The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: Overview and Analysis
- 0:12 Prufrock
- 2:23 Modernism
- 4:20 Poem Features
- 7:23 Tone/Mood
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This video introduces T.S. Eliot's poem, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.' It outlines the general setup of the poem, its enigmatic lead character and its stylistic characteristics. It also highlights key passages.
T.S. Eliot's Prufrock
So, we're learning about the The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. And let's get it out right now: Prufrock. That's kind of a silly name, right. Say it a couple times - Prufrock, Prufrock, Prufrock. Okay I think we're good now.
This is a poem, and it's a pretty significant poem by T.S. Eliot. As a poem, it's awesome, short and accessible. I recommend it - for T.S. Eliot, it's a key thing to read. Now, this is his first poem that was published in a non-school journal setting, so it was his first big break poem. It was published in 1915, and it's interesting, since it was while he was still living in America in 1914 before he moved to Britain. Prufrock is in a city, and a lot of critics think it might be in Boston. There isn't anything specific that hints at that location, but basically, this is an American poem.
What happens in this poem is we follow around the speaker or narrator as he wanders around town. He also wanders through his memories. One of my favorite lines that really sums up the poem is 'I've measured out my life in coffee spoons.' Think about what that means; it's about looking back and assessing but using this really inadequate tool. It gives a sense of this mundane existence, this unremarkable life, but it's also a really beautiful line of poetry. It uses this beautiful imagery to describe a mundane thing, which is something that keep coming up in Prufrock but also throughout T.S. Eliot's poetry in general: the elevation of the normal or decrepit through beautiful language. It's really a non-linear plot; we just get his thoughts as he goes.
I mentioned earlier in the overview of Modernism, that Modernism is concerned with voices and consciousness as well as placing speakers or multiple speakers. This poem really begins in a way that might make you uncomfortable as a reader, since you're not really sure where you stand in relation to this voice that is speaking to you. And the poem begins like this:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells
First off, who is you and I? Is it you as the reader or someone else off-stage who he's addressing? We don't know, so we're already uncomfortable. We're not sure where we stand. And this transition that he puts - when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table - that's not something you'd expect right after against the sky. It sets the tone, and it's really jarring transition, a jarring simile (that's when you compare something using the word 'like'). This opening tells us that, while we may think we're comfortable touring the city with this guy, there is a characterization with the cheap one-night hotels and half-deserted streets - that's all fine, but that opening tells us that we're not in Kansas anymore. We're going to have a contrast between what we expect and what we're getting throughout the poem - the romanticized sky and then the patient etherized upon the table. There's that basic discomfort along with the 'you and I' and not knowing who the 'you and I' is.
Some other things to keep in mind - this poem is written in free verse, since it doesn't have any set length or set rhyme scheme. It's kind of just like whatever Eliot felt like writing. At the same time, it has these half-rhymes and these internal rhymes even though there's no real structure. A really cool example of that is these three lines:
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea
You can see there all of these -isions. Some of them are at the end of the line, and some of them, like visions and revisions, are in the middle of the line. And taking of a toast and tea has no -isions at all. The irregular sprinkling of it at the end and throughout the middle is really characteristic of early Eliot. You see that throughout the poem.
He also likes to throw around these repetitive phrases. One that you see is in the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. That literally just comes, and it puts you in a different place than you were during the line before it. There's also variations on these questions and comments that come throughout it. We have and how should I presume? Another one that comes back a lot is I have known them all already, known them all. One that's especially sad-seeming is that's not what I meant at all. You can see in the context of a poem that that is a powerful line, since poems are generally economical and constructed to say what you mean in a small amount of words. So, to have the narrator say that's not what I meant at all has a powerful effect.
All of these repetitive phrases emphasize that narrator's inability to act or really do anything. Near the end, he references Prince Hamlet, saying No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. And he brings that up, since Hamlet is this traditional character who doesn't do anything, who's indecisive. To be or not to be, right? He doesn't know what he's doing. And Prufrock is saying that he's not Hamlet. He's not even committing to being Hamlet, although he's something semi-related to Hamlet. So, he's really not able to get up and go. That's an example of an allusion, and literary allusion that Modernists like to use a lot. That allusion really emphasizes the indecisiveness that is present throughout the rest of the poem, just by throwing in that word Hamlet that puts you in that mindset.
It all has that sort of overarching mood and tone of regret. This all brings into view this role of the aging protagonist. And he mentions:
I grow old…I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each
I do not think that they will sing to me
You can see that theme of being old, and the questions are mundane but given this significant attention. So, you can see this contrast of being old and having all these questions that stay unresolved. It's ultimately a beautiful poem, and I encourage you to read it. It's very beautiful poem about a very mundane thing: a man growing old in the city. That's really what Eliot is best at: elevating something that is normal, even potentially pathetic, into something that can be beautiful. So, that is The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock.
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