Modernism is a movement in the arts that lasted from roughly the years 1890 to 1950 and that reflected a number of changes in both literary technique but also in the culture at large. The movement rejected Romantic-era themes and techniques, and its mission was to "make it new." While T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" is widely cited as a defining example of modernist poetry, his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" also shares many of the characteristics of modernism.
Questions of Self
One of the characteristics of modernism is that it struggled with questions of self and identity. However, unlike Romantic poetry, its chief concern was not the expression of emotion. Rather, modernist writers were interested in larger questions of self and meaning in a universal context. In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the narrator struggles with questions of meaning within not only the society, but also existence itself. He wonders, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" and assures himself that there will be "time for all the works and days of hands." At the same time, the narrator brings an objectivity to the questions, making them not about a subjective experience but a universal one. The questions in the poem concern meaning in the face of mortality.
Sense of Alienation
Closely related to the questions of self in modernist works was a sense of alienation. Without that strong sense of meaning, many authors expressed a sense of being disconnected. This is one of the central themes of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The narrator is a passive observer. Though he talks of visits and parties, and says that he has "known them all already, known them all," the tone is one of an outsider, watching the action happen around him but not feeling a part of it. He imagines walking on the beach and hearing the mermaids singing, but laments "I do not think that they will sing to me." He questions whether he should have been "a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."
Modernism was in many ways a rejection of Romanticism, which often used nature as a setting, or even a subject. Nature was often used to express the emotions of the author, or to stand in as a symbol or metaphor. Many modernist works used an urban or a realistic setting. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" uses both. The city is full of "yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes." It lingers on pools of water in the streets and is covered in "soot that falls from chimneys." Inside, the poem takes place in busy drawing rooms and ball rooms. Nature is only present when in the narrator's imagined sequences, which typically involve being rejected or lost.
Fragmentation and Symbolism
Modernist works often included "discontinuous fragments of poetry, fact, image or description, expressing a momentary illumination or beauty, the fragmentary chaos of modern life, a denial of historical or psychological continuity," according to Professor Michael Webster of Grand Valley State University. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is full of such fragments of symbolism, appearing as the narrator searches for meaning. He compares himself to Prince Hamlet before deciding that he is more like an attendant lord. He also imagines himself "in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown," which is an idyllic place to which he is able to escape "Till human voices wake us, and we drown."