I just wrote this for my American Modernism class and because I rarely share things of substance on here any more, I thought I might give the collective you of the internet my thoughts on an aspect of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” If you haven’t read the poem, check it out here.
Allusion in Prufrock: An attempt at something more
T.S. Eliot’s use of allusion in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not coincidental. Nor is it utilized, frequently, with the intent of displaying his intelligence – as some insecure writers may assert. The use of allusion stems from a fundamental belief Eliot possesses regarding poetry: Tradition conquers all.
When considering Prufrock, or any of his canon, there are two thoughts from Thomas Sterns of which to be aware. The first comes from his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in which Eliot expounds his case for utilizing the collective thoughts of past writers to synthesize modern text. Eliot argues for maintaining a “historical sense,” eventually making the following claim: “The necessity that he [the writer] shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it” (Tradition 4). Secondly, in his The Use of Poetry and the use of Criticism, Eliot’s fondness for what he calls Imitation exhibits another reason for his propensity to apply allusion. Eliot writes: “the third requisite in our poet, or maker, is Imitation, to be able to convert the substance, or riches of another poet, to his own use” (Wiliamson). The thought echos the claim established in his essay on tradition yet packages the process as a modernist art technique.
Probably the most famous, and obvious, allusion in Prufrock is in the opening stanza – the sequence of six lines, in the original Italian, from Dante’s Inferno. Structuring the sequence of lines at the start of the play, before Eliot has penned any of his own verse save for the title, establishes a clear tone for the poem when considered in its entirety: Prufrock is not to be judged in comparison to Inferno, or any of the other texts listed in the 131 lines of Eliot’s submission, it is to be thought of in collaboration, as the continuation and the extension of thought within the period. Possibly with the intent, mildly considering the dynamics of the poem, that life doesn’t shift drastically for humans, that when you discredit the structures of society – a thought that would later be a tenant of deconstructionists, human impulse will be the same in any period.
Another notable allusion that is striking, simple in regards to poetics, is the much quotable “In the room the women come and go/ talking of Michelangelo” (Prufrock). Written in the second stanza, and refrained a few graphs afterward, the couplet does a couple of things that are important to the poem. First, it is the closest thing Eliot has in the verse to a rhyming couplet. The first line has nine syllables and the second has eight. The lyrical quality carries the reader, and the character of Prufrock himself, through the early portion of the poem/life. Second, the lyrical nature of the verse is juxtaposed with the allusion to Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, a High Renaissance painter. If Eliot wasn’t able to drive the point of contrast through in the preceding graphs, it certainly comes through with this addition. Subsequently, deeper connotations of social structure, conceptions of beauty – in art, health, and probably mating – and application of metaphysics – Michelangelo’s consideration as a renaissance artist is much akin to the thoughts Eliot was setting forth – all come from the line sequence. It also should be noted that the refrain adds extra signifiers, most notably in relation to periods of life and, possibly, another instance of thoughts connecting throughout pieces of art (the first reference to Michelangelo connecting to the second).
As the poem moves forward there are multiple allusions to Shakespeare, The Bible, Marvel, and Hesiod, among others. Eliot’s use of allusion certainly adds to the poem and some may even argue that it is the poem. But that would be unfair and, frankly, disregard the deeper metaphysical meaning Eliot is striving for in Prufrock. Ron D. K. Banerjee concludes the metaphysical action astutely in “The Dantean Overview: The Epigraph to “Prufrock”” claiming “Rhetoric, here, not only masks the emptiness of illusions, but also conveys the power of illusions as such” (966) eventually concluding emphasis on the “means of expression than to the evaluation of the action and the attitudes of the central figure” (966).
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume D. 8th. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2012. 368-371. Print.