The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Critical Essay by George Fortenberry

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
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Critical Essay by George Fortenberry

SOURCE: "Prufrock and the Fool Son," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. VIII, Winter, 1967, pp. 51-54.

In the following essay, Fortenberry explores the influence of Jules Laforgue on "Prufrock" and considers the role of the fool.

How much or how little the title of a poem means is, of course, left to the whim or decision of the poet. Upon occasion, however, a title will furnish the best clue to the meaning and significance of a poem. It is quite possible that the title, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," could furnish us with meaning we have not found before. This title has received very little attention considering the great attention which the poem itself has received. The following remarks focus upon the title of the poem, especially its use of the term "song."

In spite of the fact that "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" has fostered many articles, enough, in fact, to make it one of the best understood works in our language, the poem is not well read by—not well explained to—thousands of college freshmen each year who find it in the section of their readers devoted to the latest poetry to be anthologized. Often they are rather shocked to learn that the poem is vintage 1915, which, although a good year, seems long ago to a freshman. They are also shocked to learn that it has been in print longer than some Thomas Hardy and a great deal of Housman and Hopkins. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is no longer young. It is of such an age that coming to terms with it becomes very important.

Those who have long used the Brooks and Warren explanation of the Prufrock poem and are satisfied need go no further. It is a reasonable and sound explanation and one of the few attempts to deal with the whole poem by bringing some semblance of unity to it. Unfortunately for those who seek further than Brooks and Warren, most articles on the poem deal almost entirely with fragments, with single lines or single words, with Mermaids, rolled trousers, or gastric problems caused by peaches. This line-by-line approach is entirely natural because lines of the poem, especially those in the last section, seem to lack unity. Other essays are concerned with the sources of various lines in the poem. This approach is also a natural development which grew out of Eliot's own precedent of publishing notes on "The Wasteland." One of the best articles of this type, John C. Pope's "Prufrock and Raskalnikov," was provocative enough to merit a reply by Eliot in which he claimed the source for the Hamlet in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to be the work of Jules Laforgue, not Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, as Pope had contended.

Explanation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" should begin with attention to the work of Jules Laforgue where Eliot has directed us. Not only that, but attention should be given to Laforgue's Hamlet, a character not too much like Shakespeare's Hamlet. Critics have known for a long time of Laforgue's influence. They have not, however, paid much attention to his Hamlet in trying to interpret the poem.

To return to the title, we observe that Eliot's poem is about a love song. As we read, however, we are soon aware that this is not the regular boy-girl love song but is an attempt to communicate a message of importance to the world, a message Prufrock wants to deliver but has great difficulty expressing. In spite of the difficulty, the love song is finally sung. It is sung by the Fool, and it is within the Fool Song that we may find the comment that Prufrock wants to make, one which Eliot himself continued to make in later poetry. The song of the Fool begins in much the same way that any ditty of a Fool in Shakespearian or other seventeenth-century drama might begin. But this resemblance does not mean that Eliot got his Fool from these sources, even though no smaller Fool than Falstaff admits, "I am old, I am old." (2 Henry IV. II. iv. 294) Much more likely it is that Eliot got his Fool, along with his Hamlet, from the work of Jules Laforgue, for both "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Portrait of a Lady" are Laforguian poems. Eliot has indicated his indebtedness to Laforgue for his method. Tindall comments upon this method at length:

The essays of Jules Laforgue tell almost as much about him as his verse. Inflated at first with transcendental yearning, he was deflated, he says, by Darwin. Hence the inflation and deflation of the poet's metaphors and the painful joy of punctured sentiments. But in Hartman's theory of the unconscious Laforgue found peace and a literary method. It was the job of the poet, he felt, to follow the vagaries of the life force beyond limits, categories, and reason. "The wind of the unconscious blows where it will," he exclaims. "Let it blow." Meanwhile the poet's face assumed the expression of the fumiste and man about town.

Laforgue's fumiste should interest us as a key to the meaning of the Prufrock poem, for it is as fumiste, or Fool, that J. Alfred Prufrock makes his last attempt to communicate with the world. It is as Fool that Eliot has Prufrock show his own disenchantment with the modern world. In Eliot's poem Prufrock yearns to communicate with the world, and he makes at least two attempts before he gives up, resorting at last to the Fool Song. First, Prufrock is a man of society, one who is all-knowing and rather worn out with it all, or as Laforgue says in his criticism of Corbiere, who was adept at revealing only "mild waterfront sensuality," "He has known the Paris prostitute on his Paris holidays … and has known her also from the tropics to the pole." In spite of his all-knowing guise, Prufrock is not able to sing his love song to the world. He does not think the world would understand. The one he told his love song to would merely answer, "That is not what I meant at all./ That is not it, at all."

Prufrock does not come any nearer communicating with the world in the role of prophet than he did as a man of society. He is unable to sing his song as a prophet crying out a great truth to the world; even as one who has returned from the dead he would not be able to do it. By means of a quotation from Dante concerning Guido, and by using a reference to Lazarus, Eliot stresses the impossibility of communication and understanding between dead and living. In fact, the idea of communication with the dead is so strong in the poem that one is tempted to include Shakespeare's Hamlet here as one who has talked with the dead, sealing his own doom in the process. Prufrock, however, is not Prince Hamlet. The great void between dead and living holds a fascination for Eliot, a fascination well expressed in "Little Gidding" when he writes:

     And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
     They can tell you, being dead: the communication
     Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

At this point it is important to return to Laforgue and also to remember that Prufrock says, "Almost at times, the Fool." It is at this moment that the Fool Song begins with the plaintive lines, "I grow old, I grow old." The next eleven lines have perhaps called forth more questions and more speculation than any other part of the poem. They are lines which have added great difficulty to interpretation chiefly because they are made up of an inane ditty, the type a stage Fool would sing. Eliot here is following the theory he borrowed from Jules Laforgue. It is well known that Laforgue was fond of fools and clowns, and the last six lines of his "Apotheosis" show his method of ending a poem. He gives us a picture of a man who has contemplated the stars in the process of trying to find his role in the universe.

His family: a host of heavy blossoming globes, And on one, the earth, a yellow point, Paris, Where under a swinging lamp, a poor fool sits. A weak phenomenon in the universal order, Knowing himself the mirror of a single day, He thinks of all this, then composes a sonnet.

Laforgue has his Fool compose a sonnet after he has made the discovery that he is of little importance in the universe. Prufrock becomes convinced that he is of little more importance than something crawling along the sea bottom. His Fool Song of twelve lines very effectively ends the poem.

It is also interesting and perhaps significant that Eliot uses a Laforguian Hamlet. Laforgue had a very special feeling for Hamlet which led him to create his own modern version of the character. The translator of Laforgue's Selected Writings, William Jay Smith, observes that:

Max Beerbohm once said that he thought that the scene with Yorick's skull would have been more effective if Shakespeare had given us an example of how the fool once entertained the royal table.

and himself adds: "This Laforgue has done; for he has written, as he expressed it, à la Yorick, combining hero and fool." What Laforgue actually did was create a Hamlet who was a brother of Yorick. His "Hamlet or The Consequences of Filial Piety" depicts them as having the same gypsy mother. Even a hasty look at this work of Laforgue will show that Eliot was saturated not only with Laforgue's method, but also with some of his words.

There is a strong possibility that having failed to communicate with the world, Prufrock conveys his disillusionment as well as his love song and message through the song of the Fool. Whether it is Darwinian disillusionment does not matter much for an interpretation of the Prufrock poem. Eliot's "Till human voices wake us and we drown." may be the equivalent of his lines in later poems:

     And any action
     Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea throat.
                                or:
     We are born with the dead.
                                 or:
     In my beginning is my end.

In any event, and entirely aside from Eliot's philosophy, both Yorick and Hamlet would, I believe, be happy to know that they have a delightful half-brother named Prufrock.

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This section contains 1,745 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Shyamal Bagchee