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Squeeze the Universe into a Ball: A Reading List for Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'

 T. S. Eliot’s iconic modernist poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was first published in the June 1915 edition of Poetry magazine, but it was not until two years later, in June 1917, that Eliot released it as part of a 12 poem pamphlet, Prufrock and Other Observations. With over a hundred years behind it, the poem remains a celebrated but deeply divisive work. Eliot initially struggled to get the work published, with one editor labelling it “absolutely insane.” When it was eventually published, it was widely dismissed and even lambasted by critics. An unsigned review in The Times Literary Supplement in June 1917 said “The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the smallest importance to any one - even to himself. They certainly have no relation to ‘poetry.’” Since then the poem has risen in the estimation of literary critics, and poetry readers alike. It is considered one of the foundational texts of the Modernist movement in literature. It played a large part in changing the general conception of poetry, and inspired a generation of writers. The poem's protagonist, Prufrock, remains an iconic poetic figure, and became an archetype for the Modernist man, the unheroic hero of twentieth-century literature. One criticism that remains however, is the accusation of elitism in Eliot’s work. His poetry contains an almost constant stream of references and allusions to other works of literature. This of course gives his poetry a richness and depth of imagery, and the feeling of it being embedded within a larger literary tradition, something many readers love. However, for others, it can make his poetry feel impenetrable and overly academic. Yet Eliot’s references to other works of literature form an important part of how he conveys his message. Beyond simply providing imagery Eliot’s many literary references create a cast of impressive figures to serve as damning foils to the pathetic and socially anxious Prufrock. In this, the critical review in the The Times Literary Supplement, was actually on to something. Prufrock and his struggles are indeed “of the smallest importance” and even he recognises that, indeed that is his chief concern. That the poem’s allusions read as a kind of who’s who of literature is very much the point. It allows Prufrock to compare himself to these characters with their enormous cultural impact, and in this comparison shrink at his own insignificance, ultimately leading him to mutter “I am no prophet and here’s no great matter.”

And yet, while Eliot’s protagonist pales in comparison to literature’s greats, Eliot himself rises to the task. The poem is a fascinating medley of snatches of quotes and characters from literary history that has enchanted generations of readers. With this in mind we’ve put together a list of just a few of the texts that form a part of the poem’s fragmented landscape. Along with this, we’ve also listed some of the works that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has since, in turn been a source of inspiration. As Eliot might say, let us go then you and I...

Plain Tales from the Hills

In beginning this list, it’s worth looking at the poem’s iconic title. While the origin of the name J. Alfred Prufrock remains elusive, the construction of the iconic title of the poem is much more well-documented. At a meeting of the Kipling Society in 1959 Eliot commented, “I once wrote a poem called 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock': I am convinced that it would never have been called "Love Song" but for a title of Kipling's that stuck obstinately in my head: 'The Love Song of Har Dyal.'” This poem sits within the narrative of one of Kipling’s short stories, “Beyond the Pale,” from the collection Plain Tales from the Hills

It is a shocking and grotesque story, even more so to modern audiences because it hinges on presenting the dangers of straying into relationships outside your own caste or race. Still the story serves as an interesting counterpoint to Eliot’s narrative. Where Kipling’s protagonist of “Beyond the Pale” is a man full of self-confidence who sees the horrific consequences of his amorous transgressions, Eliot’s Prufrock is a man caught in perpetual indecision, afraid what might happen if he expresses his romantic feeling. Kipling’s poem “The Love Song of Har Dyal,” which is used as a means of flirtation between Kipling’s paramours, ties closely to Eliot’s theme. There’s is a bleak melancholy both poems stemming from the fear of unrequited love, as the speaker gazes across the landscape. They also both contain a refrain, in different ways expressing a kind of pathetic futility, in Kipling “Come back to me, Beloved, or I die,” while in Eliot “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.”

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Inferno

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” famously opens with a stanza in Italian taken from Dante’s Inferno. This opening does little to dissuade accusations of elitism, as he introduces his poem with an untranslated chunk of text. It is unsurprising and understandable that many readers skip over it, however, this section offers a fascinating perspective on the poem. Those six lines are originally spoken in The Inferno by Guido da Montefeltro to the fictional Dante. Guido is stuck in the eighth rung of Hell for giving false counsel. When he encounters Dante he wants to tell him his story but is reticent because he doesn’t want the world to know his sins and failings. It is at this point that Eliot selected his six lines, which when translated read: 


 “If I thought my answer were given / to anyone who would ever return to the world, / this flame would stand still without moving any further. / But since never from this abyss / has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true, / without fear of infamy I answer you.” 


Spoken at the very opening of Eliot’s poem, these words introduce many of the important themes and images within the poem. It frames the poem as a journey through Prufrock’s own personal Inferno, although we are left to decide for ourselves whether to identify Prufrock with Guido, stuck in his punishment, or with the fictional Dante, only passing through. The stanza conveys a yearning to express oneself and make oneself understood. In Dante’s poem Guido is encased in flame, which limits his ability to speak and express himself. This ties in closely with Prufrock’s own experiences, the poem follows his frustration at his inability to find the correct words to perfectly express himself. This reaches its climax in the outburst of frustration, ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean.’ In both cases the men struggle to speak because of their fears of the repercussion of what people would say about them and think of them if they were in fact understood. 

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The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Barnes & Noble Omnibus Leatherbound Classics)

After the epigraph, Eliot plunges the reader into the city streets of London, and here we find another literary allusion in his description of the London fog. It’s easy for modern readers to always associate this thick yellow sulfurous fog with the depictions of Sherlock Holmes’ escapades across the city but just because it seems obvious does not mean we should disregard a connection to Arthur Conan Doyle. Indeed, Eliot himself noted in 1929 that “every writer owes something to Holmes.” Eliot’s fog is given an extended description, allowing great detail in his zoomorphic characterization of his cat-like fog. His descriptions here tie very closely to those of Doyle, in particular one found in The Sign of Four of ‘a greasy heaving brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the windowpane,’ this closely resembles ‘the yellow smoke that slides along the street, / Rubbing its back upon the window-panes” of Eliot’s London streets. It’s somewhat sweet to see that even a personified fog in Eliot’s poetry has a prefiguration in earlier literature.

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NIV Holy Bible

A hefty addition to this list, nevertheless, the imagery of the Bible forms an important part of Eliot’s imagery, in this poem and throughout his work. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” is no exception, and so a range of biblical characters are used as contrasts against the pathetic and frustrated Prufrock. Among these are the Gospel figures of Lazarus and John the Baptist. Lazarus is mentioned in the Gospel of John as a friend of Jesus, who dies but who comes back from the dead at Christ’s command. Despite this extraordinary experience, Lazarus is not recorded as saying anything on his return. He remains silent on the story of his journey to and from the afterlife. In Eliot’s version, Prufrock imagines himself as Lazarus attempting to tell the whole story but failing to engage the attention of his audience. Eliot presents a similarly pathetic version of John the Baptist. This biblical figure was a revered religious figure and a prophet, who was beheaded by King Herod. When Prufrock put himself in the place of this hero of the Gospels he says, “Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter, / I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter.” In the Bible these figures are witnesses to divine miracles and the incarnate God, but when transposed onto the figure of Prufrock they are shrunken and pathetic.

Eliot also references a variety of Bible passages, particularly from Ecclesiastes 3:1-22, which lists the many seasons of life. The verses have a repetitive poetic nature, “A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Eliot uses this repetition to create a circular refrain of indecision within the poem, as Prufrock reassures himself that there will indeed be time, as he deliberates and puts off the moment of self expression, “Time for you and time for me, / And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions.” 

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Hamlet

After the Bible, Eliot turns to Shakespeare. While there are fleeting allusions to Shakespeare’s plays throughout the poem, Twelfth Night features quite heavily in particular, the most direct reference comes towards the end of the poem. Opening a stanza with, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” Eliot follows with several lines packed with allusions and references, mainly referring to Hamlet, although King Lear and Twelfth Night are also mentioned. As we have come to expect, Prufrock contrasts himself unfavourably with this titan of Shakespearean drama. While both Hamlet and Prufrock are plagued with indecision and hesitation, where Hamlet’s toing and froing is the contemplation of matters of life, death, and sovereign power, Prufrock is merely struggling through a social engagement. All the world’s a stage but some players have smaller parts.

At this point poem is almost overtaken by these Shakespearean figures, just as Prufrock reflects on the smallness of the part he plays within his own life, “Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two.” 

The Odyssey

As the poem draws to a close, Eliot moves us from the London landscape to the quiet contemplation found at the shore. His imagery turns to the swirl of ocean waves and, perhaps most strikingly, to mermaids. The figure of the mermaid is often (though inaccurately) used interchangeably with sirens. These mythical creatures are very evocative of Homer’s Odyssey as, in Books 12-14, the men sail past the land of Sirens they must block their ears with beeswax in order to protect them against the irresistible song of the sirens, which would lead them to their death. Only Odysseus allows himself to listen, tied to the mast for his own protection. When Prufrock describes these mythical creatures he says, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.” This is a particularly cruel moment of self realisation of his own resounding insignificance. Where Odysseus and his companions must go to extreme lengths to avoid the irresistible song of the sirens, Prufrock cannot even catch the mermaid’s attention. He does not need to plug his ears, he needn’t bother. That the poem should end on this literary allusion is fitting, where Odysseus meanders across the Mediterranean for 10 years, unable to escape his prophesied lengthy return home, Prufrock wanders around his own mind, unable to escape his own thoughts. The Odyssey is the story of a return home, but there is no hero’s return for Prufrock, only a realisation of the sad reality of his life, a world away from epic stories of heroic deeds. At this moment of realisation the world closes in on Prufrock and the poem ends in a final blow of bathos.

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Selected Poems 1908-1969

Moving from those that influenced Eliot, to those that he in turn influenced, the first and most obvious port of call is his group of literary friends, in particular Ezra Pound. Pound was at the forefront of the modernist movement and he discovered and championed many of its acclaimed writers. This included Eliot, in fact it was through Pound that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published at all. The two were friends and worked closely together, Eliot’s Nobel Prize winning poem “The Waste Land” is dedicated “For Ezra Pound, il miglior fabbro.” Yet the influence went both ways, with each contributing to the others development. As far as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” goes, its influence can be seen particularly in Pound’s 1920 poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Beyond the similarity of the titles, both poems have an almost autobiographical bent, they also incorporate a slew of references and allusions, classical, biblical, Shakespearean, and beyond. In fact, The Odyssey’s sirens make an appearance here as in Prufrock, as Pound quotes their mesmerizing song (in untranslated Greek, literary references left untranslated being another thing both poems share). Together these poems both represent a kind of poet stand in, where Pound and Eliot could reflect and criticise themselves, the poems are to a degree autobiographical but also in turn satiric and ironic, and so each for a nice counterpoint to the other.

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The Great Gatsby

Eliot’s influence also crops up in some of the most famous novels of the 20th century. F. Scott Fitzgerald shows his love for Eliot across his writing but especially in his best known work, The Great Gatsby. It should come as a something of a relief to find that Eliot was among the few critics who was full of praise for The Great Gatsby when it was first published, the two writers expressing admiration for the other’s work. One of the strongest examples of the influence of Eliot’s imagery comes in Fitzgerald’s description of the valley of ash. This choking desolate landscape has deep resonances with the “dead land” and “stony rubbish” Eliot depicts in “The Waste Land.” However, the figure of Prufrock also has his own presence in Fitzgerald’s novel. Both Fitzgerald and Eliot describe the insurmountable obstacle of class in the love life of their eponymous hero. Where Prufrock stands dithering on the doorstep, waiting to be welcomed in, Gatsby is on the wrong side of the lake in West Egg, trying to entice the more elite members of the East Egg community to accept him despite his new money status. Both of their views are obscured by mists and fogs, a physical manifestation of their own distorted lens on reality, but here they differ in that Gatsby is lost in his own delusions, while Prufrock is painfully aware of his clouded perspective. The two characters follow similar courses of desire and despair, and, as the clairvoyant of "The Waste Land" warns, they should both ‘Fear death by water.’ 

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Collected Poems

The final entry on this list is a poet who admired Eliot but also decidedly veered away from his style of writing. Philip Larkin noted that Eliot was among his early influences as he began to write, but as he developed in his own style, he saw a need for clarity in his writing. This led him to veer away from Eliot’s sense of vagueness and confusion, as well as his many obscure literary and historical references. However, despite this, something in the tone and atmosphere of their poetry has a commonality. There is a hopelessness and a despair to the writing of both poets, and despite the academic bedrock of Eliot’s poetry, both poets express themselves in a similar style, through an easy alternation between formal and colloquial. This sense of similarity is perhaps best found in Larkin’s poem “Aubade,” which feels almost like a continuation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” While Eliot’s poem is centred on the social anxiety of life lived while the “evening spread out against the sky,” Larkin follows this up with an aubade, or morning song, describing the mental anguish of early morning contemplation. Both follow inner reflections on the inescapability of death, and the delusion of hoping to find meaning in life. Their similarities are almost inescapable, Larkin’s lines reflecting the inevitability of death, “That slows each impulse down to indecision. / Most things may never happen: this one will" feel like a sudden and horrific epiphany from a Prufrock that has been trying to convince himself that there will indeed be ‘time for all the works and days of hands.’ Aubade feels like a stripped back Prufrock, yet with all the same anguish of emotion and anxiety.

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There are of course countless other entries that could be included in the list above. Eliot cannot be said to have contained himself when it comes to literary references. Further from the ones mentioned above ‘Prufrock’ flits from references to Hesiod’s Works and Days, to approximate quotes from Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress," even to momentary allusions to a single line from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Likewise, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” remains one of the most inspiring and influential poetic works of the 20th century. Its influence creeps into a whole host of unlikely places, Raymond Chandler quotes it at length in The Long Goodbye, while John ‘Proof’ Prufrock, the eponymous hero of Alex Grecian’s graphic novel Proof, continues Eliot’s tradition of unheroic heroes. It would seem that Eliot’s Prufrock found an answer to his question ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ With the poem so firmly embedded in the fabric of literary history, there will always be more links and ties to uncover but we hope that this will serve as a helpful starting place for anyone hoping to explore the foggy streets of Prufrock’s mind. 

Aio, quantitas magna frumentorum est

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