November 1, 2017


Modernism is a movement in literature that lasted from roughly the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. The era marked landmark progress in science and technology, industrialization and globalization. Although these are all indicatives of modernism, the modernist writers, however, diverted their interest into otherwise.Their prime objective was to highlight the potential incongruities underneath the surface advancement.They observed that with the increased reliance on science and technology, and the gradual removal of the individual from rural community into urban isolation, the individual and society were at odds with one another. Moreover, they also witnessed that the devastation caused by the World War I left the civilization declined rather than improved.

T.S. Eliot is one of the pioneering literary figures of the modernist movement. In his works he opted to infuse the trending issues of his time. Eliot’s earliest tour de force, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, indicated a groundbreaking literary shift from late 19th-century Romantic poetry to Modernism. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock encapsulates nearly all of the major tenets of the subject movement:

Free Verse

The modernists significantly deviated from the strict meter formulated by the Romantic school of poetry.They preferred free verse which follows neither a rhyme scheme nor a consistent meter. To be relevant to the era The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is also composed in free verse. However, the poem does not fully follow the free verse; rather it adheres to some formal rhymes as well.

Stream of Consciousness

Stream of consciousness is a popular mode of narration in the modern era. The modernist writers often used this technique to perplex the audience, by leaving things vague or unexplained.That is why works narrated by this technique are often difficult to follow. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock also employs the stream of consciousness technique to present the inner thoughts or anguish of a neurotic, isolated, hesitant, and cynical man named Prufrock. The aforesaid subject clearly releases his indecisive thoughts in the following lines:
“And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

Alienation

Alienation is one of the central themes in the modern era. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock also hinges around this theme. The poet explores alienation through the title character Prufrock, who is paralyzed by indecision and worry about his appearance to others, particularly to women. His inability to properly express his love and fears of rejection supersede his natural desire to be with a woman, which in turn created an awkward and isolated character that is aloof from society. Prufrock believes that  his paralysis has stemmed from the silent criticism of those around him, and thus he thinks that he will be free of his paralyzing fear once he isolates himself from others. This idea is further reinforced by his wandering at dusk through the narrow back alleys of the seedier side of the city where the only beings are the common class people. Since here he is isolated from the people he knows, he finds the most comfort in the company of complete strangers:
“Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...”

Urban Setting

The modernists significantly deviated from the Romantics in the matter of choosing the setting. Whereas the former used a rural setting to explore nature from emotional or imaginary point of view, the latter employed an urban setting to portray the city life realistically with its hustle and bustle.Eliot also followed his contemporaries and confined his TheLove Song of J. Alfred Prufrock within an urban setting which is evident in the following lines:
“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.”

Allusion

The majority of the modernist works are replete with allusions, an expression which enabled the writers to encapsulate the entire theme, mood, feeling and plot of those other stories, with just one word or phrase. Eliot also used allusions extravagantly in his poem TheLove Song of J. Alfred Prufrock which heightened the symbolic as well as the ironic mode of expression. For example:
  • The very title of the poem reverberates to Rudyard Kipling’s Love Song of Har Dyal, although in a rather ironic way. While Kipling’s poem is a typical love song expressing an Englishman's passion and love for his Indian lover, Eliot’s poem is a mockery of the love song, portraying the protagonist’s many failed attempts at courting women.
  • Eliot starts the poem with an epigraph drawn from the 27th canto of Dante’s Inferno to suggest the theme of secrecy. The epigraph refers to a meeting in which Guido da Montefeltro speaks with a sense of secrecy to Dante, just as Prufrock speaks with a sense of secrecy to the “you” mentioned in the poem’s very first lines:
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;”
  • In lines 94-95, Eliot alludes to Lazarus, a biblical character, who was sent to Hell but he wanted to come back to the earth in order to tell his friend about experiences in Hell. In the same way Prufrock is living in such a place where he seems to be dead:
“I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
  • Eliot repetitively refers to Michelangelo to portray the boring nature of a social event where no one really cares what is being said, pointlessly mingling among themselves while they try to figure out interesting bits of conversation to mention:
“In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.”
  • In lines 111-119, Prufrock considers himself to be Prince Hamlet, the title character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However, soon he declares that he does not have the potentialities of Hamlet and that he is more of a side character like Polonius who could be confused for a fool who appears in a scene or two:
“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:

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