menu

Summary of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"


An early version of the T. S. Eliot poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" first appeared in "The Harvard Advocate" in 1906 while Eliot was still an undergraduate. He continued working on it until 1910 or 1911, after which point he read the poem to Ezra Pound in England. Pound had it published in the acclaimed American journal "Poetry" in June of 1915. It was included in Eliot's first volume of poetry "Prufrock and Other Observations" in 1917.

Set Up

Thomas Sterns (T. S.) Eliot had an interest in music. The phrase "love song" is used loosely since the poem is largely an internal monologue in the voice of a persona, J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock exposes his thoughts as he is on his way to meet a woman for tea. He ostensibly speaks the poem, or "love song," to her by addressing the poem directly to someone, which could be the woman, or could be the reader. He is planning to ask her an important question but repeats that there will be time for that later.

Associations and Allusions

The text of the poem consists of Prufrock's thoughts in lyrical form as he walks through the foggy streets of an unnamed city. He makes associations between his own internal life and the world around him as he walks. The associations are fleeing and poetic, not firm and expository. He references Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and the famous soliloquy that begins "To be or not to be," which underscores his own questions about life.

Mortality

Prufrock ponders eating a peach, an act considered dangerous since peach pits could be poisonous. This leads his thoughts toward mortality in the end of the poem, to dreams of mermaids and waking up underwater only to drown. He wonders whether he should take dangerous and fateful steps in life or merely respond to the city in the fog that surrounds him. Mortality appears first in the third line when Prufrock mentions a surgical patient etherized on a table. There are references to murder and creation early in the poem as well.

Modernism

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is considered to be one of the first great poems of 20th-century literature. Its stream-of-consciousness style, with an associative structure and numerous allusions, and its use of both free verse and unusually patterned rhymes make it an influential example of literary modernism. Although indebted to the dramatic monologues of earlier poets such as John Donne and Robert Browning, it breaks with many standard conventions of English verse, notably a regular meter. One of its key modernist themes is the alienation of the individual in society -- to the point that the anxious Prufrock feels the eyes of others will leave him "pinned and wriggling on the wall" like some insect specimen.

References
Photo Credits
  • Goodshoot RF/Goodshoot/Getty Images