June is a month of happiness for most. It brings to mind summer memories in warm weather after a tiring school semester. You think of ice cream and iced coffee, of green leaves and full blossoms and of pool parties smelling of too much sunscreen. However, not everyone has such pleasant memories. In fact, some people’s recollections of June can be rather dreary. One such woeful individual the modernist character Alfred J. Prufrock in the poem “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” by T.S. Elliot
What is “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock”?
In the month of June in 1917, T.S. Elliot published his first collection of his poetry entitled Prufrock and Other Observations. “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” is the title poem referenced in the collection’s name and is the first poem in the table of contents.
As you can see above, Elliot structured in the format of a classic love song. As such, the reader begins the first stanza under the assumption Prufrock is singing to a love interest. That is until the third line, “Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Huh? That is not the beautiful, rose-colored imagery of love.
The reader continues on, seeing little about love but a whole lot about self-hatred, self-consciousness, nihilism, and the crumbling society around this character. Elliot binds all of these concepts together with strings of nearly incoherent metaphors. This plus the lack of a linear progression of thought leads to the disjointed and chaotic reading experience, an experience mimicking 20th century America.
On the most basic level, the poem gives the reader an inside view into the mind of a tired and disillusioned middle-age man living in the city. Our sad protagonist, Alfred J. Prufrock, is on the mission to find love in a world that seems built without love. He feels lost, alone and judged by everyone including himself in this chasm of pipe smoke and concrete. Pretty depressing but not out of character for our author’s poetry style. Most of his works are not just about naming cats, after all.
The Dawn of Modernism
If you were confused by “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock”, don’t worry, so were literary critiques in 1917. Western high-literature never saw before this chaotic, stream of consciousness style tinged with feelings of urban alienation. Let me tell you, it received some backlash. Two American publishers threw the poem back in Elliot’s face, both terming the poem “insane” and unable to sell. Professors and scholars alike turned their nose up at it even after the poem managed to be published by The Egoist, finding the lack of meter repulsive and undisciplined. In short, it received some bad press.
However, a couple notable critics saw the potential in “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock.” May Sinclair, a famous British writer, wrote in the journal the Little Review that Elliot’s poem reads “not by logical stages and majestic roundings of the full literary curve, but as live thoughts move.” She found the style impactful and refreshing as opposed to the cold, sterile poems of the past century. Ezra Pound, a popular poet and critic, also defended the poem and aided Elliot in publishing more of his work.
All three individuals are figures in the modernist movement. Literature of the time picked up elements from “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock.” Poems began utilizing free verse more often. Texts of all kinds began following the flow of the consciousness, focusing on themes of urbanization and alienation in the growing world. “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” became a staple of modernist poetry and the dawn of a new era.
Despite being unsure of the exact day in the month Elliot published the poem collection, creative writers and readers mark their calendars every June, counting off another year older of this classic text. In 2022, “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” turns 105 years old.
Though perhaps not the fun time summer piece we tend to read over the lazy days under the air conditioning, revisiting this poem is revisiting American literature history. Take a few minutes out of your day to read it once or twice. It’s fine if it’s not your cup of tea but it is a stepping stone for your favorite works, so giving “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” just a fraction of your time this June is worth the cost.
If you want to read some novels influenced by the modernist movement, read our article Books Inspired by Movements of the 20th Century.
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