Criticism of Nature of the Modern Society in J. Alfred Prufrock’s Poem The Love Song and Preludes by T.S. Eliot

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

The philosophical movement of modernism yearned to banish traditional ways of thinking and revitalise the way modern civilisation viewed life arising from the Industrial Revolution, followed then by World War I. T.S. Eliot brings out an anxiety, and in many instances, unpromising portrayal of the tumult inherent in modern life.

‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1910) depicts the average modern man who’s been too enthralled with romanticism until the realities of the modern world threatens to consume him. Similarly, ‘Preludes’ depicts time going painfully slowly by, in the semi-abandoned towns, during winter. These poetic works showcase how moral paralysis leads to the pointlessness of life, or the immense strength of belief in the concept of nihilism. Thus, the poems’ reference to the angst of disorder within Eliot’s poetry should be considered alongside the subtle possibility for hope.

Inertia within individuals acts as a catalyst to a dubious, disordered modern life. T.S. Eliot saw a decline in civilisation, due to technological advancements in relation to the means of production. This transformed the modern worker from one previously involved in the entirety of the production line, to one insignificantly contributing to the process. This lack of activity incurred from division of labour, caused men to experience negative feelings of fragmentation, and a lack of self purpose and worth. Eliot presents insight of moral paralysis in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, showcasing the narrator’s stream of consciousness where fragmented thoughts are unified by the structure of the poem.

This highlights the inaction engendered from the paralysing nature of his continual questions to himself and his insecurities of others’ perceptions, with the technique of anti-climax implemented, instantly transitioning from ‘half deserted streets’ to ‘sawdust restaurants’. There is a tone of self mockery as he asks where he ‘shall[…] part [his] hair’ or whether he ‘dare[s] to eat a peach’. Prufrock metaphorically refers to himself as an insect ‘sprawling on a pin’, exemplifying his inability to connect to the rest of the world; like the insect, he is paralysed in time. Prufrock is an observer who remains imprisoned in his own subjective space, where time is only of subjective existence.

Prufrock is paralysed as past, present and future are equally immediate. Prufrock’s reality is a timeless, pure duration; a frozen time in which all possibilities seem to have already materialised. This is reflected in the use of repetition, which identifies he has ‘known them all already, known them all’. In this time of endless repetition, Prufrock believes that ‘indeed there will be time’, an allusion to Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, suggesting both eternity and hesitation. This reveals Prufrock’s belief that starting to attempt physical endeavours is futile, as there is still endless amounts of time to do so. Eliot is criticising the unreliability of this perception, using Prufrock as a portrayal of modern life’s concerning way of living.

American literary critic J. Hillis Miller describes that ‘Prufrock has no hope of being understood by others’ underling Eliot’s creation of a ‘disturbing portrait’ of modern life in this poem due to the absence of hope. The poem concludes with a mythological allusion when describing that ‘We have lingered[…] By sea-girls […]Till human voices wake us, and we drown’, yet, the focus is not on the sirens of the mermaids. The focus lies on the human voices that cause Prufrock to drown in the reality that he will always exhibit inertia. Eliot dismantles the romantic notion that poetic genius is all that is needed to triumph over the destructive, impersonal forces of the modern world.

Moral paralysis leading to the futility of life that pervade ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘Preludes’ reflect Eliot’s qualms regarding the nature of modern society. Thus, a responder should consider assessing Eliot’s poetic works with hopeful assurance of protection against turmoil of the world, rather than a mere distressing portrayal of disorder beyond repair.


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