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Modern-Day Anxieties in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

A look at how the things that Prufrock worries about are still relevant in life today.

Author: Paul Thomson
Date: Feb 12, 2010 - 7:37:11 AM


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"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is one of those poems that can seem horribly sad one day, and incredibly absurd the next.  Written by T. S. Eliot and published in 1915, it addresses the themes of isolation, industrialized cities, and great unease with the world.  You might have encountered this in a unit on poetry, and like many students, you might not have been impressed by its long-windedness.  For all its over-the-top wallowing around, though, there is a lot in the poem that speaks to anxieties we have today.

The speaker, Prufrock (whoever he might be) spends a lot of time worrying about growing old.  He will “have a bald spot in the middle of [his] hair,” and then, behind his back, “They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’”  Poor Prufrock – he’s got a bit of a self-esteem issue, and seems to feel like he’ll be losing something of himself when he loses his hair, not because of how it will make him feel, but because of how other people will see him.  Have you ever heard of botox?  It’s a different solution to the same problem.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" also expresses anxiety about what really matters in the world.  One of the poem’s most famous lines is, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.”  Something about the women’s back and forth movement suggests that they’re just kind of milling around, and aren’t doing anything particularly important.  What about Michelangelo, then?  Is he important?  This stanza, repeated several times throughout the poem, seems to be also asking whether art matters, if it’s just reviewed and talked about in a shallow way.  We don’t think Eliot’s trying to hate on art – after all, he’s all about filling his work up with illusions to other works (see “The Waste Land”), and it seems unlikely that he’d attempt this poem if it was all meaningless.  However, it’s kind of sad to think of Michelangelo as just a buzzword, being passed around by some random women with nothing better to do.

Prufrock is also worried about something we hear about all too often these days: pollution.  That yellow fog, catlike and almost fluffy, probably wouldn’t be as cuddly as it might seem.  Fog itself is nothing special, but yellow is a strange color for it to be.  If you’re not sold on the idea that the fog has been turned yellow from pollution (maybe it’s just yellow from streetlights?), at least take a close look at the “soot that falls from chimneys.”  There’s something falling from the sky that’s not rain, which seems ominous, not to mention bad for your asthma.  You try going to sleep at night feeling like a big cloud of pollution has just curled up softly around your house.

This is characteristically modernist poetry, and worth a second look if it left a bad taste in your mouth in school.  It’s easy to dismiss Prufrock as a pathetic guy who doesn’t have the guts to deal with his own life, but the poem gets easier to understand if you recognize that some of the things he worries about, you worry about, too.



View all articles by Paul Thomson

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