Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Poetry Foundation,
Summary and Discussion of Work
An old man sits and contemplates his entire life, measuring it in coffee spoons, lost hair, and becoming thinner with age. The poem starts with thoughts of spending nights in seedy hotels and eating at various restaurants. Twice, “women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo,” signifying the transience of life by the topics that last and come back to discuss, whether or not they have any real significance in people’s lives. There is also a discussion of always thinking that there will be more time to do things, whether or not there actually is. The narrator of the poem must come to a decision now that he has thought of all these things in his past: does he become a new person or descend into death and hell for his sins in his life? And if he does become a new person, what are his options? This decision is indicated by the quotation of the beginning at the poem from Dante’s Inferno, indicating that once the narrator descended into the murky darkness that was the lifestyle he chose, there was no exiting it, just like Guido, the false advisor discovered.
This poem was the real jumpstart to the modernist poems, particularly with its stream of consciousness narrative, which documents the change in attitudes the narrator has as he contemplates the different phases of his life. It also relies on the emotions that come and go and remain as undercurrents within that stream of consciousness: anxiousness, a desire to shake the world, and isolation, loneliness, and mistrust combined with insecurity. There is also the knowledge that he is floating within the world with no real roots: the industrialized world full of people busy doing frivolous things and looking at great individuals as topics of idle gossip and sightseeing opportunities may very well be a type of hell in and of itself.