Analysis of Poem: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot
T.S.Eliot and J. Alfred Prufrock
One of the first true modernist poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a shifting, repetitive monologue, the thoughts of a mature male as he searches for love and meaning in an uncertain, twilight world.
T.S.Eliot wrote his dubious love song in 1910/11 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 radically different to the more genteel accepted verse of the times and helped to kick-start the modernist movement.
Eliot's poem caught the changes in consciousness perfectly. At the time of writing, class systems that had been in place for centuries were under pressure like never before. Society was changing, and a new order was forming. World War 1 was on the horizon and the struggles for power were beginning to alter the way people lived and thought and loved.
J. Alfred Prufrock is a respectable character but has seen the seedier side of life. He's getting on in years and is acutely aware of what he's become, measuring his life in coffee spoons, losing his hair, turning thin. He's due for a refresh, a personal revolution, but doesn't know where to start.
Yet he still wants to make his mark on the world, even 'disturb the universe' whilst throughout the poem he appears nervous, isolated and lacking in confidence. He may be intelligent, he may have experience but he doesn't seem to trust in anyone or anything. But who can blame him? The world is crumbling and with it comes the fragmentation of human sensibility.
Prufrock is in a life or death situation, between heaven and hell. The city is half-deserted. You can sense the atmosphere isn't quite right. He's looking for answers.
- The epigraph, in Italian, is a quotation from Dante's Inferno, canto 27. Dante faces the spirit of one hellbound Guido da Montefeltro, a false advisor, and the two trade questions and answers. It's an important lead in to the poem itself as the quote conveys the idea that the answer will be given (by Guido) because no man has ever returned to Earth alive from the hellish abyss.
T.S.Eliot's poem is the story of a modern day Guido living in a smoky, city hell. He is insecure, lonely and loveless.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Analysis of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is 131 lines long and is mostly loose rhyming, that is, there is no consistent rhyme scheme and no regular pattern to the rhythm.
But there are substantial sections with rhyme:
- for example lines 23-67 contain plenty of full and slant rhyme - street/meet, create/plate, dare/stair/hair, room/presume - and a good proportion of the rest of the poem has rhyme.
- Lines 37-48 in particular have an unusual set of rhymes which not only help to reinforce Prufrock's neurotic personality but add a comic effect to the idea that he might dare to disturb the universe, in one minute. Check out dare/stair/hair and thin/chin/pin/thin whilst time and dare repeat towards the end of the stanza.
- These rhymes certainly give the sense of song and bring a lyrical feel to the poem.
T.S. Eliot was a great believer in using both traditional and innovative poetic techniques and devices in his work and this poem reflects this belief. So, for example, loose iambic pentameter, tetrameter and trimeter pop up now and again to help keep the poem on track as it heads out into the yellow fog of the cityscape.
Note the fact that lines vary from 3 syllables to 20 (lines 45 and 102), and with well placed enjambment the reader's ability to scan and understand can be tested to the full.
This shifting, repetitive poem is a parody of a love song; it flows then stumbles and hesitates its way through the life of a middle aged male who can't decide where he stands in the world. Will he venture out to find the love of his life? Now is the time to visit that room where the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.
But Prufrock, the tentative male, envisages being ridiculed for having a bald patch. Time is running out, or is it? Note the reference to the Andrew Marvell poem To His Coy Mistress in line 23 and Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night in line 52 and Prince Hamlet in line 111.
Eliot also used French poet Jules LaForgue as inspiration for his repeated women who come and go talking of Michelangelo. "Dans la piece les femmes vont et viennent / En parlant des maîtres de Sienne." LaForgue was one of the innovators of the interior monologue and Eliot certainly exploited this technique to the full in Prufrock.
There are fragments of images, gloomy cityscapes, reflective inner thoughts and an uneasy questioning self that is the anti-hero Prufrock. He is both ditherer and dreamer, a split personality who procrastinates, who is caught between fantasy and reality.
Further Analysis of Prufrock
Prufrock is lacking in self esteem and perhaps loathes himself. How do we know this? Well, note the imagery in lines 57- 61 when he compares himself to an insect pinned and wriggling on the wall, and again in lines 73/74 in which he sees himself as a lowly crustacean on the sea floor.
The questions continue as the narrative progresses, an echo of the scene from Dante - will Prufrock have the courage to act, will he have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? He makes us think that he has sacrificed much to get to this point in his life. He has fasted, prayed, wept, afraid for the future.
But how much of this is fiction dreamt up by a forlorn man past his best, who is constantly frustrated because It is impossible to say just what I mean!
Is this the outcome of Prufrock's fear of rejection? He cannot bring himself to commit to his vision - poetic, religious, amorous - he cannot even eat a peach due to a deep seated angst.
In the end he succumbs to harsh reality whilst fantasising about the mermaids who sing to each other but who will never sing to him. Prufrock just can't snap out of this self-imposed existential mindset. What is it he needs? Love, drugs, therapy?
Eliot's poem is full of metaphor and simile, simple rhyme and complex rhythms. By portraying Prufrock as an anxious, neurotic individual he invites us to use his work of art as a mirror. Read it out loud, slowly, and its intelligence and music will emerge.
No matter what sort of life we lead we might question, dare and invite others to share, before time and fate take their toll. So you want to know how to change the universe? Sink your teeth into a juicy peach.
Eliot uses the energies of the cat to help the reader focus in on the smoke and fog of the cityscape. Strong repeated rhyme and assonance further enrich the experience in lines 15-22.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2016 Andrew Spacey