock hearing the song of the mermaids but thinking that they would not sing to him, only to each other.
Even in his fantasies he sees himself as inadequate, such is the crippling social anxiety of the early twentieth-century New England world (somewhat prudish and even puritanical in its attitudes). He lingers in this ‘happy place’, the chambers of the sea, until the human voices chattering around him in some drawing-room return him to the less pleasant reality of his life, and he ‘drowns’ again in the social pressures of those tea parties and the knowledge that society expects him to follow convention, marry one of the women he seems to find so intimidating, and settle down.
Curiously, many biographers of T. S. Eliot, including Lyndall Gordon, have located the origins of this poem in Eliot’s own shyness around women as a student at Harvard. But if the poem did have a personal root, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ transcends this and becomes a much more universal statement about not fitting in, and about feeling social pressures to behave in a way we find uncomfortable.
The meaning of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
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.
This means that ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is far trickier to analyse than earlier examples of the dramatic monologue, given the way Prufrock’s thoughts dart about the place, without explaining his train of thought or why, for instance, we have skipped from talking about something as small and seemingly inconsequential as cakes and ices to the momentous Biblical scene of the head of John the Baptist being brought in on a platter for Salome. And this is before we even begin to analyse the significance of Prufrock comparing himself to John the Baptist…
Who is Prufrock? Middle-aged, perhaps around 40 (his head has ‘grown slightly bald’ and Eliot himself said he had this age roughly in mind), 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; 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 is perhaps slightly pretentious and affected, given the styling of his name in the title as J. Alfred Prufrock (rather than, for instance, John Prufrock or James Prufrock). 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.
Prufrock also seems reluctant to grasp the nettle and proposition any of the women he meets at the social functions he attends – those women who talk of Michelangelo, for instance. But we cannot advance much more than this with real confidence. These gaps are deliberate on Eliot’s part. 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.
This is a key part of modernist poetry (and, indeed, the modernist fiction of figures such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce), and is an attempt by modernist writers to encourage us to confront the realities of the modern world. After all, how well do we know our friends? We know each other at best imperfectly, and people don’t tend to waltz into our lives announcing everything about them before they start to chatter to us about the weather. We are left to infer things, and that is what ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ forces us to do, much as we do with real people we meet.
Analysing the significance of the epigraph to ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
For this reason, there are many aspects of the poem which resist easy analysis. What is the significance of the opening half-dozen lines, the epigraph, taken from Dante’s Inferno? The Italian original can be translated as follows:
If I but thought that my response were made to one perhaps returning to the world, this tongue of flame would cease to flicker. But since, up from these depths, no one has yet returned alive, if what I hear is true, I answer without fear of being shamed.
Note that Eliot doesn’t attribute or translate these lines from Dante’s poem himself: he is relying on his reader to identify them. This is another key feature of much modernist poetry: literary allusion, often to very specific texts which only a highly educated reader would be able to recognise. And even once we’ve translated them, that does not necessarily help us in interpreting their significance to Eliot’s poem.
Is Prufrock like Guido da Montefeltro, the thirteenth-century Italian military man who speaks the lines above, in Dante’s poem? Guido is in Hell (the Inferno), addressing these lines to Dante himself and telling him that the only reason he feels comfortable in confessing his deepest, darkest sins to the poet is that he knows that nobody who is in Hell alongside him can go and tell everyone back in the land of the living about them. So, with that in mind, we might surmise that Eliot wishes us to see Prufrock as somehow confessing something, as confiding something which he feels shame about (his difficulties with girls, perhaps).
Alternatively, we might place the emphasis on where Guido utters these lines, and suggest that, for Prufrock, modern-day society is a form of living hell. Perhaps both interpretations are relevant here. Eliot doesn’t tell us, and it’s worth remembering that he himself said, in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, that ‘what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning – or without forgetting, merely changing.’
The best way to go about analysing the significance of such patterns of allusion is to see how much corroboration for them we find elsewhere in the poem: for instance, the idea of being in the afterlife (like Guido) and coming back from there is applicable to the lines about Lazarus coming back from the dead which we find later in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Lazarus was famously brought back from the dead by Jesus.
The original draft of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
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. T. S. 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.
If even this analysis of Eliot’s poem leaves you with plenty of unanswered questions (and the beauty of Eliot’s poem is that this is exactly how you should feel!), you might find this delightful animation of the poem a good way in to understanding its meaning.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: T. S. Eliot (picture credit: Ellie Koczela), Wikimedia Commons.