Poet T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, now a hundred and eight years old, remains one of the finest examples of the modernist movement. And beginning with Prufrock, Eliot emerged as one of its most influential voices, supporters, and innovators. He pioneered interior monologue, expounded the use of fragmented structure, and successfully experimented with bold figurative language and urban settings. Those features helped Eliot communicate his existential theories and evoked a sense of alienation that he and many of his contemporaries often felt and even embraced.
Prufrock continues to be analyzed and debated today partly because of Eliot’s uncanny ability to combine several aspects of modernism within one work. It was written at the dawn of Eliot’s career and well-regarded by many of his esteemed peers, most notably Ezra Pound. Modernism was a significant movement, evolving from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. It was heavily influenced by the horrors of the first world war, breaking from Romantic-era themes and techniques such as realism and ultimately impacting not just literature but art, music, and culture globally.
The Mechanics of Modernism in Prufrock
In literature like Prufrock, modernists often recycled myths and other masterworks to support their impressions of daily life and present-day experiences. They juxtaposed different voices, traditions, and arguments and emphasized form itself as the “carrier of meaning.” Modernism aspired to examine the self from what it considered to be a more philosophical perspective rather than a mere emotional or dogmatic angle. To facilitate that break from the pervasive religious and emotional foundations that defined the earlier era’s romantic works, modernist writers, artists and musicians attempted to dislocate their notes, brushes, and stanzas in ways they believed would better connect universal meaning to their own modern experiences. This is why, for example, representations of art moved from natural settings to urban environments, common vernacular was introduced and fused with proper grammar in written works, and lyrical music began incorporating more popular references. We see the use of the urban setting quite frequently in Prufrock with both figurative and literal references to “yellow fog” and “cheap hotels.”
Eliot was an advocate and yet a fierce critic within the Modernist movement. In his 1951 essay, The Metaphysical Poets, he reflected that in modern civilization, “the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, to force, to dislocate if necessary, language to his meaning.” Decades earlier, he’d used unconventional narrative techniques to accomplish these goals. But those were often derivative of classically accepted literary mechanisms. For example, Eliot incorporated structures like the iambic pentameter in Prufrock and framed it through a modernist lens. Instead of writing a carefully orchestrated sonnet, Eliot used the Shakespearan technique as part of an internal, stream-of-consciousness-type monologue.
Prufrock was focused on existential themes, particularly the meaning of life as envisioned by a young, sexually frustrated man with unfulfilled desires and deeply disenchanted with society. The poem is a soul-searching interior monologue that deals with the superficiality of appearances, manipulation, love, passivity, and time. Yet while the narrator struggles with familiar questions of humanity, his assertions are countered with doubts and uncertainty and don’t rely on religion for guidance or absolute answers. Prufrock is not a rejection of religion or a higher power. Still, it challenges established norms and premonitions about self, identity, and existence.
Eliot’s “modern” examination of meaning, and thus mortality, is nonetheless shaped naturally by religious texts and the social context in which the author was raised. The character of Prufrock, in some way a cut-out for Eliot, is recognizing and giving credence to his subtle and growing doubts about why we’re here. He seems more concerned with life’s wretched immediate realities (and his shortcomings) than his responsibility to others or the consequences of an afterlife. It isn’t so much a rejection of faith and apocalypse as taught by the Church, but more questioning of what he inferred was a too-rigid view of the universe. Consider the reference to Dante’s Inferno, which opens the poem. It sets the stage for the portrayal of Prufrock as anything but a devoted, faithful servant of God.
Here, Eliot seems to be preparing his audience for what he hopes is a challenging intellectual discussion about character, morality, and truth using a character study of a restless and relatable soul, namely Prufrock, and mounting a defense of sorts. He’s bringing the timeless themes of yesterday into the modern era. But what drives this? Some believe it was a sense of alienation. It motivated or perhaps frightened artists like Eliot into further dissecting the basis of meaning. Prufrock is a poem, for example, that reflects on the notion of being disconnected from society and perhaps confused or left wanting by traditional purpose or destiny as implied by religious texts. Prufrock appears to have one foot in the world of faith and another in a more materialistic existence, one in which he does not seem entirely accepted either.
Although his protagonist, J. Alfred Prufrock, boasts about being invited to parties and says he has “known them all already, known them all…” he is still treated like an outsider, an observer who is not fully participating or invested in the activity he’s professing great insight into. There are passages where he alludes to this isolation, including one toward the end of the poem where he pictures himself walking along the beach and hearing mermaids singing.
That emphasis on alienation is a theme that runs throughout the poem. Yet it’s buttressed by many other concepts and literary techniques that help to classify it as modern. For example, the poem is chock-full of references to Dante, Hesiod, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and even the Bible, reflecting a modernist inclination to source and “collage” a wide range of often mythical material and rework them into a contemporary struggle. In Prufrock, Eliot goes even far as to flirt with the idea of comparing the plight of Prufrock to the “to be or not to be” journey of Prince Hamlet. He writes:
This “collage” of moral fables and other pieces often underpins Eliot’s efforts to draw a line from the past’s constructed theology to the present’s deconstructed philosophy. Eliot employs these masterworks to validate parallels to modern-day realities and juxtapose them. By structuring them as he does in Prufrock, we can interpret those historical texts against each other and even contextualize Eliot’s own words. This narrative technique creates a potential for both reading new “meaning” into each of the classic texts referenced and giving contour to Prufrock’s character and the poem’s statements about existence.
Beyond the juxtaposition, Eliot thoroughly uses symbolism and masterful figurative writing. One of the most quoted examples of his writing talent is found immediately after the epigraph in the poem, and reads:
The author goes to great lengths to convey meaning throughout the rest of his poem, especially with metaphors, similes, and personification. For example, halfway through the poem, he returns to discuss the passage of time and talks more about the evening. The personification of the afternoon and evening sleeping peacefully beside Prufrock contrasts sharply with his turmoil.
Personification is cleverly employed throughout the poem. Eliot uses it to describe the “yellow fog” as a cat-like figure rubbing against the window panes and lingering in the shadows. This figurative tool produces a comforting image that contrasts with the fog’s pollution. Similarly, the “eternal Footman” is read as a personification of death. And figurative language, while not unique to modernism, also helps it define its modernist form and truly becomes that “carrier of meaning.” This rings especially true when blended with an urban setting, a departure from traditional beliefs and infused with a focus on philosophical self-consciousness. Prufrock encompasses all of these literary qualities and fuses them into one modernist poem.
You can read the full text of the poem here.
- Ehsan, Muhammad. Modernism in the Eyes of T. S. Eliot: Break From Traditional Writings With Literary Forms and Movements. CS Canada Studies in Literature and Language, 2016.
- Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Prufrock and Other Observations. From Poems. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1920; Bartleby.com, 2011.
- Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Metaphysical Poets. Selected Essays, 3rd ed. London, 1951.
- Magher, Maria. How Is the Poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Modernism? Pen and Pad.
- Domestico, Anthony, Biography of T.S. Eliot, Modernism Lab
RAFAEL MOSCATEL is the author of the number one best-selling business book Tomorrow’s Jobs Today and director of The Little Girl with the Big Voice, a critically acclaimed documentary. His third book, The Bastard of Beverly Hills, a memoir about hope, forgiveness, and redemption, will be published in 2023.