The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Composition and publication history

Writing and first publication

Eliot wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" between February 1910 and July or August 1911. Shortly after arriving in England to attend Merton College, Oxford, Eliot was introduced to American expatriate poet Ezra Pound, who instantly deemed Eliot "worth watching" and aided the start of Eliot's career. Pound served as the overseas editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse and recommended to the magazine's founder, Harriet Monroe, that Poetry publish "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", extolling that Eliot and his work embodied a new and unique phenomenon among contemporary writers. Pound claimed that Eliot "has actually trained himself AND modernized himself ON HIS OWN. The rest of the promising young have done one or the other, but never both."[6] The poem was first published by the magazine in its June 1915 issue.[2][7]

In November 1915 "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"—along with Eliot's poems "Portrait of a Lady," "The Boston Evening Transcript," "Hysteria," and "Miss Helen Slingsby"—was included in Catholic Anthology 1914–1915 edited by Ezra Pound and printed by Elkin Mathews in London.[8]:297 In June 1917 The Egoist, a small publishing firm run by Dora Marsden, published a pamphlet entitled Prufrock and Other Observations (London), containing twelve poems by Eliot. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was the first in the volume.[1] Also Eliot was appointed assistant editor of the Egoist in June 1917.[8]:290

Prufrock's Pervigilium

According to Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon, when Eliot was writing the first drafts of Prufrock in his notebook in 1910–1911, he intentionally kept four pages blank in the middle section of the poem.[9] According to the notebooks, now in the collection of the New York Public Library, Eliot finished the poem that was originally published at sometime in July and August 1911—when he was 22 years old.[10] In 1912, Eliot revised the poem and included a 38-line section now called "Prufrock's Pervigilium" which was inserted on those blank pages, and intended as a middle section for the poem.[9] However, Eliot removed this section soon after seeking the advice of his fellow Harvard acquaintance and poet Conrad Aiken.[11] This section would not be included in the original publication of Eliot's poem but was included when published posthumously in the 1996 collection of Eliot's early, unpublished drafts in Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909–1917.[10] This Pervigilium section describes the "vigil" of Prufrock through an evening and night[10]:41, 43–44, 176–90 described by one reviewer as an "erotic foray into the narrow streets of a social and emotional underworld" that "in clammy detail Prufrock's tramping 'through certain half-deserted streets' and the context of his 'muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.'"[12]

Critical reception

Its reception in London can be gauged from an unsigned review in The Times Literary Supplement on 21 June 1917. "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."[13]

The Harvard Vocarium at Harvard College recorded Eliot's reading of Prufrock and other poems in 1947, as part of their ongoing series of poetry readings by their authors.[14]

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