The second decade of the twentieth century, a change-over period in the history of English poetry, was not a very inspirational one for poets. The existing group of poets, the Neo-Romantics attempted in vain to keep the Romantic spirit alive by writing about nature and harmony but with the arrival of industrialization and the beginnings of the modern world, it became painfully clear that the lilting, peaceful Romantic style was in no way a reflection of the present state of affairs.
The mechanized world of machines, factories and similarly regimented human societies, long ignored by the Neo-Romantics was finally examined and put into verse by T. S. Eliot. Of the numerous works that capture the nascent modern world, one that stands out in particular is ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Eliot dives into the heart of urban decay in the first stanza itself, when he compares the evening to an etherized patient lying comatose on the operating table.
The metaphor that symbolizes the numb, unquestioning society that inhabits the deserted streets, cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants captures a theme that is constantly revisited in this poem. The women who talk about Michelangelo do so as a ritual of fashion, without understanding anything about the art itself. Eliot goes on to compare the fog that spreads across the city to a cat that skulks on the rooftops before going to sleep.
The fog that slips insidiously into every home represents the clouded judgment of the people that inherit the modern world. The protagonist in the poem echoes Marvell and the preacher in Ecclesiastes with the phrase, ‘there will be time, turning Marvell’s call to seize the moment and the preacher’s teaching- to everything there is a season- upside down to suit his indecisiveness. 2 The comparisons to Hamlet in the poem once again parallel the lack of resolve that characterizes the protagonist.
He longs to be the rogue element in a society that picks up on the trivial things like one’s thinning hair, or depleted weight but fails to pay heed to life’s more important aspects. The protagonists envisions himself breaking the cycle and speaking life’s messages to the gossiping crowd only to falter at the moment of action. He finds himself pinned like an insect and unable to begin speaking his mind. He wonders if it is worth the trouble and anticipates that even if he were to speak, his message would be dismissed by as not being pertinent to the gossip that the society indulges in.
His inability to make a change breeds some amount of self-loathing that surfaces in parches across the poem. Death- the eternal Footman- snickers at him for being afraid. He admits that he is neither a prophet nor Prince Hamlet; that he is merely an attendant lord whose capacity to act stops at staring a scene or two. The poem ends with the ageing protagonist taking a walk on the beach and slipping into another world where the mermaids are riding the waves and singing to each other.
But even here, he believes that they will not sing to him. He lingers there for as long as he can, before he is awoken by the lifeless hand of human interaction and condemned for his lack of action, to drown in its throes. The themes that Eliot discusses through this poem and others like ‘The Burial of the Dead’ and ‘A Game of Chess’ explore and hit out against the soulless modern existence which moves along in a regimented stupor and parallels the oncoming wave of industrialization.