‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ is a poem by the poet and critic T S Eliot, and a key document of literary modernism. It was first published in Poetry magazine in June 1915, and later collected in Eliot’s first book, Prufrock and other Observations (1917).
The poem, written in 1911, is framed as a dramatic monologue. This technique is most associated with the Victorian poet Robert Browning, who often used it to bring voices from the past back to life, while expressing an ironic distance from them. For example in Browning’s most sustained use of the technique, The Ring and the Book (1868–69), a succession of characters present dramatic monologues on a 17th-century murder trial, each from their own subjective perspective.
This makes it all the more striking that, rather than the crisis moment on which Browning’s dramatic monologues tended to circle and focus, the subject of Eliot’s poem is its speaker’s inability to act. The J Alfred Prufrock of the title is a frustrated, indecisive young upper-class man worried about aging: ‘Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) upon a platter’. Interestingly, Eliot expresses this worry – the sense of already being too late – in jarring imagery which mixes the contemporary fashion for Surrealist images with what seems to be the venerable biblical story of St John the Baptist. Indeed, though Prufrock seems nervous of the ‘talk of Michelangelo’, Eliot has given his poem an extremely learned epigraph from Dante’s Inferno. Yet often, the imagery is mundane: in one of the poem’s most memorable lines, he has ‘measured his life out in coffee-spoons.’
Though the poem’s lack of immediately recognisable rhyme, metrical pattern or stanzaic structure means that it has often been described as being in ‘free verse’, the poet and critic Craig Raine argues against this description, pointing out that it ‘is actually strewn with rhymes and is mostly iambic, or iambic for long stretches.’