The renderings of loneliness as a modernist characteristic in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Term Paper, 2017

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0



A. Introduction: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock as a modernist poem

B. The renderings of loneliness as a modernist characteristic in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
1. Prufrock’s disconnection with his surroundings, isolation and alienation
2. Passivity, helplessness and insecurity in Prufrock
3. Loneliness as rendered structurally in the poem

c. Conclusion: Prufrock as a symbol of the individual in early 20th century urban society Works Cited

A. Introduction: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prüf rock as a modernist poem

The epoch that has come to be known as modernism, and is often referred to as the “epoch of crisis” (Levenson, 1999:4), sees the individual losing itself, becoming more and more disconnected, ill, disoriented and helpless (cf. Daniel 2014:24-25). This is, of course, re­fleeted, in turn, in the literature and in the characters created during this time, as well as in the form of the literature itself, exemplified by multiple perspectives, intertextual allusions, seem­ingly missing chronology and complex, at times puzzling, structures (cf. Levenson 1999:4-6, Bell 1999:9)1. In creating a speaker as insecure, helpless and lonely as the title character of his long poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917), T.s. Eliot conceived, in Prufrock, one that exemplifies and symbolizes, also by way of the structure of the poem itself, the situation of the individual in early 20th century urban society.

In the following analysis, I will examine the renderings of loneliness in T.s. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by, first, focusing on Prufrock’s disconnectedness with his surroundings and, secondly, examining the title character’s passive and helpless nature, both also with regard to the structure of the poem. Lastly, considering the literary period and background of modernism with a specific focus on the role of and its impact on the individual in this time, I will prove, in connecting the findings throughout the course of this paper, that Prufrock is to be understood as a representative of the human condition in the age of mod- emism.

B. The renderings of loneliness as a modernist characteristic in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Loneliness is a theme common to modernism and that can render itself in several ways, be it in isolation, alienation, exclusion, disconnection or even a dichotomy of T versus ‘you’, most of the time expressed, for one, through the speaker, but also, in some instances, his surroundings, as well. Such is also the case in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, as will be examined in the following, even if the title of the poem itself, at first sight, seems to imply quite the opposite.

1. Prufrock’s disconnection with his surroundings, isolation and alienation

Important to note is the mood that is set in the very beginning by way of an epigraph, taken from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (1320)2. The fact that the epigraph is in Italian

and runs, without breaks, into the English first line of the actual poem, leaves to be inferred that Prufrock’s situation is interconnected or mirrored, even, in that of Dante’s (cf. Kenner 1960:133). Having this as the backdrop before which Prufrock ‘sings’ his ‘love song’ is instru­mental in understanding the ways in which Prufrock is to be perceived as being a lonely char­acter, with the above mentioned as being significant in the way of him (Prufrock) being dis­connected from the human world, in that he is in an imagined hell (cf. Dante), in turn fore­shadowing the other instances in which his loneliness renders itself. Furthermore, it is note­worthy that the poem is titled as a ‘love song’ and recalls, in the beginning, a mode more com­mon of romanticism3: “Let US go then, you and I, [w]hen the evening is spread out against the sky” (5)4. There is an addressee and there seems to be an invitation to an evening walk. This romanticist image is taken and re-formulated by way of comparing, in the next line - and, in doing so also breaking with the rather traditional couplet rhyme scheme of T and ‘sky’ - the evening with “a patient etherised upon a table” (5). The ‘patient’ is seemingly lifeless, ill, helpless and passive. In the two images prefacing the actual walk lies the implicit lack of connection to and overt hostility of the world Prufrock finds himself in.

His isolation, foreshadowed in the images explained above, comes up initially as Prufrock mentions where he plans on going with his supposed addressee: “Let US go, through ... half-deserted streets [and] muttering retreats”(5). The desertion in the streets is a mirror, much like the epigraph, of his own desertion, which is only strengthened by the ‘muttering’ heard from the houses surrounding him. This is an instance in which Prufrock can, for the first time, be perceived as being outside, while all others are, diametrical to himself, inside, from where ‘muttering’ voices are to be heard in the empty streets he is wandering through. Prufrock is witnessing social interaction whilst being excluded therefrom himself, and, in de­scribing the streets in such a way as mentioned above, leads the reader to assume that he is painfully aware of this. Exclusion or isolation as renderings of loneliness are ones that are present throughout the poem, most prominently in the “women [who] come and go [in the rooms] [t]alking of Michelangelo”(6), which is a recurring refrain (cf. 6, 7). As with the afore­mentioned ‘muttering retreats’ and ‘half-deserted streets’, Prufrock’s description of women coming and going within rooms implies that he is not able to connect with them. Again, he is Outside in the dark cityscape while the women are indoors, in warm, lit rooms, interacting, and he is left to witness this as an invisible bystander and listener.

Furthermore, it is to be reasoned that Prufrock is actually by himself and there is no other person being spoken to. The fact that a ‘you’ is addressed in the first stanza (cf. 5) im­plies that Prufrock, the speaker, is not alone, however, using the formulation of a general ‘you’, as in the line “[t]here will be time to meet the faces that you meet” (6), in which not an actual addressee is meant, but is more akin to a general statement, leaves the reader to infer that, in fact, Prufrock is not speaking to another person, but himself5. This very circumstance is, for one, indicative of a somewhat distraught and introverted individual reflecting on his thoughts and observations, and, secondly, and more prominently, one that is speaking to him­self against the quiet of a lonely city.

Another instance in which Prufrock’s loneliness explicates itself is in the image of a cat, which is evoked in the personification of the “yellow fog [that ... curls] once about the house and [falls] asleep” (6). This fog ‘acting’ as a cat (cf. Ward 1973:21), which is the obser­vation and connotation Prufrock makes, is, due to the fact that he associates this image and expresses this, to be understood as a mirror image of his own self. Cats are more often than not found roaming the streets alone, which fits perfectly to Prufrock’s situation. The Ioneli­ness inherent in the latter is doubled in the “yellow fog” (6) and “yellow smoke”6 (6), which both “rubs its back upon the window-panes” (6) and “rubs its muzzle on the window-panes” (6). The reason this is to be understood as doubling the aforementioned isolation is that smoke and fog are part of the cityscape, they might be from factories or from the cold air, they are outside, much like Prufrock, and they try to make their way indoors through the windows, which are the medium allowing for the exclusion of Prufrock to be so obvious, as he can see inside, and hear from inside, but is yet excluded from the actual room, the same way the smoke and fog cannot penetrate the glass. The image of smoke, as well as the metaphor of the windows as a barrier between Prufrock and his surroundings are echoed in “the smoke that rises from pipes of lonely men ... leaning out of windows” (8). This is to be understood as un­derlining, due to the men being ‘lonely’ and seemingly a, if not the source of the ‘smoke’ (see above), and the fact that they are ‘leaning out of windows’, and, thus, breaking that very bar- rier, Prufrock’s very own isolation. The only instance in which no barrier seems to exist be­tween him and the rest of the world is as he connects himself with the other lonely individuals of the city scene, in this case the men smoking pipes. Even in this instance, the seeming con­nection caused by the loneliness of the men and of Prufrock, is not an actual one, as this would be paradoxical and the factual loneliness would be non-existent in the end, in turn elim­inating the very connection that is established by the common feat of being disconnected from the rest of society.

What is more, the metaphor of the fog and smoke “[l]ick[ing] its tongue into the cor­ners of the evening” (6) expresses greatly the oppressiveness of the evening, for one, but also highlights, in a different way, Prufrock’s isolation yet again. Thinking of ‘corners’, the image of a room comes to mind. More precisely, the outer-most edges of said room. Evening, on the other hand, is a very abstract concept, as far as its borders are concerned, but one imagines, perhaps, a sky, maybe the universe, even, which is characterized by its vastness. Being able to Tick’ the comers of this vastness evokes the image of the seemingly endless universe being merely as small and constricting as a room - the very room perhaps in which the women are coming and going. The oppressiveness in the image of a vast universe feeling as confined as the room from which he is excluded, causes one to feel as though Prufrock himself is even ex- eluded from the ‘room’ outside the room, the universe, the very world in which he lives, and beyond.

Even in the moments in which Prufrock seems to be nearing interaction, and thus, es­caping his own isolation, he manages to exit these situations before they occur, either by ac­tively avoiding them or drifting off in his thoughts. One such instance is to be observed in Prufrock urging his addressee7 to “go and make [their] visit” (6). Directly following this direc- five, Prufrock’s mind trails off to the imagining of smoke and fog as a cat. This is a clear case of avoiding actually making a visit, and, thus, interacting with those to be visited, expressing a certain incapability to socially interact, signifying, in turn, a sense of alienation from within Prufrock himself, characterizing him once more, essentially, as lonely or disconnected, in the least. In “turn[ing] back and descending] the stair” (7), he is, on another occasion, and an ac- five one in this case, avoiding making contact with others. One can assume that the inevitable ascending of the stair, which must be the action before being able to ‘descend’ it at all, is an act of attempting to enter some place. Stairs lead somewhere, and especially in ascending them, one is ‘moving up’, in this case metaphorically.


1 For further reading cf. Longenbach 1999:99-127

2 “If I thought that my reply were to someone who would ever return to the world, this flame would be still, without further motion. But since no one has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear or shame.”(Vendler, 1998:82) - an allusion to witnessing hell.

3 Romanticism is ever-present throughout The Love Song and is, as is seen often in modemist literature, ‘reassembled’ and re-interpreted. The images are modernist, be it urbanity, filth, depression, industry, however the modes, such as the ‘love song’, the ‘lonely wanderer’, the ‘self-reflecting individual’ are romanticist. What is more, these modes are reformulated in such a way that they have no positive connotations left, but are now, in their modernist form, deeply pessimistic.

4 Page numbers for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” refer to the version in The Waste Land and other Poems, edited by Helen Vendler, Signet Classics, 1998, pp. 5-11

5 This is generally the interpretation of the meaning of the ‘you’ and T’ in The Love Song, albeit with slightly different approaches from the one here, for example Ward, who argues that T’ and ‘you’ are a connected unit, a system, in which anything said to a ‘you’ is part of the ‘I’ ’s emotion, allowing for the perception of Prufrock impersonating this very unit (cf. Ward 1973:13) or Ransom, who believes Prufrock’s ‘you’ to be, in fact, his own conscience or superego (cf. Ransom 1978:157).

6 Of note here is that the color yellow correlates with and ties back to the hell image of the Dante epigraph, by way of, for one, the symbolism of the color ‘yellow’ being tightly related to ‘hell’ traditionally, but also the evocation of ‘fire’, also, in turn, symbolic of hell.

7 As mentioned before, it is to be assumed that Prufrock is, in fact speaking with himself, so we will understand, from this point forward, the ‘addressee’ as entailing this, and not that there is an actual ‘other’.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The renderings of loneliness as a modernist characteristic in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
University of Duisburg-Essen
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T.S. Eliot, Modernism, Prufrock, Loneliness, J. Alfred Prufrock, Poetry
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Phillip Grider (Author), 2017, The renderings of loneliness as a modernist characteristic in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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