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Atlantic Unbound | April 11, 2001
Poetry Pages
"Prufrock, J. Alfred Prufrock"

Observations on Eliot's "love song"—and its unlikely leading man

by Christopher Ricks

here has never been its equal, as the very first poem in a poet's first book of poems.

In 1917 the Egoist Press offered—price, one shilling—what the advertisement called "a small book of Poems" by Mr. T. S. Eliot, with the intriguing (indeed, incomprehensible) title, Prufrock and Other Observations. And there, at the head of the book, was the poem that heads modern, not just Modernist, poetry: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Eliot had leapt into possession of his means and of his ends.

Eliot had conceived the poem in 1910, when he was twenty-one, and had drafted it in the summer of 1911. In 1914, Ezra Pound, who was only gradually becoming Eliot's friend and whose poetry Eliot did not—at this stage—think much of, was elated by Eliot's mastery and mystery. Pound wrote to Harriet Monroe, the editor of the magazine Poetry:
I was jolly well right about Eliot. He has sent in the best poem I have yet had or seen from an American. PRAY GOD IT BE NOT A SINGLE AND UNIQUE SUCCESS. He has taken it back to get it ready for the press and you shall have it in a few days.

He is the only American I know of who has made what I can call adequate preparation for writing. He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.
Next year, the poem appeared in Poetry. Two years after that, it launched Prufrock and Other Observations. The rest is history, or rather is anything but.

Literature is news that stays news. So said Pound. And literature is the new that stays new. Eliot was soon to proclaim, in the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," that "The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them." "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was and is the really new.

The questions about it, though, are the good old ones. For instance, what kind of poem is it? How are we to get our bearings? It tells a story, in a way, but in a very roundabout way. Or you can hear it as a dramatic monologue, albeit of a cryptic kind, inheriting much from Tennyson and from Browning but with a silent interlocutor only there in the shadows, if at all. Then again, it is (oddly enough) a love song of a sort, though of an eerie sort. Eliot was to say, years later, that he would never have given his poem its title had it not been for a very different, exotic-erotic poem by Rudyard Kipling called "The Love Song of Har Dyal." What is so poignant in Eliot's love song is its chill, its unfulfilled yearning for love, for a love. It is not only the mermaids within the poem of whom the voice in the poem might say, with flat-tongued dismay and courage, "I do not think that they will sing to me."

Or another good old question: Who are "you and I"? "Let us go then, you and I"—and immediately we are to go with, to go along with, something at once direct and elusive. Is the voice within the poem speaking to another, and if so, to whom? The poem's title will prompt us to suppose that "you" is the loved one, the one at least hoped for in love, as a lover. But who will that turn out to be? Is it the "one" of the repeated yet modified lines "If one, settling a pillow by her head," and "If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl"? Is the opening "you" this later unopened "she"?

Or is the voice speaking to itself, the "you" with which we sometimes ruefully address ourselves? (What are you going to do about that, then?) Or is the voice speaking to someone out there imagined as perennially sympathetic, the gentle reader in due course perhaps, or that listener who really understands you and your needs, for whom you can spend your life waiting?

Such questions raise themselves, and then courteously decline to be answered, or at least to be answered once and for all. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is the voice of someone (not "the poet" but the voice that the poet has called into being) who cannot bear the thought of "once and for all." Not that the opposite thought is any more comforting, the thought that,
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Each of us as a reader will have his or her give-and-take with the poem, a poem so endlessly provocative and rewarding, unsettled and unsettling. For me, a while ago, writing in a book that was published in 1988 on the centenary of Eliot's birth, the tacking approach was through the notoriously perilous and swirling waters of prejudice. Who, for instance, is Prufrock, he who so commands the poem and whose name appears not once in the body of the poem but only (only?) at its head? "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": back in 1917, then, before ever you entered upon reading a line of poetry by T. S. Eliot, you were met by a crystalline air thick with prejudice. (Not the prejudice that has come to dominate so much later consideration of Eliot, anti-Semitism.) Of course a man cannot be blamed for his name, for being called Prufrock. But the name does have comical possibilities, given not only the play of "frock" against "pru" (prudent, prudish, prurient) but the play of this division against the "proof/rock" possibility. A man with this name might be well advised to call himself John A. Prufrock rather than be so orotund. And then again, if he insists on plumping for the form "J. Alfred Prufrock," he had better not expect the words "the love song of" to sit happily in his immediate vicinity—love song as against, say, tax returns. "I'm in love." "Who's the lucky man?" "J. Alfred Prufrock." Inconceivable.

Such was the prejudicial way in which, a dozen years ago, in T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, I tried to catch my sense of this catching, even catchy, yet uncatchable poem. We should all do our best, not least because Eliot truly did his.

audioear pictureListen to Christopher Ricks read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (requires RealPlayer).

Elsewhere on the Web:
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
The complete text of Eliot's poem, from Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), at

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Christopher Ricks is the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. He is the editor of many books, among them The Oxford Book of English Verse (1999) and a volume of T. S. Eliot's early poetry, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (1997).

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