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The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

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English Literature

How do people measure time? In seconds, minutes, hours, days, years? In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917), masterful American poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) forces the reader to contemplate the idea of measuring one’s life in coffee spoons. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" marked an important change in poetic history and showcases the tenets of Modernist poetry.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917)

First published in 1915, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", commonly referred to as just "Prufrock", had been originally written between 1910 and 1911. The poem is the first that Eliot professionally published in his career. The 131-line poem features the inner monologue of its narrator as he details his regrets and frustrations in his aged state.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Portrait of T.S. Eliot, StudySmarterPortrait of T.S. Eliot, wikimedia

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" Summary

With "Prufrock," Eliot broke into the literary scene and set himself apart from poets of his time, who wrote in Georgian or Romantic styles. The poem is the inner monologue of its narrator, Prufrock, as his thoughts veer in a stream of consciousness from thought to thought about his potential lover.

Stream of consciousness is a narrative device in which the author writes in a way that reflects the thought process and inner monologue of the narrator.

Prufrock begins by addressing his potential lover. He opens with one of the most famous lines from the poem, “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table” (1-3). It sets the tone for the poem instantly. Rather than a musing on the beauty of the sunset, Prufrock, as written by Eliot, likens the evening sky to a person on an operating table under anesthetic.

It is also apparent at the beginning of the poem that Prufrock suffers from an inability to voice his thoughts, and that all he desires to say remains unspoken. He describes the world around him, full of “yellow fog” (15), and “yellow smoke” (24), representing his own insecurities.

Additionally, each of the longer opening stanzas are separated by two lines reading, “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” (13-14, 35-36). This refrain is Prufrock signifying that the people around him speak shallowly of grand ideas; every day he must listen to the insipid thoughts of people who believe they are saying things of import, yet he is incapable of doing anything about it.

What effect does the use of the color yellow yield here? Is it used in a positive or negative descriptive way?

Prufrock details his physical insecurities, that people look at him and think about his thinning hair and skinny frame. He believes he’s done and seen it all, that his days have run into one another, and he can measure his life “with coffee spoons” (51). Rather than the hours passing by, Prufrock measures in coffee spoons, as every day is tedious and repetitive.

Prufrock knows that people dismiss him right away, and he states that he knows all about women; however, the reality may differ. He is filled with thoughts and desire for women but does not act due to his self-doubts, noting that “Is it perfume from a dress/That makes me so digress” (65-66) in his train of thought.

Two coffee spoons, wikimedia

As the day wears on and it gets later, Prufrock struggles with this great revelation that he wants to say but is scared to. However, Prufrock laments that, in his old age, he no longer has anything of importance to say: “I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter” (83). The time when he could have been great has passed him by, and instead, he has aged and looked upon the face of death, which scares him.

Prufrock grows increasingly frantic as he agonizes over his thoughts and whether or not to say what he is thinking, to bring up the issue that plagues him. He laments his lot in life as a mere side character: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;” (111). He states outright: “I grow old…I grow old…” (120).

Prufrock’s monologue ends with his disappointing vision of mermaids, beautiful and unattainable. Prufrock sees himself as so undesirable that even the mermaids wouldn’t sing a tune for him. The poem ends on the solemn note that “we” (129) - humans - have been waiting to join these perfect beings.

The mermaids are simply a fantasy to escape from the tedium of his daily life. Even in a make-believe world, Prufrock cannot change his insecure ways, and still does not garner any attention. The fantasy remains just that - a daydream from which he will have to return to the rote monotony of his life.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" Themes

The major themes of "Prufrock" concern indecision, frustration, and decay.

Indecision

Almost the entirety of the poem sees Prufrock’s narration littered with self-doubt and self-directed questioning: “Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” (46-47); “So how should I presume?” (54); “And how should I begin?” (69). Prufrock seeks to ask an important question or state a revelation, but is unable to do so due to these insecurities. He projects onto himself what other people must think about him: that he is balding, he is too skinny, he isn’t good enough for the women he pursues.

Even the mermaids wouldn’t sing for someone as pitiful and indecisive as Prufrock. His indecision means he can’t take action; rather than having lived a meaningful, adventurous life declaring the answers to the “overwhelming question” (93), Prufrock’s life can be measured in coffee spoons in the repetitive sameness of the day-to-day.

Prufrock is an indecisive character meant to represent a generation. Eliot uses Prufrock as a stand-in for the men of his generation, who he perceives as socially impotent and isolated. It's a Modernist poem that is meant to represent the modern, urban man - one who is unable to find fulfillment within the trappings of their society. Prufrock's emotional expression is internal, and though there is much that he wants to say, he is unable to voice his thoughts.

Frustration

Building off of his indecisiveness and feelings of inadequacy, Prufrock feels frustrated both with himself and in his romantic pursuits. The title of the poem posits that it is a "Love Song", but Prufrock does not mention love once. He longs to express himself, perhaps, to the lady who lays her arm on the table wrapped in a shawl, but he is afraid his meaning will be misconstrued.

Prufrock is frustrated by his inability to communicate his desires and his inner thoughts clearly. He feels that “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” (104). In life, he is frustrated by his perceived shortcomings.

Much like Prufrock's indecisiveness, his frustration is representative of Eliot's perception of the times. People are frustrated—with their society, with their inability to express themselves, with their desire for acceptance and love. Modern society is seen as an alienating, frustrating force in the poem.

Modernist literature often utilized subjects that diverged from those of classical poetic tradition. Here, rather than Hamlet, we get Prufrock, who cannot even say what he means. Thus, Prufrock's frustration reflects Eliot's attempt to mirror the frustrations of contemporary society as explored through a thoroughly Modernist protagonist.

Decay

Prufrock describes an exterior world of yellowing skies and “half-deserted streets” (4). He states, “I grow old…I grow old…” (120). Prufrock is consumed by the way others perceive him as well as insecurities stemming from the signs of aging he is showing.

His hair is balding, he is growing thinner, and he now folds his pants at the ankle. In conjunction with the dreary landscape of his world, Prufrock’s self is decaying and aging, the body representing Eliot's perceived decay of society.

This is a striking idea, given that the technological innovations and social progression of the early 20th-century were seen as heralding a new era of betterment in Western society. Rather than laud these progressions, Eliot utilizes Prufrock as a way to show what these changes have wrought on modern man.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" Structure

"Prufrock" has a free verse structure that varies throughout the poem. This fragmented poetic structure is characteristic of Eliot’s poetry; he mastered the style with his later poem "The Waste Land" (1922). In "Prufrock", the poetic structure is similar to a dramatic monologue in that the poem follows the inner train of thought of its speaker. Eliot writes in a stream of consciousness style, in which thoughts interrupt one another and Prufrock goes off on tangents. The overall effect on the reader is one of being directly inside Prufrock’s head as his rambling thoughts tumble to and fro.

While the style is considered free verse and fragmented, there are sections of the poem that utilize a more formalistic poetic structure. The instances of structured poetic form serve to emphasize the unique subject matter Eliot utilizes. Prufrock is representative of the development (or decline, perhaps) of the Western urban man.

By utilizing a mix of uniquely-Eliot free verse with traditional poetic meter, he makes a statement on how this kind of man came to be. He is questioning and interrogating the progress of modern society. At the same time, he implements an entirely Modernist poetic style interspersed with sections that hark back to Romantic or Victorian styles.

The Modernist style Eliot employs would remain incredibly influential; initially rejected as nonsensical, the style of "Prufrock" would go on to become one of the most important markers of Modernist poetic history.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" Interpretation and Analysis

"Prufrock" is a poem that deals with the aforementioned themes of frustration, indecision, and decay. Throughout the poem, Eliot uses Prufrock’s internal narrative to express the shortcomings and insecurities of men in the early 20th-century. Prufrock desperately wants to ask his question and make a change, but is too indecisive and insecure to do so.

He feels the weight of his age, as he himself is "decaying" and further has lived an unremarkable life that can be measured “in coffee spoons” (51). Prufrock is nothing but a secondary character in life, and is unable to say anything with meaning. Eliot comments on the state of society as he sees it: full of self-doubting, frustrated people trying in vain to live a life with meaning.

Throughout the poem, Eliot makes use of various literary devices to convey the central meaning. These include:

Allusion

The poem’s epigraph is an excerpt from Dante’s Inferno. The excerpt concerns a man condemned to hell, Guido, preparing to explain his sins and the reasons for his condemnation because the listener will never be able to return to the living and recount them.

The use of this excerpt as the epigraph serves to liken the world of J. Alfred Prufrock to Guido’s hell. Furthermore, Prufrock divulges his secrets to the reader much in the way Guido does in the Inferno, and he perhaps extends the same expectation of secrecy that the reader will take Prufrock’s thoughts in confidence.

Eliot makes multiple other allusions throughout the poem. Many are to the Bible, as to the Ecclesiastes with line 28 “time to murder and create” and with the direct reference to Lazarus, who, in the Bible, rose from the dead, in line 94. The original line in Ecclesiastes is "time to reap and sow". Eliot subverts this by taking reaping and sowing - agricultural practices meant to sustain life - into the realm of murder and creation, associated with death.

Furthermore, in the Bible, Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus; references to Lazarus in literature are often used to reference the restoration of life. Prufrock questions if it would have been worth it to have acted like Lazarus, been restored from the dead to life, and yet subsequently still misunderstood.

Throughout "Prufrock", Eliot also includes allusions to classic works of literature. Prufrock notes that he is "not Prince Hamlet" (111), in reference to the Shakespeare play. No, indeed Prufrock is no Hamlet, but instead sees himself as a side character, or even a "Fool." (119).

Even in his own life, Prufrock is not the main character. He is auxiliary to his own experience. At the end of the poem, the mermaid fantasy is an allusion to the sirens in Homer's Odyssey. In the Odyssey, the sirens lure sailors to their death by singing. Similarly, the underwater chambers in which humans find themselves at the end of the poem are what lead to their demise.

Sunset with birds, wikimedia

Repetition & Refrain

Throughout the poem, certain words and lines are extensively repeated. "In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo" (13-14, 35-36) is repeated twice to emphasize the tedium of daily routine. As previously mentioned, the women speak of lofty subjects but have little meaningful to say. By repeating the lines, Eliot enhances Prufrock's feelings about the repetitive, never-ending nature of day-to-day life.

Many of the questions that Prufrock asks himself—"Do I dare?" (38, 45, 122) and "how should I presume" (54, 61) are repeated here. These repetitive refrains mimic a neurotic, obsessive thought process. They serve to characterize Prufrock as a thoroughly modern man who cannot escape the excessive, repetitive self-doubting thoughts and insecurities.

Symbols

The color yellow is used throughout the poem as a symbol. At the beginning of the poem, Prufrock describes his surroundings as covered by "yellow fog" (15) and "yellow smoke" (16, 24). The yellow fog and smoke are characterized as a cat-like animal, one that "rubs its back" (15) or "rubs its muzzle" (16) against the city and its buildings. The yellow fog likely derives from the increasing smog and air pollution of cities in the early 20th-century, but it also conveys a deeper meaning in relation to Prufrock's plight.

The fog is also symbolic of love in the poem, as a more optimistic view of Prufrock's dive into pessimism throughout the remaining stanzas. The stanza of yellow fog and smoke reads like a seduction, from wooing - rubbing its back and muzzle on the windowpanes - to the safe, comfort of love at the end: "And seeing that it was a soft October night,/Curled once about the house, and fell asleep." (22-23). Prufrock is picturing the kind of love that he does not have.

Other symbols seen throughout the poem include tea sets and coffee spoons. Prufrock makes constant reference to the taking of "tea" (34, 79, 88, 102), sometimes with toast, sometimes with cake, sometimes with marmalade. Other such accouterments come in the form of the "coffee spoons" (51) with which Prufrock has measured out his life. These are symbols of the oppressive regularity of modern life. There is no variety, and every day Prufrock must give in to the routine and banality of taking his tea, so much so that he dreams of breaking this tradition: "Do I dare to eat a peach?" (122).

Enjambment

Much of the poem makes use of the poetic device enjambment. The lines of Eliot’s poem run directly into one another without the pause of punctuation. While this serves to emphasize the stream of consciousness, it feels as though Prufrock is just uttering the thoughts exactly as they come into his mind, the lines running into one another.

The enjambment serves to show how "Prufrock" is classified as a Modernist poem. Eliot himself was a leader of the Modernist movement, in which poetry emphasized the personal lives and contexts of the poet and rejected classical poetic forms and subjects. With "Prufrock", Eliot broke definitively from the Georgian and Romantic poetry forms that had dominated the literary world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Enjambment is a poetic device in which one line of poetry continues directly into the next line without punctuation.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - Key takeaways

  • "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917) is a poem by American poet T.S. Eliot.
  • The poem articulates Eliot's impression of men of his generation in the early 20th-century—namely, that they are riddled with anxieties and insecurities.
  • The poem is in a free verse form that uses fragments of structure to give an overall impression of incoherent, rambling thoughts in a stream of consciousness style.
  • The major themes of the poem are indecision, frustration, and decay.
  • Eliot makes use of poetic devices such as allusion to other works like Dante's Inferno and the Bible, as well as enjambment to convey the central meaning.

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

The major themes of T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' are indecision, frustration, and decay. Prufrock is indecisive throughout the whole poem, making decisions causes him immense anxiety. He also feels frustrated, with both his inability to accurately express himself as well as in his inability to attract a woman he desires. Decay permeates the poem in the desolate city Prufrock describes as well as in his descriptions of his own aging body.

In the first stanza, Eliot sets the tone for the bleak portrayal of Prufrock's life. The very first lines show a comparison between the sunset and a patient under anesthetic. Rather than paint the sunset as something beautiful, he likens it to a disorienting medical procedure.

The poem serves to portray Eliot's perception of people in the early 20th-century. Prufrock is representative of men of Eliot's generation, he is unable to make decisions, riddled with anxiety, frustrated in all aspects of his life, and aging without having contributed anything meaningful. 

The speaker in the poem is the titular J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is an older gentleman who is constantly anxious and riddled with insecurities, he cannot decide whether to state out loud his great revelation. He feels as though life has passed him by and he has nothing great to contribute any more. 

J. Alfred Prufrock is the narrator of T.S. Eliot's poem, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.' Eliot portrays Prufrock as representative of the men of his generation in early 20th-century society. Prufrock is anxious, insecure, frustrated, and aging, he has lived his life but feels he has nothing to show for it.

Final The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock Quiz

Question

Who wrote 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?'

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Answer

American poet, essayist, and playwright T.S. Eliot wrote 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' in 1917. It is the first professionally published poem of Eliot's career.

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Question

What does the epigraph of 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' mean?

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Answer

The epigraph of the poem is an excerpt from Dante's Inferno. It alludes to the idea that Prufrock is living in a hell, not unlike the one of Dante's character Guido. Additionally, in the excerpt, Guido requests secrecy on the part of the listener, it is implied that Prufrock requests the same of the reader.

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Question

Which of the following structures does Eliot utilize in 'Prufrock?'

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Answer

Sonnet

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Question

How does Prufrock in the poem feel about himself?

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Answer

Prufrock carries many insecurities. He constantly projects what others must be thinking about him onto himself; he believes that others must notice his balding and his thin frame. He does not believe that even the mermaids would sing for him.

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Question

What does it mean that Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons?

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Answer

With this line, Eliot expands upon how Prufrock has viewed his life. By measuring his life in coffee spoons, Prufrock is showing how his life has been repetitive and filled with routine. He had a chance at greatness but instead lived an ordinary, uneventful life.

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Question

Eliot wrote in what kind of a style?

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Answer

Georgian

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Question

What are the central themes of J Alfred Prufrock?    

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Answer

The major themes of T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' are indecision, frustration, and decay. Prufrock is indecisive throughout the whole poem, making decisions causes him immense anxiety. He also feels frustrated, with both his inability to accurately express himself as well as in his inability to attract a woman he desires. Decay permeates the poem in the desolate city Prufrock describes as well as in his descriptions of his own aging body.

Show question

Question

How does Eliot set the tone at the beginning of the poem?


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Answer

In the first stanza, Eliot sets the tone for the bleak portrayal of Prufrock's life. The very first lines show a comparison between the sunset and a patient under anesthetic. Rather than paint the sunset as something beautiful, he likens it to a disorienting medical procedure. 

Show question

Question

Why did Eliot write ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?’


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Answer

The poem serves to portray Eliot's perception of people in the early 20th-century. Prufrock is representative of men of Eliot's generation, he is unable to make decisions, riddled with anxiety, frustrated in all aspects of his life, and aging without having contributed anything meaningful.

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Question

Who is the speaker in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’?


Show answer

Answer

The speaker in the poem is the titular J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is an older gentleman who is constantly anxious and riddled with insecurities, he cannot decide whether to state out loud his great revelation. He feels as though life has passed him by and he has nothing great to contribute any more.

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