Allusions in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: An Asset or a Failure?

T. S. Eliot is justly regarded as one of the most talented poets of all time. The poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is one of the manifestations of this claim: the author utilized a variety of literary elements to make the ideas of the piece profound and, at the same time, to leave much food for thought for the reader. The richness of language and imagery, as well as the poem’s diction, leave no space for doubting Eliot’s talent as a poet and playwright. However, some may see the use of allusions in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as a weakness rather than a strength of the work. Instead of meeting the goal of increasing the audience’s awareness of their own and the author’s feelings, Eliot seems to have complicated the readers’ understanding of the main ideas reflected in his poem.

The poem under analysis has a form of a dramatic monologue, which pertains to Victorian literature. However, as Andrew McCulloch argues in his article, Eliot’s poem is “so utterly different” from the typical Victorian model that it is perceived as a “kind of Modernist manifesto.” When discussing the poem’s form, Brian Clifton also notes its irregularity and considers it to be “loosely structured around the iamb and pentameter” (70). This fact, according to the scholar, allows for speaking about the piece’s masculinity due to the correspondence of the sonnet’s genre with this gender. Hence, Clifton offers a thought-provoking idea that Prufrock’s relationship with his masculinity is as tenuous as the poem’s relationship with the sonnet (67). Despite scholars’ critique of the poem’s structure and its relation to or difference from traditional Victorian poetic works, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is easy and interesting to read both due to its diction and leitmotifs scattered throughout the piece.

The main argument of the present paper is the use and role of allusions in the poem. Along with other stylistic devices, which will be discussed in the next paragraphs, allusions are employed to represent the atmosphere of the poem better and to explain what the author implied by his writing. However, as McCulloch notes, it is highly doubtful that Eliot has gained such a purpose. The very first allusion utilized by Eliot is in the epigraph when a quotation from Dante’s Inferno is used. Similar to Dante’s character, Eliot’s Prufrock experiences the fear of being quoted or even of being asked to explain anything about his life (McCulloch). The only reason both characters decide to speak is that they are sure that the audience will never repeat their words to anyone.

Eliot’s use of allusions is mostly concerned with Biblical themes. For instance, the poet compares his hero with John the Baptist when saying, “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter” (Eliot line 82). In another case, Prufrock imagines himself to be Lazarus sent back to Earth to describe to people what hell is like: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” (Eliot 94-95). However, McCulloch considers these allusions “absurd” and calls them an unsuccessful attempt by Prufrock to manifest his self-importance.

It seems viable to agree with such an opinion since Eliot’s hero is not a real martyr or saint, which he admits himself to when saying, “I am no prophet” (83). In his interpretation of Eliot’s Biblical allusions, James Ledbetter remarks that it is wrong of critics to emphasize only one source of allusions and leave out the other side. Specifically, Ledbetter argues that Lazarus’s allusion should be cited not only as John 11:1-44 but also as Luke 16:19-31, whereas John the Baptist’s allusion should be referred not only to Matthew 14: 3-11 but also to Oscar Wilde’s Salome (41). Indeed, it is reasonable to employ different sources of allusions’ origin to understand their meanings more profoundly.

Other allusions in the poem refer to literary heroes created by William Shakespeare, John Donne, and Andrew Marvell. Again, McCulloch considers these inappropriate due to the differences between poets’ interpretations of feelings. Meanwhile, other literary devices utilized in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” have not been met with criticism by scholars and may be viewed as positive examples of enriching the poem’s meaning. Eliot utilized similes, such as “Like a patient etherized upon a table” (3) to describe the evening, “like a tedious argument” (8) to denote streets. Instances of metaphors are also unique and rich in meaning, for instance, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (Eliot 51), “Combing the white hair of the waves blown back” (127). Finally, the poet is a true master of personifications, which is reflected in a masterly comparison of fog to a cat in lines 15-20, as well as in considering whether it is worthwhile looking for answers to complicated life questions: “But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen” (Eliot 105).

Overall, despite the title, the poem is not focused on the main hero’s romantic repercussions as much as it is on his reflection of difficult life choices and decisions. At first sight, metaphors, similes, and allusions utilized by Eliot are aimed at enriching the poem’s language and making its essence clearer to the reader. However, as the analysis indicates, allusions have served a rather opposite purpose, confusing the readers and aggravating the critics.

Works Cited

Clifton, Brian. “Textual Frustration: The Sonnet and Gender Performance in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 42, no. 1, 2018, pp. 65-76.

Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Literature to Go, edited by Michael Meyer, 3rd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016, pp. 537-541.

Ledbetter, James H. “Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Explicator, vol. 51, no. 1, 1992, pp. 41-45.

McCulloch, Andrew. “The Use of Allusion in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The English Review, vol. 12, no. 2, 2001, n.p.

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