Introduction to Modernism:
Background to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
At the beginning of the 1900s, the world view of writers was changing in many ways. The world seemed to have shifted on its axis. Popular culture was catching up to changes in many fields. So, what had changed to precipitate a shift?
For about two centuries, philosophers had already shifted radically in their perspective on what we can know. Kant had said that men cannot know truth beyond limits of the mind and the senses, never knowing the essence of a thing in itself. Kierkegaard later posited that perception of truth is relative to each one’s personal experience. And Nietzsche had extended that thought into a nihilism (the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless). For some, this led to a search for power and projecting personal values onto others. This came late in the 1800s.
Around that time, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution made many question what was special about humankind. And Freud taught a psychology that focused on primitive and subconscious urges that lead people to act as they do. Reason was in question.
Meantime, oddly, science was bounding forward at an unprecedented pace from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Inventions such as autos, airplanes, radios, electric lights, and moving pictures changed everyday life. And by 1905 the very substance of the universe, time, space, and gravity, were refocused in the newly discovered Theory of Relativity. People began to wonder:
Is truth relative?
Society also witnessed a dangerous rise in nationalism, while industrialism could mass produce more tools for modern warfare, more slums, and more pollution (though smog had been a problem since the 1700s in places like London). The fragile balance of power that was hwld through a network of treaties around Europe broke with the advent of World War I (1914-1918),
which was then called “the war to end all wars.”
Even before this war, in a world so apparently subject to change, the arts had also begun to change. Graphic art had shifted from a focus on the realistic visual effects of light (Impressionism)—to a personal, subjective art of emotion (Expressionism)—to an abstract reconstruction of reality (Cubism and Surrealism)—and even a total disavowal of terms for what is art (Absurdism). [For a visual tour of this shift, see the following in images on cell phone or computer]:
Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (1872)
Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (1889)
Munch’s “The Scream” (1893)
Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907)
Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917)
Contemporary literature was also subject to change and subjective uncertainty. Both poets and novelists styled their art in distrust of history, legacy, reason, and sentimentality. Books, like cinema, could feature a barrage of images to represent a mystical, changing world—sometimes as external objects/ sometimes in interior mental monologues. And poems were often framed without rhythm or rhyme, cut to the bare bones of imagery. One early Imagist poem began as 31 lines that were cut to only two lines. Here is “In a Station of the Metro” by Pound:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The poem is not even a complete sentence.
By 1915, one year into WWI, T.S. Eliot published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This love song begins with a descent into hell and moves on to a ‘date’ “When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.”
See “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Representative Poetry Online” at
This version translates the Italian epigraph quoted from “The Inferno” in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which opens Eliot’s poem. Other copies are also available online.
Note that the poem came out in the same year that poison gas was used in WWI. Over 40 million would die in that war, and another 50 million from 1918-1920 from the Spanish Flu in the post-war years of poverty and recovery.
After you read the poem, write a few notes about the theme or themes, the persona of Prufrock, and the way the poem ends: What does it mean? The notes may contain lines from the poem. This is not an essay. You may use any helpful study aids, but the conclusions come from you and how you tie lines of the poem into your ideas of theme, persona, and conclusions. Submit by Friday at midnight under PRUFROCK NOTES.