T.S. Eliot (1888–1965)
170 Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Explanatory Notes not covered in Bartleby
Title: By identifying himself, rather pompously, by his first initial and middle name, J. Alfred Prufrock seems an unlikely romantic hero, capable of singing a love song.Introduction: The epigram is from Dante’s Inferno. The speaker is one Guido da Montafeltro, burning in Hell for crimes committed on Earth. Dante asks about the crimes. Guido’s response is the epigram, translated as “If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay, without further movement. But since no one has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, without fear of infamy I respond to you.” Line 1: The identity of “you and I” shifts throughout the poem. Here Prufrock seems to be alone and talking to himself. Later the “you” is the woman he wants to seduce, possibly propose to. Line 14: The great Italian sculptor and painter (1475 – 1564). His accomplishments and the women’s interest in him shake Prufrock’s already fragile self-confidence.Line 22: The fog suggests that the poem’s setting is London, but Eliot wrote the poem a few years before he moved to London. The setting is likely Eliot’s home town of St. Louis, where there was a furniture store called Prufrock-Litton Company, or Boston, near Harvard, where he was a student, when he wrote the poem.
Line 29: The eighth century B.C.E. Greek poet Hesiod’s poem “Works and Days” is about the pleasures and accomplishments of farm labour. Eliot, ironically, applies it to the stress of social intercourse.
Line 52: This echoes a line from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, when Duke Orsino asks his musicians to repeat a strain of music because “it had a dying fall” (1.1.4).
Line 74: Life is so much easier for a crab at the bottom of the ocean than for a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis.
Line 83: The reference is to John the Baptist. According to the account in the Gospel of Mark, John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. Later John condemned Herod, the King of Galilee, for his incestuous marriage to Herodias, a violation of Old Testament law. Herod imprisoned John. Some days later, Herodias’ daughter Salome (from her first marriage to Herod’s brother) dances before Herod. He enjoys the performance so much, he tells Salome he will grant her a wish. Herodias tells her to bring her the head of John the Baptist, which he orders done, and the head delivered to Salome on a platter.
Line 92: Echoes a line from Andrew Marvell’s 1650’s poem “To His Coy Mistress,” wherein the narrator implores his love interest to enjoy with him the pleasure of the flesh. Marvell’s narrator’s direct and confident approach to asking “the overwhelming question” is an ironic contrast to Prufrock’s hesitant insecurity. Line 23 also echoes the Marvell poem.
Line 94: Whom Jesus restored to life, as described in the Gospel of John.
Line 111: Prince of Denmark, tragic hero in play by Shakespeare.
Line 113: A royal tour.
Line 117: Suggests that Prufrock identifies more closely with Polonius, often fatuous advisor to Claudius, the King of Denmark and Hamlet’s uncle. Like Hamlet, though, Prufrock is not decisive. “Full of high sentence” means opinionated; sententious.
Line 122: Presumably because it might cause flatulence and embarrass him.