In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Prufrock questions, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” which epitomizes the disillusionment of Prufrock. Though modernism reflects new ideas of human possibilities, Prufrock displays a pessimistic attitude toward his life. The poem contains numerous thematic features of Modernism such as its form and use of literary elements. The idea of the antihero itself is a characteristic of Modernism which Prufrock embodies.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot attended Harvard, where he studied philosophy. He later moved to England where he held several jobs pertaining to literature including: schoolmaster, literary editor for the publishing house Faber & Faber, and also founded and edited the literary journal Criterion. Eliot’s poetry proved to be Modernist by not conforming to the public’s belief or with language itself because he believed poetry should represent the complexities of modern civilization. (T.s. Eliot Biography)
A major characteristic of modernism in poetry is the focus on form rather than meaning. In this particular work, the use of interior monologue of Prufrock is evident throughout the poem; where he speaks silently to himself. The interior monologue entails use of the stream of consciousness, where Eliot eavesdrops on Prufrock’s conscious, stressing the importance of the unconscious mind. Because of both these forms of narration, some fragmentation occurs throughout the poem where either Eliot is describing what is happening through Prufrock’s eyes or else Prufrock’s narration (T.S. Elliot 1092-1095). In continuation to the poem’s form, another formal feature of Modernism is the use of free verse. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Eliot uses free verse in order to characterize the modernist movement in poetry. There is no specific meter, rhythm, or rhyme and contains irregular line lengths (Morner and Rausch 11, 89,138)
The Modernist movement is characterized by literary elements such as: tone, similes, personification, imagery, paradoxes, metaphors, and allusions. Prufrock uses a simile and personification to illustrate the melancholic setting and tone of the poem. The simile, “When the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table;” describes Prufrock’s inability to control anything that occurs in his surrounding such as the etherized patient-almost helpless. The personification, “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the windowpanes, the yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes” contributes to the tone of the poem by describing a dark, depressing environment. Some imagery such as, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas” produces the image of a solitary crab and thinking that the crab itself would have a better life than Prufrock. There are paradoxes in the poem that conform to the characteristics of Modernism. A paradox occurs in the repetition of the line, “And indeed there will be time” yet throughout the poem he also remarks on how he is aging therefore losing time, “I grow old… I grow old…” Another paradox occurs in the last line of the poem which Prufrock displays the pessimistic attitude that he rather be asleep/numb rather than awake where he feels pain, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” An interesting line which Prufrock compares his life to minimal meaning and achievement is the metaphor, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (T.S. Elliot 1092-1095) Prufrock not only displays characteristics of Modernism through literary elements but also epitomizes the modernist antihero. He conforms to the characteristics describing the antihero: inept, antisocial, pathetic, and in a conflict with a world which he cannot control and whose values he rejects (Morner and Rausch 11, 89,138). Prufrock uses several elements throughout the poem illustrating his erudite yet self-loathing mannerisms. The first evident sign of the antihero is the repetition of the idea that he “still has time” – an excuse he uses for him not to venture out of his social norms. There is also another repetition of the line, “And would it have been worth it, after all” referring to the amount of communication needed in order to be with a woman, showing his lack of aptitude for social interaction (T.S. Elliot 1092-1095). He degrades himself with statements of his physical appearance and mental status so he may gain the sympathy of the audience, “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair”, “(They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’)”, “but a bit obtuse…Almost at time the Fool.” As if he describes his place in society and accepts it. (T.S. Elliot 1092-1095)
To reiterate, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” proves to conform to the characteristics of the Modernist movement of literature while epitomizing the Modernist antihero. The meaning of the work and its place as a Modernist poem is characterized by literary elements such as tone, similes, personification, imagery, paradoxes, metaphors, allusions. It is not only literary elements that make a work Modernist but also the structure. The structure for Modernist poems need not be didactic but written in a rather more open form, with free verse and no particular rhyme nor rhythm. Though it may seem as if Prufrock believes he has yet to accomplish anything in his life, “And indeed there will be time.”
Morner, Kathleen, and Ralph Rausch. NTC’s Dictionary of LITERAR TERMS. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1991. 11, 89,138. Print.
Roberts, Edgar. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Literature: An Introduction To Reading And Writing. Ed. Leah Jewell. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004. Print.
“T.S. Eliot – Biography”. Nobelprize.org. 12 Sep. 2010 http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1948/eliot-bio.html