T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” contains some of the most unforgettable images in modern poetry: the “pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”; the yellow fog that “rubs its back upon the window panes”; the evening “spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” The poem’s sudden juxtapositions disrupted and dismantled the staid poetic conventions of its time. Like his beloved metaphysical model John Donne, Eliot pushed the resources of literary language to their outer extremes, while still maintaining a respectful relationship with traditional form, deploying Shakespearean pentameter lines whose music is deceptive, since they are the vehicles of such strange, neurotic content.
“Prufrock,” first published in 1915 in Poetry magazine—at the instigation of literary impresario Ezra Pound—caused a shock at its first appearance. Students today are apt to remember it as a bewildering swirl of references—to Dante, the Bible, Shakespeare—and as sardonic commentary on what Eliot saw as the profoundly enervated and impotent condition of modern man (and of himself). It is a daunting study, to be sure, but the poem’s first readers and critics tended to dismiss it as either shockingly anarchic or trivial and meandering.
By 1947, “Prufrock” was recognized as a modernist classic, and Harvard University recorded Eliot reading the poem (above). His thin voice may not carry the weight of the poem’s dense allusive grandeur, so we have Anthony Hopkins at the top of the post reading “Prufrock” as well. Hopkins seems to rush through the poem a bit, capturing, perhaps, the nervous energy of its title character’s psychic anguish.