Musings About "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

I’ll be honest, I’m not much interested in literary theory. When I read a poem I look up words I don’t understand or references that I’ve never heard of, but in general I prefer to figure out the gist on my own. That’s what’s fun about reading, isn’t it?

I offer that statement as an apology for my musings about poems, because probably all of it has been said much better by someone else. So you could say I’m writing these musings for myself, or for some future reader who comes along, surfing the web the way some people still troll through microfiche.

The Epigraph

I took a course on modern British poetry many years ago, and I’ve read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” several times over the decades, but I never bothered to look up the Italian epigraph until now, and I guess I should have, because it does inform the poem. Or it could be that I forgot the meaning after so many years.


William Blake: "Dante's Inferno, Whirlwind of Lovers."

The epigraph comes from a section of Dante’s Inferno, and is the speech of a man who apparently committed some heinous misdeeds, because he’s consigned to one of the lower circles of hell.  Roughly, the stanza says the man would not tell the story of his sins if he thought the listener could return to the world to relate the man’s crimes, but since he has never heard of anyone escaping from the fiery pit, he will go ahead and spill the beans, or wag his flaming tongue. He has been so terrible that he has lost his human form, and has become only a tongue of fire.

The Poem

When J. Alfred invites the reader to go on a walk with him through the city streets, he believes we are with him in hell, never to return.  If he tells us what’s really on his mind, it’s because he thinks we’re stuck in this place with him.

Prufrock admits he has tried to create a persona to win favors from the world. He admits he’s getting old, and reveals his paltry efforts to conceal his aging. He shows us his hurt when a woman he has either seduced, or tried to seduce, tells him, “That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all.”

Yet he thinks he really does have something to say. He wants to come back from the dead like Lazarus to tell everyone about the “mermaids singing, each to each.” But he doubts himself. He doesn’t think he’s a prophet. He doubts the mermaids will sing to him.

But what he has to say is that at night we dream we are mermaids riding the waves out to sea, and it’s only when we wake up that we drown.

Prufrock is  like the rest of us ridiculous humans, caught up in our gains and losses, always thinking we have time to make our “visions and revisions/Before the taking of toast and tea.”

Lately I’ve been reading about Buddhism and the need to follow the Dharma right now. We might die at any moment. It could be in an hour, when we drive to the market, or later on, while walking the dog. And so the need to die with a peaceful mind is of the greatest importance. Catholics might say something about needing to be in a state of grace during the moment of death.

Prufrock obsesses about our having time for all the things we haven’t done yet. But really there is no time left for that. He knows his time is up, yet he clings to the idea of himself: parting his hair down the back, rolling his pants legs up, walking the beach in white flannel, all the images of himself as a lady’s man or an urbane gentleman amid the sordid yellow smoke of the city.

The collection Prufrock (1917) is dedicated to Eliot’s friend Jean Verdenal who, according to the inscription, died at the age of 26 during WWI at Dardanelles. Maybe this character of Prufrock is a satire of Eliot himself and others. Through revealing the character’s weaknesses he exposes our frivolities and our vanities, which at our death amount to nothing.

My favorite lines from the poem are these:

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:


I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

Those lines make me believe Prufrock might not be a bad sort at all. Because he has told us about the mermaids, after all. If he’s in hell, maybe he’ll have a chance to climb out of the pit.

11 thoughts on “Musings About "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

  1. dale says:

    I memorized Prufrock when I was sixteen, I think, and I could probably recite most of it pat, to this day. There is a great deal to dislike about Eliot: I think his influence on English poetry has been baleful, and his fastidiousness is unpleasant, and he nourished a nest of small-minded hatreds and prejudices in his bosom. But yes, that spiritual urgency comes clear through all his best work, and I’m terribly grateful for it. “Practice as if your hair was on fire,” said Jamgon Kongtrol. I got the message first from Eliot, though.


  2. carolee says:

    the love song of j. alfred prufrock is my favorite poem.

    hands down.

    i make my kids listen to anthony hopkins read it. over and over in the car. they moan and groan and i delight. did i mention that i do this to them over and over. it calms me down to hear this poem. it’s not a happy poem. but it’s got lots of truth in it. it’s comforting to me. the repetitions and near-repetitions. his doubts. his doubts. his doubts. our doubts. but mostly his acceptance. “let us go then.”

    thanks for writing about it. and thanks for talking about literary criticism in this context. i’ve only read a little bit of scholarly stuff about the poem. and my own personal reading of it differs from some of what is said, so i like how you’ve stated that your own attempts are a guide for your own reading.

    and shhhhh … i’m using this poem in a project. 🙂


  3. christine says:

    Dale, I read Richard Wilbur’s poem “Year’s End,” and though it deals with a similar theme, it’s not nearly as intense as this poem, at least not for me. I don’t know much about Eliot’s life story, except the stuff everyone knows, like his being Christian in a world of general unbelievers. And I’ve heard this and that about his being a sympathizer with fascists. Don’t know anything about all that, and I guess I’ll be learning this fall when I take a class in modern British poetry.

    So why did you memorize the poem? I mean, versus another poem. What drew you to it?

    Carolee, your project sounds great, especially since this poem is a favorite of yours. There’s a lot to respond to. Have you seen the film “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing”? You’d love it if you haven’t.


  4. dale says:

    I memorized it because I wanted never to be without it. It was filled with self-disgust, as I was, and yet it was reaching beyond that. (At the time, of course, I thought of “self-disgust” as “realism” — I was very young then!)


  5. EKSwitaj says:

    The poem itself is the way out of Hell, a bit like the way Dante’s Inferno demonstrated the path away from it. What so many people miss is that it’s *funny*; combine that with a recognition of how we are all Prufrock, and you’ll be laughing at yourself, which I don’t believe is possible in Hell.


  6. Julie says:

    Hi, Christine. It’s so good to see you, as always. Very interesting discussion. I love this poem for the technique as much as anything. The dorky poetic technique stuff:) I enjoyed reading your observations. No need to apologize for musings, because some poems demand it.

    P.S. – I was just thinking of you today and wondering when your school year will start, as it’s almost August. I hope you have an another awesome year!


  7. holly d says:

    Hey Christine! I hope school is well and you are enjoying life. Too bad we didn’t get more time to hang out and go to poetry readings together before I moved!

    I love your insight into this poem and into Eliot and Prufrock! When I begin teaching again, you have inspired me to teach this one…and now I’ll have some ideas about it I’ve never had before! Thank you!

    BTW…I’ve moved to Alabama now, and am almost 27 weeks pregnant and engaged to my “baby daddy.” Life is strange. I am happy. 🙂


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