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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Essay Sample

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Essay Sample

             “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” begins with an overtly ironic gesture— the titular provocation stymied by an opening quotation from Dante’s “Inferno.” This irony poses an immediate thematic tension between the ideal (a “love song”) and the “damned” (the ensuing lines from Dante). The irony also propels character development; the speaker of the poem confiding to the reader his status as a “damned” confessor.

What Prufrock wants to do is to find a way to understand himself, his age, life, love, sex, art, and the meaning of life. What he finds instead is inner-impotency and chaos. The poems’ speaker becomes the subject of the poem itself: providing an extensive, ironic confession of his impotency and malaise. Prufrock is modern, urbane, scholarly, but devoid of direction, incapable of making a decisive move. He moves as though a paralytic through drab neighborhoods, cheap hotels: solitary and dispossessed. “Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table;/Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,/The muttering retreats/Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels”

Prufrock’s identity, the sum of his days, finds a suitable and famous epigram in the lines: “For I have known them all already, known them all:—/Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,/I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”which indicate the extreme impotence with which Prufrock meets the modern world.

For T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock can be said to be the addressing of age, life, and one’s personal fight with the passing of days. The many allusions throughout the poem may be attributed to various issues concerning one’s growing old. In line two, for example, Eliot makes the comparison of the evening to an unconscious patient on an operating table. The consequence of this comparison is that the reader begins to see the evening as not the end of a day, but rather the end of someone’s life – old age.  With this allusion used in Eliot’s poem the reader is allowed to explore their own understanding of how their life has been in comparison to the illustrations used by Eliot.  This is a glimpse into the way Prufrock sees himself and how he views life: basically as a losing proposition and a meaningless one, as well.

            The personification of the time of day at the beginning of the poem, then leads the reader to view the rest of the poem in a manner conducive to that comparison – with all of the metaphors dealing with life. This comparison is further pressed in line 23, with “And indeed there will be time”. This solidifies the metaphor of time, and a person’s dealings with it.  Eliot seemed to enjoy writing in the metaphysical aspects and indeed this is strongly reflected in Prufrock, while Eliot balances this writing with concrete imagery.  Though Eliot insists “there will be time”, he follows this line with a list of many things that one does throughout his or her life. This expansive list would fill a lifetime, and therefore refute the idea of endless time that line 23 infers. Eliot liked to write in contradictions since humanity was full of contention points and paradoxes. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the contradictions express Prufrock’s fragmented mental state, which, in turn, is a symbol for the fragmentation of modernity.

             The hesitations and frivolous actions of life listed in this poem are not an affirmation of the ability to achieve these goals, or waste this time, but instead it is a warning that time passes, without respect to the desire or intent of a person. Eliot makes mention of this by indicating that his hair is thinning, something that he does not desire to occur, yet does – outside his control.   When Prufrock says in lines 44 and 45 “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?,” he epitomizes  the frustration and impotence of the modern individual. He represents unfulfilled desires and contemporary disillusionment. The poem’s diction captures the anti-heroic nature of middle-class life in the twentieth century. Prufrock falls short of being a tragic figure; instead, his confession of inner weakness, self-derision, and sexual and intellectual impotency frame him as a singularly unsympathetic figure: one not deserving of the essential dignity that is found in the character studies of the great tragedies.

            In this way, Eliot poses an “anti-hero” in poetry, the equivalent of a “straw man” for whom life exists only as a series of unresolved contradictions, disappointments, impotency, and loss of spiritual resilience. By crafting a poem which also stands as Prufrock’s stream of consciousness or self-reflection, Eliot delivers an indictment of modern society under the guise of fictional (or poetic) introspection. Prufrock’s desire to understand life and to rise above his negative opinions of himself are futile as the language of the poem makes clear as well as its imagery, meter, and literary allusions. By crafting a poem of modern themes with the traditional form of a “narrative,” Eliot is also able to portray Prufrock as a man trapped between ages, or lost in time.         

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