T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ": Modern poetry

T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock ” is highly cited as an exemplary work of modern poetry. Published in 1911, Eliot’s work marks the divide between the established romantic writings that predecessed the era and the newest venture of modernism, seeking to articulate the feelings and ideas caused by the sudden onset of advanced technology, transportation, and largely populated cities. Modern artists, like Eliot, struggled to find the beauty that Shelly and Keats spoke of, in a city devoid of nature. “The love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, inspired artists to experiment with different literary tools and influences in order to construct pieces that expressed the changing climate of the world. Although the poem does not reflect the war experience, Eliot’s early poetry suggests the direction in which modernist poetry would move during and after the war: towards the exploration of the divided consciousness.

Following, what is now known as modernist tradition, Eliot utilizes a stream of consciousness, a literary style in which a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions are depicted in a continuous flow uninterrupted by objective description or conventional dialogue. In Prufrock’s case, readers are given the unique privilege of witnessing his feelings of anxiety, desire, and unrequited love play out in real time. Along with J. Alfred Prufock’s tumultuous emotions, there are also his musings on the world around him. The poem opens as J. Alfred Prufrock notes the “half-deserted streets” and “one-night cheap hotels” (Eliot 3-6) Which depict an urban setting and validates the experience as significant, unlike the writings of romantics, who preferred the beauty of nature as a subject worthy of poetry. Establishing a need to break from tradition and to “Make it new” as Ezra Pound, a close friend of Eliot, urged artists to do.

The most striking difference between Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and romanticist works before it, is Eliot’s choice of subject matter. While many romantic poets enjoyed finding the beauty in the natural world, it would have been difficult for Eliot to channel such emotion during the World War I, one of the most violent conflicts in human history. Yet, he does not take this opportunity to mope at the constant destruction around him, but chooses to take the human experience and “make it new”. Eliot chose to write a hilariously pointed attack of the bourgeois class, who in his opinion have wasted their lives on the most mundane items in human existence, such as tea and marmalade, rather than seizing life and capitalizing the experience of every moment. He asks “And would it have been worth it, after all,/After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,/Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,/Would it have been worthwhile,”(88-92 ). A stanza in which Eliot artfully warns his audience citing Prufrock’s anxiety ridden confession as a cautionary tale; the poem should inspire readers to think beyond “sawdust restaurant with oyster shells.” And make the most of the opportunity to express your true feelings to those that you love, or you will follow the same fate of Prufrock and have a life that too, can be measured out in coffee spoons. 

Eliot, takes his warning seriously and even relies on the objective correlative, a literary term coined by Elliot himself, in order to further express emotion to the reader. He defines the technique as: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art…by finding an objective correlative: in other words, a set of objects, situations, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which most terminate in sensory experience, are given the emotion is immediately evoked,”(Eliot). In the case of “The love song for J Alfred Prufrock” Eliot establishes the objective correlative within the opening lines of the poem, in which a series of images are depicted, presenting a drab neighborhood that serves to establish the atmosphere of disillusionment and passivity that suffuses the poem. Prufrock compares the evening to “a patient etherized upon a table” and then breaks the reader’s expectations with inviting images of the evening: “Let us go then you and I When the evening is spread out against the sky” (1-2), providing readers with a vision of sterility and isolation within city life. Prufrock continues his discontentment with his surroundings: “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats /Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And saw dust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious /argument/Of insidious intent” ( 4 – 9). Contrasting the images presented through the setting against the ideas Prufrock voices within the poem, allows for the reader to interpret everyday life as vacant bleak and repetitive.

    Naturally, everyone cannot see the simplistic brilliance in which Eliot expounds on the emotional actions and reactions, which life evokes. A sentiment that moved the times to declare publicly: “The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry…” (Times). A statement representative of the issues that resulted as more and more artists broke away from romantic traditions. Surely, they would have never guessed that one hundred years later, literature students would not only be reading his works, but using it to help define the ever elusive modernist period.

Works Cited

Eliot.T.S. “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.1911. http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html. Date Acessed: March 6, 2017

… “Hamlet and His Problems”.1921. faculty.ksu.edu.sa/Nugali/English%20432/Hamlet%20and%20His%20Problems.pdf. Date Acessed: March 6, 2017

The London Times. Times Literary Supplement. 21 June 1917, no. 805, 299

Brianca Jay is a writer, tutor and literary analyst. She has upwards of 100 literary videos on youtube and has presented at several national conferences, with a host of publications across various literary journals. Feel free to connect with Brianca

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