If you have never ever read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, here is a helpful link that I have attached to help you out and I will encourage you to read the poem before reading this blog:
A Little bit of Context
(Before I begin, if you are familiarised with Eliot’s personal context already, probably cause you’re in some form of English Literature class, feel free to skip to the next paragraph for the modernism information)
T.S Eliot, or if you are a bit fancier or somewhat rehearsed in the literature world, Thomas Sterns Eliot, is regarded as one of the most influential and innovative modernist poets of the 20th century and maybe in history. There isn’t much information of why Eliot shortened his name to just T.S but if I had to take a guess it would probably be the reason of the meme featured below this. Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri (USA) in 1888 and was the youngest of seven siblings. In his later years of education, Eliot enrolled in Harvard in 1906 and later earnt a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature and a Masters in English Literature. After his degree, Eliot travelled to Paris and meant his “soulmate” Jean Verdenal who had an equal interest in literature and an understanding in it. It is widely thought that Verdenal and Eliot were in a homosexual relationship. In April 1915, Verdenal was killed in the war on the shores of Gallipoli, where it is said that he drowned and this devastated Eliot when he found out. In 1914, Eliot moved to London and was befriended by Ezra Pound, possibly the most influential modernist poet of his time (if you are unfamiliar with Pound, I suggested you research him. However, be careful to click on the poet and NOT the bar located in Northbridge, WA called Ezra Pound!). Pound often influenced and acted as an editor of sorts to Eliot’s poems and even orchestrated the publication events of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (I’m calling it just The Love Song from now on as I can’t be bothered constantly writing a long title over and over. I’m lazy what can I say, I’m sure you would do the same) in 1917. In Eliot’s later life he went on to famously win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. Throughout Eliot’s life he married twice and had no children due to his eminent ehem… sexual disfunctions and problems. On a side note, a fun fact regarding Eliot’s second wife Viviane was that she was a massive 37 years younger than him! That’s enough for her to be potentially Eliot’s daughter or even granddaughter if he had children (a bit yuck I know!) Anyway, back to Eliot’s personal context, he died at the aged of 76 in 1965 at his London apartment.
Modernism in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: A Brief Overview
If you skipped the personal context this section is the reason why (I’m assuming) you clicked on this blog so please keep reading so I can reveal to you how many consider Eliot to be one of the modernist writers of the century through only his first poem.
Modernism was essentially based upon a utopian vision of human life and society moving forward through creating new experiences and new forms of expression. Modernist ideals pervaded art, architecture, literature, religious faith, philosophy and even science. The modernist era was a literary movement during the 1890’s to the late 1950’s. Eliot was predominantly a modernist poet and was seen to be largely influenced by the contextual periods he lived in and how the two world wars for example effected his oeuvre (a fancy word for “body of work”). The disillusionment that grew out of World War 1 contributed to the emergence of modernism, in which the genre broke with traditional ways of writing, discarded romantic views of nature and focused on the interior world of characters. The war resulted in many writers shifting their ideals of the world into a more modernist approach and introducing a form of grim brutality and cynical expression throughout their poems. Some modernist characteristics that Eliot merged into his oeuvre are the basic and most well-known elements.
A modernist characteristic that can be highlighted as a motif throughout Eliot’s poem of The Love Song is how the questioning of previously stable assumptions and traditional aspects of society. Eliot was part of the modernist movement after World War 1 and during this time, after the horrors of war, men started to come out of their shells and express more emotions and insecurity which is the exact opposite of the “tough” traditional man who were supposably seen by society to be “afraid of nothing”. By Eliot in liaising this “questioning” of the traditional masculine man, he is embracing the modernist movement and expanding through new forms of expression. This characteristic is most prevalent as the main persona is an insecure, emotional male who is the complete opposite of masculinity. Additionally, another characteristic of modernism is the stream of consciousness. It invites the reader into the mind of the persona in the poem and allows them to understand the associated leaps between the characters undiluted thoughts. Often poets would interpret a stream of consciousness into their poems to reflect their own personal emotions or to get a desired reaction from the audience, thus creating a connection. This is amplified in Eliot’s poem of The Love Song through the persona of Prufrock who had an overthinking, forlorn outlook on society and his decisions. Furthermore, an alternative element of modernism was the severe disassociation with the romantic era which was most predominant in the Edwardian Era of 1901-1914. This modernism element was again influenced by the war and the societal belief of not needing to be in love with a significant other to have… ehem… “a good time”, leading to hedonistic outlooks within the poem. In every modernist poem, a modernist poet will almost always include stylistic features such as fragmentation and irony and Eliot, the master of modernism did just that. Structural fragmentation was used by Eliot in modernist literature to resemble a cultural debris and detritus through the modern man wades. Eliot used structural fragmentation for the intention of giving the effects of, creating a sense of disconnection between the reader and poem as it doesn’t flow and how it forces the reader to find a layered significance in the different sections of Eliot’s poem The Love Song. Irony is the expression or contradiction of an expression to mean the exact opposite. This was favoured by Eliot as it highlighted the ideology he was trying to convey but in a pessimistic or contradicting way to what has been written, it also emphasised the importance of the ironic line for Eliot as it reflected society. Almost all of Eliot’s poems are considered to be high-brow forms of literature, which is an element of modernism and The Love Song is no exception. This means that without the proper knowledge of the intertextual references that Eliot includes in his oeuvre, they are difficult to understand. This is considered to be a modernist element as it creates a barrier between the reader and poem, as it is widely perceived by many that modernist poets created this barrier to allow readers to understand the loss of communication that the modernist’s experienced with society during the 1890’s to 1950’s. Another modernist characteristic is modernist ambiguity and this is expressed in The Love Song. Modernist ambiguity is the content of a text being open to different forms of expression and interpretation but can also have an affiliation with the modernist element and movement. It allows the reader to interact and interpret the poem to how they wish and this encourages them to move forward in their ways of thinking much like the ideals of the modernist movement which reinvigorated the people following to move forward.
A Quick Summary
Now, you may have noticed there are a lot of modernist elements in The Love Song in my basis analysis, but I did it for those few who may possibly be up at 1am on a Wednesday night with no time. If you’re looking for a more depicting and analytical explanation of modernist elements in The Love Song then I must insist you keep on scrolling. The poem of The Love Song highlights the relationship between Eliot and modernism and how he merged many modernist ideologies into his poem. This made him one of the most influential modernist poets to date in just only his first poem to be published. You might even allow yourself a little wow… (I’ll wait for you to “WOW” don’t worry).
How Eliot Encapsulates Elements of Modernism into The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, was published by Eliot with the considerable help of Pound in 1917 and is dedicated to his supposed late “boyfriend” Verdenal (it’s very sentimental and cute isn’t it? I thought so to…). The poem is told from the insecure, miserable, forlorn perspective of the anti-hero Prufrock about his failed life and in his quest to find love while worrying about aging.
Questioning Stable Assumptions of Society
Questioning stable assumptions and traditional aspects that were previously established was quite popular in the modernist movement as it conformed to the aspect of moving forward and creating new expressions. Eliot the master of modernism did integrate this element of modernism into his literary poem of The Love Song. Modernist noted that the traditional ways of thinking of gender roles were incongruous and outdated within the emerging environment of the modern world. This was widely influenced through the aftermath of World War 1 as many men were distraught by the disarray, deaths and were emotionally damaged. However, it was looked down upon at the time of the 20th century for a man to express his emotions and insecurities as this didn’t conform to the masculine, traditional male role of society that was previously established. The epitome of masculinity was to be a tough, fearless, robust male, who had faith and confidence within himself. Eliot however, challenges and questions this previously stable assumption of how men should be in traditional society through his main anti-hero persona, Prufrock in The Love Song. Prufrock is seen to be an insecure and emotional male whose self-consciousness is apparent to his appearance creating an aspect of superficiality. His insecure nature is highlighted by him comparing himself as a motif throughout the poem to influential Renaissance Era figures such as “Michelangelo” and “Hamlet”. Prufrock exclaims that ‘No!’ he is ‘not Prince Hamlet’ and ‘nor was meant to be’, thus indicating that he is thinks of himself not to be like Shakespeare’s eponymous hero who is subsequently the main character in his play. Prufrock instead thinks of himself to be below, and rather a secondary character in his own story much like an ‘attendant lord’ to serve someone else. By Prufrock not having confidence within himself to be important and constantly comparing himself, it reveals an insecure man who is unafraid to express his emotions. This corresponds to the modernist movement as Eliot creates Prufrock to be explicit in exposing his insecure feelings and little confidence which is the complete opposite attributes to the traditional male thus forming a challenge and a question to the assumption of the tradition male figure. The motif of insecurity is also emphasised by Prufrock’s dramatic monologue as it divulges into his superficial consciousness. The traditional, stable assumption is that men shouldn’t worry about how pretty they could possibly be and should remain confident in their appearance. Prufrock is seen to be the exact opposite of this as he is insecure about the ‘bald spot in the middle of [his] hair’ and how he exclaims ‘I grow old…I grow old…’. The repetition about himself growing old and the worrying of his hair heightens the superficial side of Prufrock and exemplifies his insecure nature, further adapting to the modernist movement as Eliot is challenging the stable assumption of the traditional male role through Prufrock. By Eliot creating Prufrock to have a sense of insecurity to question the established traditional male expectation, he is causing the audience to be more accepting of different attributes of a male. This could possibility be a reflection his own desire to express his emotions after World War 1 which was a particularly tough time for him as it caused the death of his “soulmate” Verdenal. This may cause a late 1910s reader’s reaction to not oppress men’s emotions but instead embrace it and help them get through the traumas. By Eliot amalgamating the modernist element of questioning previously established traditional societal roles through The Love Song he is encapsulating the modernist movement of forming new ideas and forms of expressions into his poem thus reflecting his desire to move forward and accept new concepts as a modernist himself.
Stream of Consciousness
Creating the persona of Prufrock to have a stream of consciousness in a non-linear fashion is considered to be an element of modernism that Eliot has integrated into The Love Song. This is emulated by Eliot building in the unnecessary use of repetition and syntax into his poem. In the rhyming syntax and rhetorical questions of ‘there will be time/ To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’/ Time to turn back and descend the stairs’ emulates the associative leaps that Prufrock makes between his thoughts to the audience and makes them feel involved in Prufrock’s inner thoughts. Eliot creates Prufrock’s stream of consciousness to have a questioning and negative outlook. This is seen through Prufrock turning back from his task and go somewhere else after overthinking it and thus encourages the reader to pity Prufrock and wish he didn’t have such a bleak and pessimistic outlook on life. They would also want to him to move forward instead of questioning himself. Eliot fashioned this audience’s reaction to Prufrock to reflect the lack of encouragement many modernists were given during the movement. Most of the population in the 20th century thought modernists were trying to change society’s aspects and often thought the way the modernist were forming new expressions was in the wrong direction so there was many against the modernist movement. Many modernist writers may have questioned their integrity, possibly even Eliot and this was seen through Prufrock questioning and overthinking thus giving the audience a reaction for wanting him to move forward. Eliot may have wished the same reaction regarding the modernist movement thus inspiring him to create this stream of consciousness for Prufrock.
Disassociation with Romanticism
Another popular aspect of the modernist movement was the severe disassociation with the romanticism, which was quite popular during the Renaissance and Edwardian Eras. Modernists instead included a hedonistic aspect to their poem through allusions to acts that were often looked down upon during the era of when The Love Song was written. The traditional form of romanticism is about the experience of love and to be able to participate in sexual desire you must be married or be in love with a significant other. However, Eliot disassociates the poem with this assumption and instead approaches romanticism as a concept to freely love without a significant connection with someone. In The Love Song, Eliot alludes to a one-night stand in the lines of ‘Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels’. I’m sure you know what a one-night stand is and what it entails so I won’t go into delving detail about it. This allusion to the aspect of a one-night stand in a hotel room creates a disassociation with the overarching idea of romanticism as it contradicts the tradition form of what love should be. Instead the notion of a one-night stand creates a hedonistic side of life which doesn’t require you to fall in love to have sex, like what the romanticism alludes to (I know, sex is an awkward topic for some, especially Eliot). By Eliot creating the disassociation with romanticism he brings forward the new expression of being about to freely love and not be looked down about for essentially… doing the dirty with randoms. This new expression allows for the modernist effect of accepting forms of expression and moving forward by accepting others in society and disassociating from the traditional form of romanticism.
Stylistic Features of Structural Fragmentation and Irony
Stylistic features are a fairly common aspect that amplified the modernist movement and this was often through the use of structural fragmentation and irony. Fragmentation is part of The Love Song’s structure as there are multiple rhyming couplets and sentences in stanzas that are visually spaced apart from the others. Eliot had created the fragmented stream of consciousness of Prufrock to reflect the complex and disrupted thought process of his character. The fragmentation of certain thoughts disrupts the flow of the poem and therefore allows it to have layered significance, which allows for certain lines to become more important to the audience over others. This is underlined with the fragmentation of the rhyming couplet of ‘In the room women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo’. This separation of this rhyming couplet from other stanzas allows for Eliot to convey the importance of the motif of Prufrock being apprehensive and insecure about himself, as he is comparing himself to the “ladies man” if you would, of ‘Michelangelo’. Additionally, apart from providing the effect of layered significance to emphasise an idea, structural fragmentation was also used to create a feeling of disorientation and disconnection between the reader and The Love Song. This is known to be done by modernist literature poets, including Eliot, to mirror the cultural disconnection that modernist’s felt during the historical period as their ideas and forms of expression were widely looked down upon. Furthermore, in The Love Song, Eliot utilises the modernist element of irony throughout the whole poem by creating an ironic title. With the title of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ you would expect the poem to be full of love, hope and wistfulness, right? Wrong! The poem is in fact the complete opposite, establishing the irony as Prufrock’s stream of consciousness is instead bleak, pessimistic about finding love and instead superficial by worrying about his ‘hair’. Eliot uses the element of irony to express his thoughts of the world, as World War 1 was meant to “change the world for the better”, as some thought. However, during and after the war the real horrors and truth about the war was exposed. The irony is the wish for a better life before the war and in trying to achieve it many people died, making life worst for many families thus representing the modernist vision of decay. Eliot utilises structural fragmentation and irony to fashion the mimetic representation of the satirical, dysfunctional and disrupted world he lives in.
The Love Song is a High Brow Form of Literature
No, this paragraph will not be about how eyebrows and how they sit high above on your face, but rather about how Eliot’s poetry is difficult to understand. Many of Eliot’s poems were considered a high brow and esoteric form of literature and The Love Song is no excuse. There are multiple intertextual references including the opening dedication to Verdenal that is French. The poem even introduces itself with an epigraph of regarding Dante’s Inferno which is written in some language, Latin or French I can’t decide… (if you really want to know its Italian). So, unless you are multilingual and can interpret these extracts, you may struggle to find the relevance between the epigraphs and the rest of Prufrock. If you think the poem is already difficult to understand just wait until we reach the stanzas and the many intertextual references. An intertextual reference that allows the poem to become a high brow form of literature is in stanza four is ‘Indeed there will be time’ and this is reference to the books of Ecclesiatastes in the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible. It is a famous line from the passage of “A Time for Everything”. If you already have a good understanding of them two books and can interpret them into The Love Song without me telling you… I must applaud you. Eliot, the modernist he is, made his poems high-brow to reflect the society he lives in and how they fail to recognise the modernist movement and the expression it gave causing them to develop an undermining understanding of modernists. By Eliot including multiple intertextual references in The Love Song it forms the poem to become esoteric and allows for the difficult acceptance that modernist movement experience to be replicated.
Obviously, this is another element of modernism and too be honest with you, my lovely audience, I’m running out of introductions for each modernist characteristic. Anyway, onwards we go into how Eliot depicted modernist ambiguity into The Love Song. In the second stanza the description of the “Pea Soup Fog” of London is shown to be ‘The yellow fog that rubs its back…/The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle/ licked its tongue into the corners/Lingered/Slipped by’. This creates the extended metaphor of the notorious “Pea Soup Fog” to be personified as a cat, a sly creature. It gives the modernist ambiguity effect as it in a literal reflection of what the “Pea Soup Fog” was like to Londoner’s as it often caused death but this wasn’t discovered till later, thus creating it to be sly and having the effect to slip by the human mind, almost how a cat does. Modernist ambiguity is again highlighted through the metaphor of the ‘Streets’ being ‘like a tedious argument’, which leads to the ambiguous rhetorical question of ‘What is it?’. This ambiguity allows for the reader to interact and take an active role in interpreting the meaning of this poem, further encouraging them to keep reading and keep moving forward, like the modernist movement encouraged. Modernist ambiguity is highlighted in The Love Song as it encourages the audience’s interpretation and contextual references to be pronounced.
Do I really need a conclusion? I think through this analysis of The Love Song you’ve found some key points for that last-minute essay. I hope I didn’t bore you with explaining the amount of modernist elements Eliot infused into his very first poem allowing him to become one of the masters of modernism and to win that Nobel Prize of his. If my blog helped you in anyway, your face will be surely similar to this man’s next time you read The Love Song:
On a side note if you managed to scroll this far down a good reference if you are a student studying T.S Eliot’s poetry, I suggest you pick up the ATAR Notes Text Guide: Selected Poems by T.S Eliot by Lucy Koh. I deemed it to be very useful to help you understand modernism and how interpret Eliot’s high-brow literature.