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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: Overview and Analysis

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  • 0:12 Prufrock
  • 2:23 Modernism
  • 4:20 Poem Features
  • 7:23 Tone/Mood
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Egan
This video introduces T.S. Eliot's poem, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.' It outlines the general setup of the poem, its enigmatic lead character and its stylistic characteristics. It also highlights key passages.

T.S. Eliot's Prufrock

So, we're learning about the The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. And let's get it out right now: Prufrock. That's kind of a silly name, right. Say it a couple times - Prufrock, Prufrock, Prufrock. Okay I think we're good now.

This is a poem, and it's a pretty significant poem by T.S. Eliot. As a poem, it's awesome, short and accessible. I recommend it - for T.S. Eliot, it's a key thing to read. Now, this is his first poem that was published in a non-school journal setting, so it was his first big break poem. It was published in 1915, and it's interesting, since it was while he was still living in America in 1914 before he moved to Britain. Prufrock is in a city, and a lot of critics think it might be in Boston. There isn't anything specific in it, like 'oh and then I passed by Fenway Park' not that he would in that time, I don't think. I'ts not quite like that, but there's a certain sense that this is an American poem.

What happens in this poem is we follow around the speaker or narrator as he wanders around town. He also wanders through his memories. One of my favorite lines that really sums up the poem is 'I've measured out my life in coffee spoons.' Think about what that means; it's this idea of looking back and assessing but using this really inadequate tool. It gives a sense of this mundane existence, this unremarkable life, but it's also such a beautiful line of poetry. It uses this beautiful imagery to describe this mundane thing, and that really is something that comes up throughout Prufrock but also throughout T.S. Eliot's poetry in general: the elevation of the normal or decrepit through really beautiful language. It's really a non-linear plot; we just get his thoughts as he goes.

Modernism

I mentioned earlier in the overview of Modernism, that Modernism is concerned with voices and consciousness as well as placing speakers or multiple speakers. This poem really begins in a way that might make you uncomfortable as a reader, since you're not really sure where you stand in relation to this voice that is speaking to you. And the poem begins like this:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells

I guess the oyster shells are a little bit of a Boston shout-out there. First off, who is you and I? Is it you as the reader or someone else off-stage who he's addressing? We don't know, so we're already uncomfortable. We're not sure where we stand. And this transition that he puts - when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table - that's not something you'd expect right after against the sky. It sets the tone, and it's really jarring transition, a jarring simile (that's when you compare something using the word 'like'). This opening tells us that, while we may think we're comfortable touring the city with this guy, there is a characterization with the cheap one-night hotels and half-deserted streets - that's all fine, but that opening tells us that we're not in Kansas anymore. We're going to have a contrast between what we expect and what we're getting throughout the poem - the romanticized sky and then the patient etherized upon the table. There's that basic discomfort along with the 'you and I' and not knowing who the 'you and I' is.

Poem Features

Some other things to keep in mind, facts or features of this poem - this poem is written in free verse, since it doesn't have any set line length or set rhyme scheme. It's kind of just like whatever Eliot felt like writing. At the same time, it has these half-rhymes and these internal rhymes even though there's no real structure, like a sonnet. A really cool example of that is these three lines:

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea

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