The 1915 classic poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot is one of the most popular representations of English poetry, and is often anthologized in many literary collections. That it is called a ‘love song’ reveals it as a profession of affection by a man to his ladylove, evidenced by the first line “Let us go then, you and I,” (Eliot 1), but upon further reading the poem may also be understood as referring to the reader, or even an internal monologue—technically a literary device called stream of consciousness.
Within Prufrock’s continuous descriptions of people, places, and events, there is an apparent mode of observing and theorizing; the constant questioning and lamentations somehow illustrate, more than his romantic interest in the woman, Prufrock’s general discontent and criticism of the society he is in. But the question of the poem’s addressee may be answered by the author’s use of literary allusions—a clear referencing of already-existing literature—for only the informed and educated would place each one.
Therefore, with the appropriation of such, Prufrock’s concern of disillusionment is uncovered, without explicitly stating it; a reason could be fear of being judged or ostracized, as British society at the time may not have been welcome to criticisms. In the poem, the literary allusions used may have been to refer to various societal ills—corruption, excess, self-righteousness or false morality, and fear of authority. II. A Criticism of Corruption and Ethics
As Prufrock talks about a certain time when things will be in their ideal state, the lines “There will be time to murder and create,/And time for all the works and days of hands” (Eliot 28-29) are apparently taken from two valuable texts: Ecclesiastes 3, and Hesiod’s “Works and Days”. The former, being from the Christian bible, means ridding the world of criminals and bad elements, and the consequential need to create something new, through the healing of wounds before they beget permanent effects (Biblos.
com, par. 4). In the latter, a collection of moral and practical recommendations toward a life of agriculture, is Hesiod’s iconic contribution to instilling honesty and good work ethics in ancient Greek society (West, vii). Since Prufrock talks about these as events still to happen, it may be viewed as his commentary on his present—which would then be the opposite of the values espoused by the referenced texts.
The common concepts of corruption and unscrupulous behavior, evils of many societies, may be the object of his concern in these lines. III. Knowledge, Action, and Fear of Authority Prufrock reveals his fear as he says, “Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought upon in a platter,/I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter”, which refers to John the Baptist’s fate in the hands of King Herod—another reference to biblical text.
He is most likely telling of his possible future, seen in the mention of his growing bald, when his efforts to “force the moment to its crisis” (Eliot 80) or the actions he would take to resolve his disturbed opinion of society would be met with sure offense. Later he talks about how doing so would have been worth the while, and thinks of what would happen “To have squeezed the universe into a ball” (Eliot 90).
This is an allusion to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, wherein the persona attempts to convince his beloved to “roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball” (41-42) and not to continue wasting the time they have. Then Prufrock goes on with this sentiment as “To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’” (Eliot 94-95), a depiction of the biblical character, within Prufrock’s intention to reveal the ills he knows of society.
It is obvious how Prufrock is obsessed with acting upon something due to the knowledge he has of it, and this can be assumed to be his familiarity with the many undesirable elements in his environment. However, he is also aware of the fate that can befall him, and such is the cause of his despair. To validate the idea that most people are unacquainted with these issues, Prufrock narrates the kind of reaction he would receive: “If one, settling a pillow by her head,/Should say; ‘That is not what I meant at all. /That is not it, at all’ (Eliot 96-98).
IV. Of Excesses, Self-Righteousness and False Morality This time, Prufrock speaks of the mundane nature of his life, one without much change or progress, while there are others who enjoy pleasures beyond the acceptable. He proclaims to know all the possibilities and repercussions of time, as he has too much of it. Compare his expression of this state with another: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;/I know the voices dying with a dying fall/Beneath the music from a farther room” (Eliot 50-52), which contrasts his situation with another.
The second line alludes to William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in the first lines spoken by the duke Orsino about his love for Olivia (1-4) that refer to the effects of the excessive food of love as a ‘dying fall’. The life of excessive romance and pleasure may be Prufrock’s meaning, yet it could plainly symbolize his description of people often succumbing to the call of the flesh, or the consumption of anything in excess. That these are ‘from a farther room’ implies that they are hidden from the public, illicit and kept secret.
Then Prufrock goes on to declare “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/Am an attendant lord, one that will do” (Eliot 111-112) and “Polite, cautious, and meticulous;/Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse” (Eliot 116-117), which obviously quotes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet; but the fact that he is only an ‘attendant Lord’ with the proper qualities shows a typical scenario of many political leaders and their subordinates—the less powerful merely accepting his fate.
The phrase ‘full of high sentence’ echoes Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where the Clerk of Oxford spoke in a way that was “short and quick, and full of high sentence” (308), is a depiction of his intellectual and moral virtue despite his apparent poverty; the same is seen by Prufrock in his state, with his vast knowledge and ability over the more powerful only relegating him to the sidelines, thus being “Almost, at times, the Fool” (Eliot 119). Possibly Prufrock is negotiating his duty to country to do what she should, yet knows that it would fall on deaf ears or worse—be chastised for it. V. Conclusion
The poem is often seen by most readers as a simple expression of a man’s thoughts toward his beloved, yet the presence of literary allusions proves that it is not that elementary. There is a clear indication of social and political commentary, already apparent in the title alone; the name ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’, with the use of the lone initial to prefix the name, is usually done with an air of pretense. And as Prufrock describes “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” (Eliot 35-36) is a direct description of the pretentious actions of people who engage in the superficial discussion of art and culture.
Without these allusions, one would just decide that the poem is frivolous, specially as the persona seems to ramble on and on about mundane things and random thoughts. But a closer and informed query will reveal, as it has in this discussion, the author’s goal to expose his own opinions about a greater and more important concern. Works Cited Primary: Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. Ed. Robert DiYanni.
New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. , 1990. 714-717. Secondary: Biblios. com. “Ecclesiastes 3”. Bible Commenter. 05 March 2009 <http://jfb. biblecommenter. com/ecclesiastes/3. htm>. Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue”. The Literature Network. 05 March 2009 <http://www. online-literature. com/chaucer/canterbury/1/>. Hesiod. “Works and Days”. Ed. M. L. West. Theogony and Works and Days. Oxford University Press, 1999. Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress”. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. Ed. Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. , 1990. 604-605. Shakespeare, William. “Twelfth Night”. The Literature Network. 05 March 2009 <http://www. online-literature. com/shakespeare/12night/1/>.