T.S. Eliot’s ‘The love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ published in 1915 is an interior monologue which examines the tortured psyche of a prototypical modern man called Prufrock. The poem is a landmark work in the history of English literature because it starts off a new trend popularly known as the modernist poetry. Both technically and thematically, the poem marks a complete break away from the Victorian poetry and relics of Romanticism that can be witnessed in the early poems of W.B. Yeats.
It was the views of T.S. Eliot the modern poetry should be complex in nature and Eliot imparts this complexity to ‘The love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by building up the entire poem on the basis of antithesis. As a result, the poem produces an effect where levity and seriousness mix with each other. To achieve this end, Eliot uses a number of technical devices like urban imagery, symbols, sharp irony, anticlimax and both secular and religious allusions and references.
The theme of the poem is what its style is. For example, the title of the poem suggests that it is a love song. But the poem, from its beginning to the end, successfully flouts and betrays all our expectations of love. On the contrary, the poem gives rise to certain broader issues like complexity of modern life, isolation, aging or psychological paralysis. Prufrock, the poem’s speaker, seems to be addressing a potential lover, with whom he would like to “force the moment to its crisis”. But Prufrock knows too much of life to “dare” an approach to the woman. The poem is, therefore, ultimately a psychological drama where Prufrock is unable to ask his “overwhelming question” and concludes his dramatic monologue by observing the kind of creature he should have been-
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.’
Thus even being a love piece, the protagonist of the poem appears to be timid, weak, neurotic, effete intellectual, and a baffled anti-heroic. Prufrock whose name even makes him sound like a wimp is at best a hopeless romantic hero who only halts thinking-
And for a hundred visions and revisions,’
Now to present this antithetical theme, Eliot uses all his technical devices from an ironic angle. May it be the imagery, reference or allusion of the poem, each creates an antithesis leading to the point of anticlimax. The basic method Eliot uses is that he transports an issue from a serious context to a much lighter or comic one. Secondly, his use of symbols or imagery betrays our expectations of traditional meaning.
For example, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" begins with an epigraph, which sets the tone for the poem to follow. The epigraph is from Dante's Inferno. Dante, while journeying through hell, encounters Guido da Montefeltro, who is wrapped in flame and who confesses his sins on the assumption that Dante, a fellow prisoner of hell, cannot return to earth with the damning information he is hearing and besmirch Guido's reputation.
Now, Eliot uses this serious context of Dante's Inferno to represent Prufrock’s condition. Like Guido, Prufrock also seems to be in hell and speaks only because he thinks, no one will pay attention to him or he won’t be heard. But the entire thing turns a comedy when we know that what Prufrock wants to confess is how and why he fails to make his love proposal.
Inside the poem, Prufrock’s hesitation and his rise and fall in attempts to make a proposal have been conveyed in a number of allusions and references which work like metaphysical conceits. For example, Prufrock says,-
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;’
Now this is an allusion to a Biblical story. The prophet John the Baptist was beheaded and his head was brought into the court of King Herod by the dancing girl Salome. Prufrock says that he too has met the fate which the prophet John met. He too is a martyr; but he is no religious martyr, no prophet. He is a martyr to his own sense of inferiority. He is a victim of his own inadequacy.
Thus the allusion reveals the antithesis of a heroic ideal that Prufrock strives to gain for so trivial a cause.
Then again in lines 94and 95, Prufrock cries-
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
The implication is again antithetical. Prufrock compares his trivial task of offering love to the mammoth job undertaken by Lazarus who rises from the dead. He is so timid that proposing a women to him, requires the courage and strength of the legendary figure of Lazarus.
In a comic vein, Prufrock also negatively compares his indecisions to that of Prince Hamlet. However, in the same line, finding himself low, he equates his character to Polonius. In a self mocking tone, Prufrock says that he is old like Polonius and is always near the action but never a part of it.
There is a similarly ironic allusion to Andrew Marvell's ‘To His Coy Mistress’. By opening the fourth stanza with: "And indeed there will be time," Eliot echoes the memorable line: "Had we but world enough and time' from Andrew Marvell's seductive poem, "To His Coy Mistress." But ironically, Prufrock does not feel compelled to seize the day like Marvell.
As for imagery, Eliot again uses it to represent Prufrock’s psychological paralysis. The poem is loaded with surprisingly unromantic images. In this regard, Eliot is strongly influenced the symbolist movement as led by the French Symbolists, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire. For example, the urban imagery of the opening lines invokes an ambience of sickness and paralysis which is nothing but the inner psyche of Prufrock-
Like a patient etherized upon a table;’
Finally, ‘The Love Song of Prufrock’ sets the trend of modernism by being a veiled commentary on the contemporary society. In fact, his self-consciousness is produced by the society around him which brutalizes him from within. When Prufrock says, -
"With a bald spot in the middle of my hair
(they will say: 'how his hair is growing thin!')"
-he is actually filled with painful insecurity. He has been "formulated, sprawling on a pin" by the people around him. His internal catastrophe thus describes the isolating and lonely nature of modern existence.
Thus juxtaposing levity with seriousness and exposing the contemporary social menace, ‘The Love Song of Prufrock’, sets an example which strongly directs the future course of poetry to be written after it.