The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
|Author||T. S. Eliot|
|Read online||The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock at Wikisource|
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", commonly known as "Prufrock", is a poem by American-British poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Eliot began writing "Prufrock" in February 1910 and it was first published June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse at the instigation of Ezra Pound (1885–1972). It was later printed as part of a twelve-poem pamphlet titled Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917. At the time of its publication, Prufrock was considered shocking and offensive; heralding a paradigmatic cultural shift from the late 19th century Romantic verse and Georgian lyrics to Modernism. The poem is regarded as the beginning of Eliot's career as an influential poet.
The poem's structure was heavily influenced by Eliot's extensive reading of Dante Alighieri and refers to a number of literary works, including Hamlet and the poetry of the French Symbolists. Eliot narrates the conscious experience of the character, Prufrock, using a stream of consciousness technique, a form developed by his fellow Modernist writers. The poem, described as a "drama of literary anguish" is a dramatic interior monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and his incapability for decisive action that is said "to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual" and "represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment." Prufrock laments his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and lack of spiritual progress, and he is haunted by reminders of unattained carnal love. With visceral feelings of weariness, regret, embarrassment, longing, emasculation, sexual frustration, a sense of decay, and an awareness of mortality, "Prufrock" has become one of the most recognized voices in modern literature.
Composition and publication 
Composed mainly between February 1910 and July or August 1911, the poem was first published in Chicago in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, after Ezra Pound, the magazine's foreign editor, persuaded Harriet Monroe, its founder, that Eliot was unique: "He has actually trained himself AND modernized himself ON HIS OWN. The rest of the promising young have done one or the other, but never both." This was Eliot's first publication of a poem outside school or university.
In November 1915 the poem—along with Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady," "The Boston Evening Transcript," "Hysteria," and "Miss Helen Slingsby"—was published in London in Pound's Catholic Anthology 1914–1915, which was printed by Elkin Mathews. In June 1917 The Egoist, a small publishing firm run by Dora Marsden, published a pamphlet entitled Prufrock and Other Observations (London), containing twelve poems by Eliot. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was the first in the volume.
Eliot's notebook of draft poems, published posthumously in 1996 by Harcourt Brace, has the dates "July–Aug. 1911" at the end of the poem marking him as young as 22 when the poem was completed. The notebook includes 38 lines from the middle of a draft version of the poem. This section, now known as Prufrock's Pervigilium, describes the "vigil" of Prufrock through an evening and night.
In the drafts, the poem had the subtitle "Prufrock among the Women." Eliot said "The Love Song of" portion of the title came from "The Love Song of Har Dyal," a poem by Rudyard Kipling, published in the 1888 collection Plain Tales from the Hills. The form of Prufrock's name is like the name that Eliot was using at the time: T. Stearns Eliot.
In a 1950 letter, Eliot said, "I did not have, at the time of writing the poem, and have not yet recovered, any recollection of having acquired this name in any way, but I think that it must be assumed that I did, and that the memory has been obliterated."
In context, the epigraph refers to a meeting between Dante and Guido da Montefeltro, who was condemned to the eighth circle of Hell for providing counsel to Pope Boniface VIII, who wished to use Guido's advice for a nefarious undertaking. This encounter follows Dante's meeting with Ulysses, who himself is also condemned to the circle of the Fraudulent. According to Ron Banerjee, the epigraph serves to cast ironic light on Prufrock's intent. Like Guido, Prufrock had intended his story never be told, and so by quoting Guido, Eliot reveals his view of Prufrock's love song.
Frederick Locke contends that Prufrock himself is suffering from multiple personalities of sorts, and that he embodies both Guido and Dante in the Inferno analogy. One is the storyteller; the other the listener who later reveals the story to the world. He posits, alternatively, that the role of Guido in the analogy is indeed filled by Prufrock, but that the role of Dante is filled by you, the reader, as in "Let us go then, you and I," (1). In that, the reader is granted the power to do as he pleases with Prufrock's love song.
- 'sovegna vos a temps de ma dolor'.
- Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina.
Eliot provided this translation in his essay "Dante" (1929):
- 'be mindful in due time of my pain'.
- Then dived he back into that fire which refines them.
- S`io credesse che mia risposta fosse
- A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
- Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
- Ma perciocchè giammai di questo fondo
- Non tornò vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
- Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.
One translation, from the Princeton Dante Project, is:
- "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."
Because the poem is concerned primarily with the irregular musings of the narrator, it can be difficult to interpret. Laurence Perrine wrote, "[the poem] presents the apparently random thoughts going through a person's head within a certain time interval, in which the transitional links are psychological rather than logical". This stylistic choice makes it difficult to determine exactly what is literal and what is symbolic. On the surface, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" relays the thoughts of a sexually frustrated middle-aged man who wants to say something but is afraid to do so, and ultimately does not. The dispute, however, lies in to whom Prufrock is speaking, whether he is actually going anywhere, what he wants to say, and to what the various images refer.
The intended audience is not evident. Some believe that Prufrock is talking to another person or directly to the reader, while others believe Prufrock's monologue is internal. Perrine writes "The 'you and I' of the first line are divided parts of Prufrock's own nature", while Mutlu Konuk Blasing suggests that the "you and I" refers to the relationship between the dilemmas of the character and the author. Similarly, critics dispute whether Prufrock is going somewhere during the course of the poem. In the first half of the poem, Prufrock uses various outdoor images (the sky, streets, cheap restaurants and hotels, fog), and talks about how there will be time for various things before "the taking of a toast and tea", and "time to turn back and descend the stair." This has led many to believe that Prufrock is on his way to an afternoon tea, in which he is preparing to ask this "overwhelming question". Others, however, believe that Prufrock is not physically going anywhere, but rather, is playing through it in his mind.
Perhaps the most significant dispute lies over the "overwhelming question" that Prufrock is trying to ask. Many believe that Prufrock is trying to tell a woman of his romantic interest in her, pointing to the various images of women's arms and clothing and the final few lines in which Prufrock laments that the mermaids will not sing to him. Others, however, believe that Prufrock is trying to express some deeper philosophical insight or disillusionment with society, but fears rejection, pointing to statements that express a disillusionment with society such as "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" (line 51). Many believe that the poem is a criticism of Edwardian society and Prufrock's dilemma represents the inability to live a meaningful existence in the modern world. McCoy and Harlan wrote "For many readers in the 1920s, Prufrock seemed to epitomize the frustration and impotence of the modern individual. He seemed to represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment."
As the poem uses the stream of consciousness technique, it is often difficult to determine what is meant to be interpreted literally or symbolically. In general, Eliot uses imagery which is indicative of Prufrock's character, representing aging and decay. For example, "When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table" (lines 2-3), the "sawdust restaurants" and "cheap hotels," the yellow fog, and the afternoon "Asleep...tired... or it malingers" (line 77), are reminiscent of languor and decay, while Prufrock's various concerns about his hair and teeth, as well as the mermaids "Combing the white hair of the waves blown back / When the wind blows the water white and black," show his concern over aging.
Use of allusion 
Like many of Eliot's poems, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" makes numerous allusions to other works, which are often symbolic themselves. Laurence Perrine identifies the following allusions in the poem:
- In "Time for all the works and days of hands" (29) the phrase 'works and days' is the title of a long poem - a description of agricultural life and a call to toil - by the early Greek poet Hesiod.
- "I know the voices dying with a dying fall" (52) echoes Orsino's first lines in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
- The prophet of "Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter / I am no prophet - and here's no great matter" (81-2) is John the Baptist, whose head was delivered to Salome by Herod as a reward for her dancing (Matthew 14:1-11, and Oscar Wilde's play Salome).
- "To have squeezed the universe into a ball" (92) and "indeed there will be time" (23) echo the closing lines of Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress'. Other phrases such as, "there will be time" and "there is time" are reminiscent of the opening line of that poem: "Had we but world enough and time". Marvell's words in turn echo the General Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, "whil I have tyme and space".
- "'I am Lazarus, come from the dead'" (94) may be either the beggar Lazarus (of Luke 16) returning for the rich man who was not permitted to return from the dead to warn the brothers of a rich man about Hell, or the Lazarus (of John 11) whom Christ raised from the dead, or both.
- "Full of high sentence" (117) echoes Chaucer's description of the Clerk of Oxford in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
- "There will be time to murder and create" is a biblical allusion to Ecclesiastes 3.
Johan Schimanski identifies these:
- In the final section of the poem, Prufrock rejects the idea that he is Prince Hamlet, suggesting that he is merely "an attendant lord" (112) whose purpose is to "advise the prince" (114), a likely allusion to Polonius. Prufrock also brings in a common Shakespearean element of the Fool, as he claims he is also "Almost, at times, the Fool."
- "Among some talk of you and me" may be a reference to Quatrain 32 of Edward FitzGerald's first translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam ("There was a Door to which I found no Key / There was a Veil past which I could not see / Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE / There seemed - and then no more of THEE and ME.")
In popular culture 
- McCoy, Kathleen, and Harlan, Judith. English Literature From 1785 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 265-66.
- Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Volume 5. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 99.
- Southam, B.C. A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot. Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York 1994, p. 45.
- Capitalization and italics original. Quoted in Mertens, Richard. "Letter By Letter." The University of Chicago Magazine. August 2001. http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0108/features/letter.html (accessed April 23, 2007).
- Miller, James Edward. T.S. Eliot: the making of an American poet, 1888-1922, Penn State Press, 2005, p. 297.
- T.S. Eliot, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917. Ed. Christopher B. Ricks. (Harcourt, 1996) pp. 41, 43-44, 176-90
- Woodberry Poetry Room (Harvard College Library). Poetry Readings: Guide.
- Eliot, T. S. Inventions of the March Hare, 1st edition. Christopher Ricks, ed. Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1996. pg 39.
- Eliot, T. S. "The Unfading Genius of Rudyard Kipling", Kipling Journal, March 1959, pg. 9.
- Eliot, T. S. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, vol. 1. Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1988. pg. 135.
- The furniture store name is given as Prufrock-Littau in many books and websites. However, pre-1911 advertising postcards clearly show the furniture store name as Prufrock-Litton.
- Montesi, Al; Deposki, Richard (August 1, 2001). Downtown St. Louis. Arcadia Publishing. p. 65. ISBN 0-7385-0816-0. Retrieved February 21, 2012.
- Christine H. (January 28, 2010). "The Daily Postcard: Prufrock-Litton - St. Louis, Missouri". Retrieved February 21, 2012.
- "Lighting fixture in front of Prufrock-Litton Furniture Company". Missouri History Museum. Retrieved February 21, 2012.
- Stepanchev, Stephen. "The Origin of J. Alfred Prufrock." Modern Language Notes, 66, (1951). 400-401.
- Banerjee, Ron D. K. "The Dantean Overview: The Epigraph to 'Prufrock'." Comparative Literature, 87, (1972). 962-966.
- Locke, Frederick W. "Dante and T. S. Eliot's Prufrock." Modern Language Notes, 78, (1963). 51-59.
- T.S. Eliot, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917. Ed Christopher B. Ricks. (Harcourt, 1996) pp. 39, 41
- Dante. The Inferno. Transl. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander. Princeton Dante Project. (accessed November 3, 2011).
- Perrine, Laurence. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, 1st edition. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956. p. 798.
- On 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' (accessed June 14, 2006).
- Headings, Philip R. T. S. Eliot. Revised ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. pp. 24-25.
- Hecimovich, Gred A (editor). English 151-3; T. S. Eliot "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" notes (accessed June 14, 2006), from McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith. English Literature from 1785. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
- Blasing, Mutlu Konuk, "On 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", from American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
- Mitchell, Roger. "On 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", in Myers, Jack and Wojahan, David (editors). A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
- Perrine, pp. 798-789.
- Schimanski, Johan. "T. S. Eliot, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock'". Universitetet i Tromsø. Retrieved 2006-08-08.
Further reading 
- Drew, Elizabeth. T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949.
- Gallup, Donald. T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition) pp. 23, 196 (Harcourt Brace & World 1969)
- Luthy, Melvin J. The Case of Prufrock's Grammar. (1978) College English, 39, 841-853.
- Soles, Derek. The Prufrock Makeover. (1999). The English Journal, 88, 59-61.
- Sorum, Eve. "Masochistic Modernisms: A Reading of Eliot and Woolf." Journal of Modern Literature. 28 (3): 25-43. Spring 2005.
- Sinha, Arun Kumar and Vikram, Kumar 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' (Critical Essay with Detailed Annotations), T. S. Eliot: An Intensive Study of Selected Poems, Spectrum Books Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, (2005).
- Walcutt, Charles Child. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". (1957). College English, 19, 71-72.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Original text from Poetry magazine June 1915
- Text and extended audio discussion of the poem
- Audio of T. S. Eliot reading the poem
- Prufrock and Other Observations at Project Gutenberg
- Annotated hypertext version of the poem