The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", commonly known as "Prufrock", is the first professionally published poem by American-born British poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Eliot began writing "Prufrock" in February 1910, and it was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse[1] at the instigation of Ezra Pound (1885–1972). It was later printed as part of a twelve-poem pamphlet (or chapbook) titled Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917.[2] At the time of its publication, Prufrock was considered outlandish,[3] but is now seen as heralding a paradigmatic cultural shift from late 19th-century Romantic verse and Georgian lyrics to Modernism.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
by T. S. Eliot
Cover page of The Egoist, Ltd.'s publication of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)
First published inJune 1915 issue of Poetry[1]
CountryUnited States
Publishermagazine (1915): Harriet Monroe
chapbook (1917): The Egoist, Ltd. (London)[2]
Pages6 (1915 printing)[1]
8 (1917 printing)[2]
Read onlineThe Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock at Wikisource

The poem's structure was heavily influenced by Eliot's extensive reading of Dante Alighieri[4] and makes several references to the Bible and other literary works—including William Shakespeare's plays Henry IV Part II, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet, the poetry of seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, and the nineteenth-century French Symbolists. Eliot narrates the experience of Prufrock using the stream of consciousness technique developed by his fellow Modernist writers. The poem, described as a "drama of literary anguish", is a dramatic interior monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action that is said "to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual" and "represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment".[5]

Prufrock laments his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and lack of spiritual progress, and he is haunted by reminders of unattained carnal love. With visceral feelings of weariness, regret, embarrassment, longing, emasculation, sexual frustration, a sense of decay, and an awareness of mortality, "Prufrock" has become one of the most recognised voices in modern literature.[6]

Composition and publication history

Writing and first publication

Eliot wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" between February 1910 and July or August 1911. Shortly after arriving in England to attend Merton College, Oxford, Eliot was introduced to American expatriate poet Ezra Pound, who instantly deemed Eliot "worth watching" and aided the start of Eliot's career. Pound served as the overseas editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse and recommended to the magazine's founder, Harriet Monroe, that Poetry publish "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", extolling that Eliot and his work embodied a new and unique phenomenon among contemporary writers. Pound claimed that Eliot "has actually trained himself AND modernized himself ON HIS OWN. The rest of the promising young have done one or the other, but never both."[7] The poem was first published by the magazine in its June 1915 issue.[1][8]

In November 1915 "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"—along with Eliot's poems "Portrait of a Lady", "The Boston Evening Transcript", "Hysteria", and "Miss Helen Slingsby"—was included in Catholic Anthology 1914–1915 edited by Ezra Pound and printed by Elkin Mathews in London.[9]:297 In June 1917 The Egoist, a small publishing firm run by Dora Marsden, published a pamphlet entitled Prufrock and Other Observations (London), containing twelve poems by Eliot. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was the first in the volume.[2] Also Eliot was appointed assistant editor of the Egoist in June 1917.[9]:290

Prufrock's Pervigilium

According to Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon, when Eliot was writing the first drafts of Prufrock in his notebook in 1910–1911, he intentionally kept four pages blank in the middle section of the poem.[10] According to the notebooks, now in the collection of the New York Public Library, Eliot finished the poem, which was originally published sometime in July and August 1911, when he was 22 years old.[11] In 1912, Eliot revised the poem and included a 38-line section now called "Prufrock's Pervigilium" which was inserted on those blank pages, and intended as a middle section for the poem.[10] However, Eliot removed this section soon after seeking the advice of his fellow Harvard acquaintance and poet Conrad Aiken.[12] This section would not be included in the original publication of Eliot's poem but was included when published posthumously in the 1996 collection of Eliot's early, unpublished drafts in Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909–1917.[11] This Pervigilium section describes the "vigil" of Prufrock through an evening and night[11]:41, 43–44, 176–90 described by one reviewer as an "erotic foray into the narrow streets of a social and emotional underworld" that portray "in clammy detail Prufrock's tramping 'through certain half-deserted streets' and the context of his 'muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.'"[13]

Critical reception

Its reception in London can be gauged from an unsigned review in The Times Literary Supplement on 21 June 1917. "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."[14]

The Harvard Vocarium at Harvard College recorded Eliot's reading of Prufrock and other poems in 1947, as part of their ongoing series of poetry readings by their authors.[15]



In his early drafts, Eliot gave the poem the subtitle "Prufrock among the Women."[11]:41 This subtitle was apparently discarded before publication. Eliot called the poem a "love song" in reference to Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Love Song of Har Dyal", first published in Kipling's collection Plain Tales from the Hills (1888).[16] In 1959, Eliot addressed a meeting of the Kipling Society and discussed the influence of Kipling upon his own poetry:

Traces of Kipling appear in my own mature verse where no diligent scholarly sleuth has yet observed them, but which I am myself prepared to disclose. I once wrote a poem called "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": I am convinced that it would never have been called "Love Song" but for a title of Kipling's that stuck obstinately in my head: "The Love Song of Har Dyal".[16]

However, the origin of the name Prufrock is not certain, and Eliot never remarked on its origin other than to claim he was unsure of how he came upon the name. Many scholars and indeed Eliot himself have pointed towards the autobiographical elements in the character of Prufrock, and Eliot at the time of writing the poem was in the habit of rendering his name as "T. Stearns Eliot", very similar in form to that of J. Alfred Prufrock.[17] It is suggested that the name "Prufrock" came from Eliot's youth in St. Louis, Missouri, where the Prufrock-Litton Company, a large furniture store, occupied one city block downtown at 420–422 North Fourth Street.[18][19][20] In a 1950 letter, Eliot said, "I did not have, at the time of writing the poem, and have not yet recovered, any recollection of having acquired this name in any way, but I think that it must be assumed that I did, and that the memory has been obliterated."[21]


The draft version of the poem's epigraph comes from Dante's Purgatorio (XXVI, 147–148):[11]:39, 41

'sovegna vos a temps de ma dolor'.
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina.

'be mindful in due time of my pain'.
Then dived he back into that fire which refines them.[22]

He finally decided not to use this, but eventually used the quotation in the closing lines of his 1922 poem The Waste Land. The quotation that Eliot did choose comes from Dante also. Inferno (XXVII, 61–66) reads:

S`io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocchè giammai di questo fondo
Non tornò vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

If I but thought that my response were made
to one perhaps returning to the world,
this tongue of flame would cease to flicker.
But since, up from these depths, no one has yet
returned alive, if what I hear is true,
I answer without fear of being shamed.[23]

In context, the epigraph refers to a meeting between Dante and Guido da Montefeltro, who was condemned to the eighth circle of Hell for providing counsel to Pope Boniface VIII, who wished to use Guido's advice for a nefarious undertaking. This encounter follows Dante's meeting with Ulysses, who himself is also condemned to the circle of the Fraudulent. According to Ron Banerjee, the epigraph serves to cast ironic light on Prufrock's intent. Like Guido, Prufrock had never intended his story to be told, and so by quoting Guido, Eliot reveals his view of Prufrock's love song.[24]

Frederick Locke contends that Prufrock himself is suffering from multiple personalities of sorts, and that he embodies both Guido and Dante in the Inferno analogy. One is the storyteller; the other the listener who later reveals the story to the world. He posits, alternatively, that the role of Guido in the analogy is indeed filled by Prufrock, but that the role of Dante is filled by you, the reader, as in "Let us go then, you and I" (1). In that, the reader is granted the power to do as he pleases with Prufrock's love song.[25]

Themes and interpretation

Because the poem is concerned primarily with the irregular musings of the narrator, it can be difficult to interpret. Laurence Perrine wrote, "[the poem] presents the apparently random thoughts going through a person's head within a certain time interval, in which the transitional links are psychological rather than logical".[26] This stylistic choice makes it difficult to determine exactly what is literal and what is symbolic. On the surface, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" relays the thoughts of a sexually frustrated middle-aged man who wants to say something but is afraid to do so, and ultimately does not.[26][27] The dispute, however, lies in to whom Prufrock is speaking, whether he is actually going anywhere, what he wants to say, and to what the various images refer.

The intended audience is not evident. Some believe that Prufrock is talking to another person[28] or directly to the reader,[29] while others believe Prufrock's monologue is internal. Perrine writes "The 'you and I' of the first line are divided parts of Prufrock's own nature",[26] while Mutlu Konuk Blasing suggests that the "you and I" refers to the relationship between the dilemmas of the character and the author.[30] Similarly, critics dispute whether Prufrock is going somewhere during the course of the poem. In the first half of the poem, Prufrock uses various outdoor images (the sky, streets, cheap restaurants and hotels, fog), and talks about how there will be time for various things before "the taking of a toast and tea", and "time to turn back and descend the stair." This has led many to believe that Prufrock is on his way to an afternoon tea, where he is preparing to ask this "overwhelming question".[26] Others, however, believe that Prufrock is not physically going anywhere, but rather, is playing through it in his mind.[29][30]

Perhaps the most significant dispute lies over the "overwhelming question" that Prufrock is trying to ask. Many believe that Prufrock is trying to tell a woman of his romantic interest in her,[26] pointing to the various images of women's arms and clothing and the final few lines in which Prufrock laments that the mermaids will not sing to him. Others, however, believe that Prufrock is trying to express some deeper philosophical insight or disillusionment with society, but fears rejection, pointing to statements that express a disillusionment with society, such as "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" (line 51). Many believe that the poem is a criticism of Edwardian society and Prufrock's dilemma represents the inability to live a meaningful existence in the modern world.[31] McCoy and Harlan wrote "For many readers in the 1920s, Prufrock seemed to epitomize the frustration and impotence of the modern individual. He seemed to represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment."[29]

In general, Eliot uses imagery which is indicative of Prufrock's character,[26] representing aging and decay. For example, "When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table" (lines 2–3), the "sawdust restaurants" and "cheap hotels", the yellow fog, and the afternoon "Asleep...tired... or it malingers" (line 77), are reminiscent of languor and decay, while Prufrock's various concerns about his hair and teeth, as well as the mermaids "Combing the white hair of the waves blown back / When the wind blows the water white and black," show his concern over aging.

Use of allusion

Like many of Eliot's poems, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" makes numerous allusions to other works, which are often symbolic themselves.

  • In "Time for all the works and days of hands" (29) the phrase 'works and days' is the title of a long poem – a description of agricultural life and a call to toil – by the early Greek poet Hesiod.[26]
  • "I know the voices dying with a dying fall" (52) echoes Orsino's first lines in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.[26]
  • The prophet of "Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter / I am no prophet — and here's no great matter" (81–2) is John the Baptist, whose head was delivered to Salome by Herod as a reward for her dancing (Matthew 14:1–11, and Oscar Wilde's play Salome).[26]
  • "To have squeezed the universe into a ball" (92) and "indeed there will be time" (23) echo the closing lines of Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress'. Other phrases such as, "there will be time" and "there is time" are reminiscent of the opening line of that poem: "Had we but world enough and time". Marvell's words in turn echo the General Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, "whil I have tyme and space".[26]
  • "'I am Lazarus, come from the dead'" (94) may be either the beggar Lazarus (of Luke 16) returning for the rich man who was not permitted to return from the dead to warn the brothers of a rich man about Hell, or the Lazarus (of John 11) whom Christ raised from the dead, or both.[26]
  • "Full of high sentence" (117) echoes Chaucer's description of the Clerk of Oxford in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.[26]
  • "There will be time to murder and create" is a biblical allusion to Ecclesiastes 3.[26]
  • In the final section of the poem, Prufrock rejects the idea that he is Prince Hamlet, suggesting that he is merely "an attendant lord" (112) whose purpose is to "advise the prince" (114), a likely allusion to Polonius — Polonius being also "almost, at times, the Fool."
  • "Among some talk of you and me" may be[32] a reference to Quatrain 32 of Edward FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam ("There was a Door to which I found no Key / There was a Veil past which I could not see / Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee / There seemed — and then no more of Thee and Me.")

See also


  1. Eliot, T. S. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in Monroe, Harriet (editor), Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (June 1915), 130–135.
  2. Eliot, T. S. Prufrock and Other Observations (London: The Egoist, Ltd., 1917), 9–16.
  3. Eliot, T. S. (21 December 2010). The Waste Land and Other Poems. Broadview Press. p. 133. ISBN 978-1-77048-267-8. Retrieved 9 July 2017. (citing an unsigned review in Literary Review. 5 July 1917, vol. lxxxiii, 107.)
  4. Hollahan, Eugene (March 1970). "A Structural Dantean Parallel in Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'". American Literature. 1. 42: 91–93. doi:10.2307/2924384. ISSN 0002-9831.
  5. McCoy, Kathleen, and Harlan, Judith. English Literature From 1785 (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 265–66. ISBN 006467150X
  6. Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Volume 5. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 99. ISBN 0521497310
  7. Capitalization and italics original. Quoted in Mertens, Richard. "Letter By Letter" in The University of Chicago Magazine (August 2001). Retrieved 23 April 2007.
  8. Southam, B.C. A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1994), 45. ISBN 057117082X
  9. Miller, James Edward. T. S. Eliot: The Making of an American poet, 1888–1922. (State College, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005) ISBN 0271026812
  10. Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot's New Life. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 45.
  11. Eliot, T. S., and Ricks, Christopher B. (editor). Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909–1917 Ed. Christopher B. Ricks. (New York: Harcourt, 1996).
  12. Mayer, Nicholas B (2011). "Catalyzing Prufrock". Journal of Modern Literature. 34 (3): 182. doi:10.2979/jmodelite.34.3.182. JSTOR 10.2979/jmodelite.34.3.182.
  13. Jenkins, Nicholas. "More American Than We Knew: Nerves, exhaustion and madness were at the core of Eliot's early imaginative thinking" in The New York Times (20 April 1997). This is a 1997 book review of Inventions of the March Hare:Poems 1909–1917, vide supra. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
  14. Waugh, Arthur. The New Poetry, Quarterly Review, October 1916, citing the Times Literary Supplement 21 June 1917, no. 805, 299; Wagner, Erica (2001) "An eruption of fury", The Guardian, letters to the editor, 4 September 2001. Wagner omits the word "very" from the quote.
  15. Woodberry Poetry Room (Harvard College Library). Poetry Readings: Guide
  16. Eliot, T. S. "The Unfading Genius of Rudyard Kipling" in Kipling Journal (March 1959), 9.
  17. Eliot, T. S. The Letters of T. S. Eliot. (New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1988). 1:135.
  18. Montesi, Al, and Deposki, Richard. Downtown St. Louis (Arcadia Publishing, 2001), 65. ISBN 0-7385-0816-0
  19. Christine H. The Daily Postcard: Prufrock-Litton – St. Louis, Missouri. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
  20. Missouri History Museum. Lighting fixture in front of Prufrock-Litton Furniture Company. Retrieved 11 June 2013.
  21. Stepanchev, Stephen. "The Origin of J. Alfred Prufrock" in Modern Language Notes. (1951), 66:400–401. JSTOR 2909497
  22. Eliot provided this translation in his essay "Dante" (1929).
  23. Dante Alighieri, and Hollander Robert and Hollander, Jean (translators), The Inferno. (Princeton: Princeton Dante Project). Retrieved 3 November 2011.
  24. Banerjee, Ron D. K. "The Dantean Overview: The Epigraph to 'Prufrock'" in Comparative Literature. (1972) 87:962–966. JSTOR 2907793
  25. Locke, Frederick W. "Dante and T. S. Eliot's Prufrock." in Modern Language Notes. (1963) 78:51–59. JSTOR 3042942
  26. Perrine, Laurence. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, 1st edition. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956), 798.
  27. "On 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", Modern American Poetry, University of Illinois (accessed 20 April 2019).
  28. Headings, Philip R. T. S. Eliot. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), 24–25.
  29. Hecimovich, Gred A (editor). English 151-3; T. S. Eliot "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" notes (accessed 14 June 2006), from McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith. English Literature from 1785. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).
  30. Blasing, Mutlu Konuk, "On 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", in American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987). ISBN 0300037937
  31. Mitchell, Roger. "On 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'", in Myers, Jack and Wojahan, David (editors). A Profile of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991). ISBN 0809313480
  32. Schimanski, Johan Annotasjoner til T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock" (at Universitetet i Tromsø). Retrieved 8 August 2006.

Further reading

  • Drew, Elizabeth. T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949).
  • Gallup, Donald. T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition) (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1969), 23, 196.
  • Luthy, Melvin J. "The Case of Prufrock's Grammar" in College English (1978) 39:841–853. JSTOR 375710.
  • Soles, Derek. "The Prufrock Makeover" in The English Journal (1999), 88:59–61. JSTOR 822420.
  • Sorum, Eve. "Masochistic Modernisms: A Reading of Eliot and Woolf." Journal of Modern Literature. 28 (3), (Spring 2005) 25–43. doi:10.1353/jml.2005.0044.
  • Sinha, Arun Kumar and Vikram, Kumar. "'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock' (Critical Essay with Detailed Annotations)" in T. S. Eliot: An Intensive Study of Selected Poems (New Delhi: Spectrum Books Pvt. Ltd, 2005).
  • Walcutt, Charles Child. "Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'" in College English (1957) 19:71–72. JSTOR 372706.
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