"The Love Song of

J.Alfred Prufrock"


a poem by Thomas Stearns Eliot

 

Aspects of Modernism

Detected in T.S.Eliot's Poem

 

 

I n t r o d u c t i o n

 

         Thomas Stearns Eliot began his undergraduation studies in Philosophy at Harvard, but due to the outbreak of World War I he was not able to receive his degree. However, by that time, he had already written his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.

 

         In 1914, he met Ezra Pound, who became his editor and main mentor. Then, he began to be artistically noticed and his “The Waste Land” gave fame to him, through verses expliciting all the alienation and fragmentation typical of our modern culture.

 

         Later, after being converted to Anglicanism, Eliot produced a kind of poetry which combined sensibility with the uncertainties of a devastated Europe, after the war.

 

 

T h e   P o e m

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,

Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

 

Dante Alighieri's Inferno

(Canto 27, lines 61-66)

 

 

S u m m a r y:

 

The poem was completed between 1910 and 1911, being published only in 1915. Its main theme is the examination of the modern man’s tortured psyche, through the internal monologue of an eloquent and educated being with a neurotic, disturbed soul. Prufrock is the main character and narrator of the poem, who reports to a potential lover, in the hope of consummating the relationship.

 

But Prufrock is sufficiently experienced to dare a direct approach. Thus, the poem moves from concrete settings to a series of oceanic images, giving the reader the notion of distance that Prufrock had in relation to the world, culminating with his recognition as someone with a somehow second class status (“I am not Prince Hamlet”).

 

 

F o r m:

 

The poem is a reproduction of a dramatic monologue, typical of popular poetry. Its dramatic characteristics have similarities with the soliloquies of theatre plays, especially in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. According to the literary critic Mike Abrams [2], three things characterize the dramatic monologue:

 

·        “They are the utterances of a specific individual (not the poet), at a specific moment in time”;

 

·        “The monologue is specifically directed at a listener or listeners whose presence is not directly referenced but is merely suggested in the speaker's words”;

 

·         “The primary focus is the development and revelation of the speaker's character.

 

 

Eliot, then, gave a new modernized form to this genre, as he focuses the isolation of Prufrock’s interior, not allowing utterances as there would be no real listener.

 

The poem’s epigraphy is taken from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, giving us the exact idea of who would be Prufrock’s ideal listener: a person who is as lost as the narrator, and who will never betray him by revealing the real content of his confessions. However, a person like this does not exist in the world, and, consequently, Prufrock has to content himself with his own silent reflections.

 

Despite the schema used in the composition of rhymes be irregular, the poem can never be considered as constructed at random. At a very first sight, it could even be understood as idealized with free verses but, in reality, it is a mixture of fragmented poetic forms, very carefully structured.

 

One example of it is the use of sweetly rhymed pieces of sonnets, as seen in the last part of the final stanza, contrasting with Prufrock’s bitterest conclusion that ‘the mermaids would not sing to him’, also a manner to emphasize the anti-romantic pessimism of an obscure modernity.

 

The large use of refrains is another important formal characteristic of the poem, highlighting the obsession that reflects Prufrock’s compulsiveness and isolation.

 

 

 

C o m m e n t a r y:

 

 

“The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” brings two of the most remarkable features present in all Eliot’s early poetry:

 

 ·   First, it recalls the French Symbolists like Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, Eliot’s most frequent readings when the poem was being written. They influenced not only the unique sensual language used in the poem but, also, its visually disturbing anti-aesthetic format. Symbolic images like “yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes” (line 15) are used to reflect the decline of the society, an image that would be repeated later, in another famous literary masterpiece, Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, through the “Valley of Ashes.

 

·     The second most striking feature is the use of fragmentation and juxtaposition. So, in Prufrock, the topics submitted to fragmentation – and its subsequent reassembly – support the mental focus as well as the composition of images. At the same time, the use of pieces extracted from formal poetic structures suggests not only the overall productivity of such appeal (fragmentation) but, also, a contribution to create a stronger final impact, producing a relevant sensation of anxiety (and if his choice was to write exclusively in free verses, the final result would be harmed, as we would have a much more nihilistic poem, with no option to recover hope, at the end).

 

Symbolists also inspired the isolated-yet-sensitive mood which characterizes Prufrock, a real disturbed urban thinker, wondering in silence about his relations with the other one. But while Symbolist poets put themselves up as the own speakers of their poems, Eliot chose to create his unknown Alfred Prufrock, someone very ordinary – almost insignificant –, as suggested by his name. And although he is just one among millions, Prufrock is a person who dangerously owns a “stream of consciousness”, something typical of the modern literary language and that, inclusively, justifies his interior monologue.

 

The imagery created by Eliot endorses that something new can be reconstructed from the ruins. So, the series of hypothetical meetings evidenced throughout the poem ultimately lead us to a kind of epiphany, rather than simply not leading us to nowhere. Among others, he also introduces the image of scavengers like crabs, garbage-eaters which refuse to go to the bottom of the sea, always staying in the beaches (later, in his “The Waste Land”, crabs would be replaced by rats).

 

With such image, Eliot also suggests that it is possible to make a higher form of Art, much beyond the standards in vigor – and somehow very similar to the way that a crab is sustained, nurturing itself from garbage. So, the poet subverts the sacred notions of the Romantic ideal, while suggesting that all fragments can be reintegrated, converting Art in a kind of remedy for a modern world broken into pieces.

 

 

Paradoxically, Prufrock ends the poem with a denial that has the value of an affirmative statement, leading us to the possibility of a final hope: since he is not Prince Hamlet, there would be some usefulness and relevance still left to him: like Polonius (*), a mere “attendant lord” (line 112), he would play the role of “advising the prince” (line 114), instead of being himself the anxious noble who lives the dilemma of wreaking justice for the wrong reasons and in evil passion.

 

So, by denying himself, the creature Prufrock ultimately celebrated its creator, Eliot, whose genius could even bring to life a new Hamlet, the prince of the most eloquent soliloquies, irrespectively of all interference from the human voices of the world, awaking the poet from his dreams. And since the figure of Hamlet was still relevant, it meant that both Eliot and Prufrock continued to live in a world capable of producing things with great beauty and significance, like the Shakespearean tragedies.

 

With such associations, Eliot additionally destroyed the notions that the Romantic form was all that we needed to succeed over the impersonal and destructive forces of the modern world, where intellectual capacity and aesthetic sensibility seemed to have no place in the production of the best expressions of Art.

 

 

(*) – In the Shakespearean tragedy, the advisor Polonius was the character who assumed that Hamlet’s madness – or “ecstasy of love” – was caused by the fascination he had for his daughter, Ophelia. Nevertheless, there is still another implicit denial in this reference, as Hamlet, believing that the person hidden behind the curtains was Claudius, wildly killed Polonius by mistake.

 

 

 

C o n c l u s i o n

 

Eliot himself once attributed much of his original style to the French Symbolists, particularly Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarmé – as well as Laforgue –, his usual readings at the university. From these poets, he abstracted the ability of producing poetry with a high range of intellectualism, but without losing a needed discursive sensuality. He developed, thus, something new and original through his first works, “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land”, both of them rich of cultural references and which denuded the world he was living in, still beautiful and deeply significant despite of being in ruins at those times preceding World War I.

 

Particularly in his “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock”, we realize Eliot’s efforts to modernize the poetry, by using various techniques such as pastiche and juxtaposition, resulting in the perfect achievement of the exposure of all his most deep reasons, but without arguing them explicitly.

 

In addition to the poetic innovations, Eliot developed characters that perfectly fitted in the role of the typical ordinary modern man, also present in other contemporary authors like Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Prufrock, the character who gave his name to the title of our poem, was a perfect example of this new man: a lonely neurasthenic person who, despite of his excessive intellectualism, was someone completely unable to express himself, not only because of his own limitations but, also, due to the complexity of the world that surrounded him.

 

 

According to the literary critic John C.Pope, Eliot’s J.Alfred Prufrock is connected to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s character Raskolikov from “Crime and Punishment”, as both are victims of a “stifled suffering” caused by the “withering life of cities” [5].

 

And although the meaning of Eliot’s poetry suffered various changes throughout his career, his poems could aggregate many unifying aspects, being marked by a conscious desire to join a more intellectual side to the aesthetic sensitivity of emotions, which contributed to the current consensus that still considers him as one of the most appreciable poets of the literature in English language in all times.

 

 

B i b l i o g r a p h y

 

 

 

  1. [1] - ELIOT, Thomas Stearns. Prufrock, and Other Observations. London: The Egoist, Ltd., 1917.

 

  1. [2] - ABRAMS, Meyer (Mike) Howard. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 4th Ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981.

  

  1. [3] - LOCKE, Frederick W. Dante and T.S.Eliot’s Prufrock. In Modern Language Notes. New York: The John Hopkins Press, Vol. 78, 1963, pp. 51-9.

  

  1. [4] - ELIOT, Thomas Stearns. Tradition and the Individual Talent. In The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methune, 1920. New York: Bartleby, 2000.

  

  1. [5] - POPE, John C. Prufrock and Raskolnikov. In American Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.