The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a poem written by T.S. Eliot in the year 1910 and was published in 1915. It is considered to be one of the quintessential works of modernism, a literary movement at the turn of the 20th century that emphasized the themes of isolation, alienation, and diminishing power of traditional authority sources. This poem is a dramatic monologue. In this poem, the speaker narrates his inner life’s anxiety and preoccupations.
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Summary of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis
T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of the city man’s first extraordinary poems and is also the poet’s first notable poem. Eliot showcases the despair and passivity of a middle-aged man, Alfred J. Prufrock.
He is in love. However, his love song is never sung. The man meditates too much, and his cowardice is his Achilles’ heel. He is haunted by the problem of whether he should reveal his love to the lady, and he is unaccomplished. The poem is generally not of the 20th century, but it belongs to all ages. It subjects the emotional frustration and despair, the hollowness of individuals living in any period in history.
Eliot’s Love Song does not sing to praise love. The title of the poem raises the readers’ expectation that in this poem, the author will be talking about how a lover lays bare his heart at the feet of his beloved.
However, nothing of this sort takes place in the poem. The title of this poem is ironic. The reason behind calling this poem a Love Song lies in the irony that the song will never be sung. Prufrock will never dare to voice how he feels.
This poem is an inspection of the disturbed consciousness of a typical modern man who is powerful, overeducated, anxious, and emotionally artificial. The speaker of the poem, Prufrock, addresses a lover with whom he would like to consummate their relationship somehow.
But he cannot “dare” to approach the woman. He starts hearing the remarks that others make on his weaknesses. He becomes aware of his growing age and his unkempt clothing. He rarely thinks of himself and cannot enjoy even a peach. He does not have the spirit to do anything in life except thinking and thinking.
At the end of the poem, he hears the mermaids singing for each other, and he surely knows they won’t sing to him.
The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis Themes
Anxiety, Indecision, and Inaction
The protagonist in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is paralyzed by indecision. The poem’s momentum is continuously frustrated by digressions – the speaker’s thoughts trailing off in seemingly unrelated directions – and by the speaker’s sense of his own inadequacy.
By depicting the speaker’s intense struggle with indecision, the poem suggests that excessive preoccupation with doing the right thing – whether when expressing yourself, forming relationships with others, or simply deciding how to style your hair or what to eat – can actually stop a person from ever venturing forth into the world or, in fact, doing much of anything at all.
From the beginning, the poem sets up a comparison between action and inaction. The first line states, “let us go,” implying that the poem will move forward in time and space – in other words, that it will go somewhere.
But that momentum is quickly stalled. These streets “follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent,” suggesting that the various paths they offer up feel both boring and threatening – that there is no clear good path to take. And though the speaker says that the streets “lead you to an overwhelming question,” the speaker doesn’t actually pose that question.
Instead, he explicitly says not to inquire further: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’” Maybe the question is just which direction is best to walk in or, indeed, where they’re going in the first place – simple queries that become hurdles in the speaker’s mind.
In any case, the speaker’s habitual procrastination seems to be rooted in social anxiety since, paralyzed with fear about making the wrong choice, he appears to find even basic decisions about what to eat or how to dress overwhelming.
In fact, the speaker admits that he finds time for “a hundred indecisions, / and for a hundred visions and revisions,” all before sitting down his afternoon tea! He imagines “descending the stair” and greeting people. Still, in reality, he is too timid to do so because he imagines that people will laugh at his bald spot and shabby clothing, which, in turn, suggest that the speaker is getting older – and that he has been wasting his time with all this indecision.
What’s more, it’s not just that the speaker can’t follow through on his planned actions. He doesn’t even seem to know how to begin to ask “the overwhelming question.” Instead, he asks, “how should I begin?” and “how should I presume?”- suggesting that he feels incapable of overcoming the first hurdle to taking action. He repeats those phrases at the end of two different stanzas, giving the impression of stuttering or repeated failed start.
For the speaker, trying to make the best choice repeatedly results in him making no choice at all. He is also paralyzed by a feeling of his own inadequacy, as implied by his reluctance to “presume” and his repetition of the phrase “Do I dare?” He doesn’t take action, in other words, because he doesn’t feel that he has the right to do so.
Overcoming indecision requires agency, but the speaker remains trapped in his repeating patterns because he feels that he can’t “dare” to do anything.
There are times when the speaker does seem close to doing something, but the poem ultimately indicates that wanting to act isn’t enough. It suggests that taking meaningful action requires that an individual “dare” to choose without being certain that it’s the best choice – a risk that the speaker can’t bring himself to take.
And while the speaker thinks he’ll have plenty of time to do things, this seems like wishful thinking. Given his propensity to waffle about every little decision, he’ll likely continue to agonize over his choices until there’s no time left – his indecision having stopped him from living a full life.
Desire, Communication, and Commitment
Although the speaker in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” might appear silent and affectless to others, his interior life is alive with hope and desire. In particular, he appears to have a deep longing for romantic connection – but he struggles to communicate that desire, and so it remains mostly unfulfilled.
Indeed, despite being a “love song,” the poem never quite manages to discuss love itself; instead, it stays bogged down in the false starts and half-finished thoughts that characterize the speaker’s attempts at connecting with other people. The poem clarifies that people like the speaker can only really experience love by breaking through these communication barriers. Still, it also embodies just how difficult doing so can be.
A few key moments in the poem suggest the speaker feels romantic or sexual desire for women but is unable to express those feelings. For example, he asks at one point if it is “perfume from a dress” that distracts him, and he is preoccupied with the image of a woman’s “arms that lie along with a table or wrap about a shawl”- a fixation that seems erotic.
However, his desires are soon stymied by self-doubt and recrimination. He asks himself: “And should I then presume? And how should I begin?” These repeated questions show that he doesn’t know how to begin a conversation with a woman and thinks it would somehow be presumptuous.
The speaker’s sense of thwarted communication is so strong that it even colours his fantasies. When the speaker imagines expressing his desires and feelings to others, those scenes inevitably dissolve into disheartening moments of misunderstanding.
For instance, the speaker imagines posing what he calls “the overwhelming question,” saying, “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.” However, although the speaker compares himself to the Biblical figure and offers the promise of total revelation -“to tell all” – he doesn’t actually manage to communicate much of anything. Instead, he imagines his listener falling asleep and needing “a pillow by her head.”
Even in his fantasies, then, he experiences the disappointment of being unable to communicate, protesting: “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”
The speaker’s attempts at communication only grow less effective as he is overcome by hopelessness and disappointment.
By the end of the poem, the disappointment of the speaker seems to have hardened to the point that it has become entrenched within him; he doesn’t seem to expect that his desires will ever be fulfilled. He describes the singing of mermaids in exquisite detail but admits: “I do not think that they will sing to me.” Instead, he remarks that he “(grows) old.”
This is because the speaker’s communication efforts have been unsuccessful; he gives up on trying instead of imagining that his opportunity to share his hopes and dreams has already passed.
The speaker’s exclamation partway through the poem that “it is impossible to say just what [he] mean[s]” underscores exactly how interconnected desire, communication, and disappointment is for the speaker. His frustration suggests that romantic fulfillment requires clear communication – something the poem indicates the speaker might not be capable of.
Modernity and Alienation
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is often regarded as one of the quintessential “modernist” poems, reflecting the social and intellectual conditions of the early 20th century. The poem emphasizes modern life’s exciting features – like electricity and new medical technologies – but it also suggests that modernity comes with a persistent sense of alienation and isolation from others.
Through the speaker’s example, the poem indicates that the modern condition essentially results in feeling alienated from the world.
The poem refers to several technologies that would have been relatively new in the early 20th century, like lamplight, industrial factories, and anesthesia in hospitals. At the same time, all this new activity and industry seems to have left the speaker behind.
He describes how the “yellow fog” slithers through the streets like a cat that “rubs its back upon the window-panes,” but he rarely interacts with actual people, as the streets are “half-deserted.” The smog seems more alive to him than the people themselves.
The speaker already seems weary of this new world, in which events follow one another in a repetitive, cyclical fashion. He claims: “I have known them all already, known them all; / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, / I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” He suggests that nothing can surprise him anymore or disturb the normal rituals of polite society.
For the speaker, taking action would mean “to force the moment to its crisis,” which seems an impossible task after the civilized, sedate activity of taking “tea and cake and ices.” Thus, there is something emotionally deadening and alienating about the seemingly empty social rituals that characterize the modern world.
Modernist literature was also often characterized by a rejection of traditional figures of authority. In keeping with this tradition, the poem deconstructs the traditionally respected pillars of Western culture, religion, and literature, leaving the speaker feeling isolated and pessimistic about his diminished connection to those traditions.
For example, the speaker comments ironically that he is “no prophet,” like John the Baptist, and that rather “the eternal Footman hold(s) my coat, and snicker(s)” – basically implying, death laughs at him.
The poem thus makes its protagonist an object of mockery rather than a figure of greatness. The speaker himself seems to feel an inability to measure up against these literary greats, as when he proclaims that “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” and is simply a nameless, subservient “attendant lord” or even “a Fool.”
He doesn’t draw strength or inspiration from these would-be authority figures of literature and culture; instead, they leave him feeling isolated and disheartened. This reaction suggests that modernist trends in literature may only enhance the alienating experience of living in the modern world.
This poem suggests that, for all the wealth and technological comforts of modern life, there is something profoundly alienating about this new way of experiencing the world. The speaker feels unable to participate in the world’s social life around him or relate to the literary context before him. Modernity doesn’t connect him more with others; it just leaves him feeling even more alone.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis Form
“Prufrock” is a contrast on the dramatic monologue, a type of poem popular with the author’s predecessors. Dramatic monologues are similar to soliloquies in a play. Three things characterize a typical dramatic monologue, according to M.H. Abrams:
- There are the utterances of a specific individual (who is not the poet) at any specific moment in time.
- The monologue is specifically directed towards a listener or listener whose presence is not directly referenced but is merely suggested in the words of the speaker.
- The main focus is the development and revelation of the speaker’s character.
Eliot has modernized the form by removing the implied listeners and focusing on Prufrock’s interiority and isolation. From Dante’s Inferno, the epigraph to this poem describes Prufrock’s ideal listener as one who is just as lost as the speaker of the poem and will never betray the world the content of Prufrock’s present confessions.
Prufrock describes that no such sympathetic figure exists in the world, and he must, therefore, be content with silent reflection. In its focus on character and dramatic sensibility, “Prufrock” anticipates Eliot’s later, dramatic works.
The rhyme scheme of this poem can be called irregular but is not random. Even though sections of the poem might resemble free verse, in reality, “Prufrock” is a carefully structured combination of the poetic forms. The bits and pieces of rhyme in the poem become much more apparent when the poem is being read aloud.
One of the most significant formal characteristics of this literary work is the use of refrains. Prufrock’s continuous return to the “women (who) come and goes / Talking of Michelangelo” and his recurrent questionings – “how should I presume?” and pessimistic appraisals “That is not it, at all.” Both references to an earlier poetic tradition and help Eliot describe a modern and neurotic individual’s consciousness.
Prufrock’s obsessiveness is showcased as aesthetic, but it is also a sign of compulsiveness and isolation. Another important formal feature is that the sonnet forms fragments, particularly at the poem’s conclusion. The three-line stanzas are rhymed as the conclusion of a Petrarchan sonnet would be.
Still, their pessimistic, anti-romantic content went well with the despairing interjection of, “I do not think they (the mermaids) would sing to me,” creating a contrast that comments bitterly on the bleakness of modernity.
The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis Literary Devices
Literary devices play a significant part in any literary piece. They are used for highlighting hidden meanings in the poem. These devices also contribute to bringing clarity and uniqueness to the literary piece. T.S. Eliot has used various literary devices such as metaphors, similes, personification, and irony in the poem. The analysis of several literary devices has been stated below.
- Personification: Eliot has used personification, which means to use emotions for inanimate objects. The poet has personified trees and other various objects in this poem. The line – “the tree waved as I walked by” showcases the trees as humans and as they wave at him. He has also personified the “Yellow fog” like a dog or even a lurking cat.
- Metaphor: There are various metaphors used in this poem. “Hollywood” stands for entertainment. Also, “the man” and “Washington” are metaphors of the government during that period.
- Irony: Irony is a figure of speech stating the opposite meanings of the situation discussed. Alfred Prufrock, the narrator, thinks he has a lot of time. However, in reality, the man keeps running out of time.
- Epigraph: Refers to a statement, quote or poem which is set during the beginning of the document, before the literary piece or actual poem starts. The poet has used a stanza from Dante’s “Inferno” before starting the actual poem sound in “fix you in a formulated phrase.”
- Simile: A simile is a device used to compare two different objects to understand meanings by comparing these object’s qualities. “The streets that follow like a tedious argument” is one example of simile used in the poem. Perhaps the individuals or the crowd talking across the street sounded more like an argument to the narrator. For the second example, the evening is being compared to death in the lines – “While streets the evening is spread out against the sky, Like a patient etherized upon a table…”
- Alliteration: Alliteration can be described as repeating the same consonant sounds in the same lines, such as using the sound in “fix you in a formulated phrase.
This literary device analysis shows that Eliot excels in using literary devices to grab readers’ attention. It also shows that effectively using these devices helps readers in understanding Eliot’s message.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis of The Poetic Devices
Although poetic devices are similar to literary devices, some are specifically used in poems. T. S. Eliot has used the following poetic devices in this poem in order to make it appealing.
- Stanza: The structure of the stanza keeps varying as the poem progresses. Various stanzas of two, seven and twelve verses have been used throughout this poem.
- Repetition: There has been a repetition of the phrase “let us go” in lines one, four and twelve. Line fifteen and sixteen also begin with “the yellow” and end with “window-panes.” Also, the words “do I dare” have also been repeated in the poem. The repetition of these phases has helped in enhancing the musical impact of the poem.
- Rhyming Scheme: The poet has used a simple rhyming pattern in his poem. In the first two lines of the poem, the poet has made the use of rhyming couplet. The rhyme pattern has also changed between rhymed and unrhymed lines as the poem progresses.
- Refrain: The lines in a poem that are repeated at some distance are known as a refrain. The phrases such as “window-panes”, “the yellow”, and “let us go” have been repeated. Thus, they have become a type of refrain.
In the final analysis of this poem, it can be stated the use of these poetic devices has helped in bringing musical quality hard to find in such free verse poems. Eliot has smoothly blended poetic devices with literary devices and further his message to showcase that he understands the art of poetry. He uses it to convey his message effectively.
The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis Commentary
“Prufrock” showcases the two most significant characteristics of Eliot’s early poetry. First, it has been strongly influenced by the French Symbolists, like Mallarmé, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, whom Eliot had been reading almost constantly when writing the poem.
Eliot grabs his sensuous language and eye for unnerving or anti-aesthetic detail from the Symbolists, which nevertheless contributes to this poem’s overall beauty (the yellow smoke and the women’s hair-covered arms are two good examples of this).
The Symbolists privileged the same kind of individual Eliot creates with Prufrock – the urban, moody, isolated-yet-sensitive thinker. However, whereas the Symbolists might have been more likely of making their speaker himself a poet or an artist, Eliot chooses to make Prufrock an unacknowledged poet, a sort of artist for the commoner.
The second defining characteristic of the poem is its use of fragmentation and comparison. Eliot has sustained his interest in fragmentation and its applications throughout his poetic career, and his use of this technique has changed in important ways throughout his body of work.
Here, the subjects undergoing fragmentation are mental focus and certain sets of imagery; in ‘The Waste Land’, it is the modern culture that splinters; in the ‘Four Quartets’, we find the fragments of attempted philosophical systems.
Eliot’s use of bits and pieces of the formal structure suggests that fragmentation, although anxiety-provoking, is productive; had he chosen to write the poem in free verse, the poem would have seemed much more cynical. The kinds of imagery the poet uses also suggest that something new can be made from these ruins.
The series of hypothetical encounters during the poem’s centre are iterated and discontinuous but lead to a sort of epiphany rather than just leading nowhere.
The poet also introduces an image that will recur in his poetry later – of the scavenger. Alfred Prufrock thinks to himself that he definitely “should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
Crabs are garbage-eaters, scavengers who live off refuse, which makes its way to the seafloor. Eliot’s discussions of his own poetic technique suggest that making something beautiful out of something that has been refused by modern life, as a crab sustains and nourishes itself on garbage, can be considered the highest form of art.
At the very least, this notion overthrows the romantic ideals about art; at best, it suggests that fragments might become reintegrated, that art might be in some way therapeutic for a modern broken world. In ‘The Waste Land’, crabs become rats, and the optimism disappears, but here the poet seems to assert only the limitless potential that scavenging has.
“Prufrock” ends up as the hero assigning himself a role in one of Shakespeare’s plays – While he is no Hamlet, he might yet be beneficial and essential as “an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two…” This implies that there is still continuity between the world of Shakespeare and ours.
Also, Hamlet is still relevant for us and that we are still part of a world that might produce something like the plays of Shakespeare. This implies that is the suggestion that the poet, who has created an “attendant lord,” might now go on to create another Hamlet. Where “Prufrock” ends with a devaluation of its hero, it glorifies its creator.
However, the last line of this poem suggests otherwise – that when the world intrudes, when “human voices wake us,” the dreams are shattered – “we drown.” Eliot deconstructs the romantic notion that poetic genius is needed to triumph over the impersonal forces and destruction of the modern world with this single line. In reality, the poet is a little better than his creation.
The poet differs from Prufrock only by retaining a bit of arrogance that shows throughout from time to time. Eliot’s poetic creation, therefore, mirrors Prufrock’s monologue. Both are an expression of sensitivity and aesthetic ability that seems to have no place in this modern world. This anti-romantic, realistic outlook has set the stage for Eliot’s later works, including ‘The Waste Land’.
The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis History
One of the first true modernist poems, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ is a shifting, repetitive monologue, a mature male’s thoughts as he keeps searching for love and meaning in this uncertain and twilight world.
S. Eliot wrote his uncertain love song from 1910 to 1911, but J. Alfred Prufrock didn’t appear in print until June 1915, when editor Harriet Monroe, with Ezra Pound’s recommendation, published it in the journal Poetry. The poem was completely different from the more refined accepted verse of the times and helped kick-start the modernist movement.
Eliot’s poem caught the changes in awareness perfectly. At the time of writing, the class system that had been in place for centuries was under immense pressure like never before. There was a change in society changing, with a new order being formed. World War 1 just was on the horizon, and the power struggles were beginning to change the way people lived, thought, and loved.
Alfred Prufrock is a respectful character, but he has seen the seedier side of life. He’s getting on in years and is acutely aware of what he’s become. He measures his life in coffee spoons, his lost hair, and his lean physique. He’s due for a refresh, a personal revolution, but doesn’t know where to start.
Similar Poems to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Analysis
If you are someone who enjoyed “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock” you might also consider the following poems:
- The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot
- John Donne’s Poetry by John Donne
- Paradise Lost And Paradise Regained by John Milton
- Don Juan by Lord