Critical Analysis: J.Alfred Prufrock

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At the beginning of T. S. Eliot' s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, there stands an epigraph from Dante's Inferno, Canto 27. This epigraph unifies the text and brings, through its imagery and context, a deeper understanding of Eliot's poem. Prufrock represents both of the characters in this section of the Inferno, corresponding to Dante in the first section and Guido da Montefeltro in the second and third. Dante represents the antithesis of Prufrock as well as the ideal that Prufrock strives for. The flame-bound Guido da Montefeltro represents through his words and condition, the isolated and wasteful state that Prufrock has condemned himself to inhabit. In this manner, the epigraph brings the poem full circle, allowing the reader to grasp firmly the extent of Prufrock's internal collapse. The context of the epigraph reveals Prufrock as the antithesis to the heroic ideal that Dante represents; an ideal that Prufrock strives for and fails to achieve. Several stanzas earlier than the epigraph, Dante writes of his first reaction to the inflamed sinner, Guido da Montefeltro, who has addressed him: "I still was downward bent and listening / When my Conductor touched me on the side, / Saying: 'Speak thou: this one a Latian is.' // And I, who had beforehand my reply / In readiness, forthwith began to speak:"(Inferno, Canto 27). Dante does not hesitate long, and he pours forth his response to the shade with alacrity, and for several stanzas. In the opposite vein, Eliot's Prufrock also has a prepared speech, a speech he agonizes over with great trepidation, saying, "Do I dare? and, Do I dare? / ...Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" Prufrock has so little confidence in his words that he comforts himself with the thought that there is time "for a hundred visions and revisions" before he must give his line. Up until the final moment before he would speak Prufrock's questions linger, asking in the last stanza of the first section, "And should I then presume? / And how should I begin?" Given Prufrock's apprehension, Dante's heroicism in descending to Hell represents the antithesis of Prufrock, as he says: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two, / Advise the Prince; no doubt, an easy tool..." Prufrock's attempt to ask the "overwhelming question," to become Dante or Hamlet, passes without event, and with a pathetic acceptance on the part of Prufrock. Prufrock, in seeking and failing to become a hero in his own life, therefore condemns himself to ultimate waste and isolation. The epigraph tells the reader about the kind of condemnation this entails in the personal condition of Guido himself. Guido has been wrapped in a tall flame for his sins, and must speak through the tongue of that flame. Through Prufrock's inability to speak this "overwhelming question," he gives up his chance to live, love, and communicate with happiness. Prufrock says he has "heard the mermaids singing, each to each // I do not think that they will sing to me." The latter sentence, separated out with a period punctuating its finality, represents a self-condemnation; Prufrock separates himself from the mermaid's singing, as evidenced by the use of 'I' and 'me.' Guido's tongue of flame becomes Prufrock's self-inflicted punishment, a lifetime without the ability to communicate true feelings, and a lonely death at the hands of the "eternal footman" who "snickers" at his cowardice. Finally, Guido's words, which appear in the epigraph, complete the reader's picture of Prufrock and his fate. When Dante asks Guido to identify himself, he says "If I thought my reply were / to someone who would ever return to the world, / this flame would stop flickering. / But since no one has ever / returned alive from this pit, if what I hear is true / I answer you without any fear of infamy." Prufrock, who has condemned himself, shall never "return to the world." If Prufrock had asked...
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