The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Modernism in Love Song of J.A. Prufrock?


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OK, so you might have heard of a little movement called "modernism." Nobody out there has a great definition of modernism, but here’s ours. For most of history, most people lived really far away from one another in small villages. They didn’t travel much or interact with one another. This is the pre-modern world. Then, along come all these new technologies – everything from sewer systems to railroads – and suddenly lots of people are living close together in cities, and even those who aren’t living close together are able to find out what’s going on with the help of (from oldest to most recent) telegrams, newspapers, telephones, cell phones, and the internet. Welcome to the modern world – but, of course, you were here already, Mr. or Mrs. Internet User.

Nowadays, we’re all used to living in the modern world, but it wasn’t always that way. The "modernists" basically include all the artists and writers who were living smack in the middle of the huge, massive transformation from olden days to modern times, which was roughly the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. In their work, they try to make sense of all these changes, which no one quite understands. Got it?

So "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is totally a modernist poem. Its author, T.S. Eliot, was an American who moved to Britain in 1914. Eliot wrote most of "Prufrock" when he was 22 years old (!), in the years before the start of World War I. At that time, Britain was considered the most modern country in the world. The poem is set in a big, dirty city, and its speaker is a very unhappy man who is afraid of living and therefore bored all the time. War, cities, boredom, and fear: these are all classic modernist themes.

Eliot got "Prufrock" published in Poetry magazine in 1915 with the help of his buddy Ezra Pound, who was like a friendly uncle-figure to a lot of the European modernists. In 1917 it was published as part of a small book called Prufrock and Other Observations.

It was considered pretty experimental at the time, and a lot of people hated it. The "Literary Supplement" of The London Times had this to say: "The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry…" (Times Literary Supplement 21 June 1917, no. 805, 299).