In what ways is Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’, an example of modernist writing? Discuss this in relationship to form as well as content. Although TS Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock contains many of the stylistic conventions that are now associated with modernist poetry, TS Eliot’s position on the established art forms and religious hierarchy that many writers of his generation rejected, and how this influenced Eliot’s composition of Prufrock, is highly debatable. In Modernism: The New Critical Idiom Peter Childs of the University of Gloucestershire writes that these stylistic conventions were: ‘moves to break from the iambic pentameter as the basic unit of verse, to introduce Vers Libre, symbolism, and other new forms of writing’ (Childs, 2008, pg. 3).
In the composition of Prufrock TS Eliot utilized a form of symbolism ostensibly very similar to that outlined by the Imagist movement in the Imagists Manifesto (Imagists, 1915, pg. 269). Instead of simply telling the reader Prufrock’s emotions, Eliot relied on the ‘objects’ within the poem to convey Prufrock’s thoughts and feelings. The most vivid example of imagist inspired symbolism within The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock is the image of the yellow smoke which occurs several times throughout the poem: The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
(Eliot, 1915, line 16-17)
Here the yellow fog, evocative of the smog that was common to most industrial cities, is the personification of Death in ‘Prufrock. Death takes the form of a cat like predator, a carefree and yet malicious animal than can appear none-threatening, even playful. By saying that the yellow fog rubs its back and muzzle on the window panes is implying that it cannot leave the confines of the city streets and that it cannot enter houses or places of business. This indicates that Prufrock feels in most danger when he’s out in the city streets.
Eliot’s use of vers libre was most likely inspired by American poet Walt Whitman, and more specifically his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass. The style of meter, which Marianne Moore said to be “in sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome (Moore, 1926, pg. 429) reflected Whitman’s view of the beauty of the chaos of the natural world (Whitman, 1855, pg. 94) whilst for the modernists it captured the ‘panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’ (Eliot, 1923). TS Eliot made heavy use of vers libre in the composition of Prufrock, in order to better use the page space and to add gravitas to the poem’s individual components:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse
(Eliot, 1915, line 45-49)
Here it can be seen that the lines which have greatest ‘gravitas of connotation’ to Prufrock are given the most room. Prufrock’s question is separated into two lines as for him it has two different parts. As the top line: ‘Do I dare’, directly addressed Prufrock himself it is given its own line. To Prufrock the question of whether or not he should ‘Disturb the universe’ has equal gravitas to the act itself and so has its own line. By saying that “In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” Prufrock is admitting that in a moment he would have made the decision, but soon enough after he would have gone back on that decision.
It has been often claimed that the modernist poets used verse libre to step away from the iambic pentameter and other popular poetic forms that had previously defined popular poetry (Eliot, 1917). TS Eliot however refused to see the difference between vers libre and traditionally written poetry. In his essay Reflections on Vers Libre TS Eliot wrote two years after the publication of Prufrock that:
Vers libre […]is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the...
Bibliography: Childs, P., 2008. Modernism the New Critical Idiom. 2nd Edition. Cornwall: Routledge.
Cuddon, JA., Year. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory
Eliot, TS. 1915. The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. [poem on webpage]. Available at: http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/prufrock.html [Accessed on 12th April 2012].
Eliot, TS. 1919. From ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ In: Kolocotroni V, Goldman J, Taxidou O eds. 1998. Modernism An Anthology of Sources and Documents. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 366-375.
Eliot, TS, 1923. ULYSSES, ORDER, AND MYTH. [Web Essay] Available at: http://people.virginia.edu/~jdk3t/eliotulysses.htm [Accessed on 3rd May 2012].
Moore M. 1926. New Poetry Since 1912 In: Kolocotroni V, Goldman J, Taxidou O eds. 1998. Modernism An Anthology of Sources and Documents. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University 429-433.
Whitman W, 1855. From preface to Leaves of Grass In: Kolocotroni V, Goldman J, Taxidou O eds. 1998. Modernism An Anthology of Sources and Documents. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
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