War in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’

A paper I wrote at university, taking a historical-critical approach to T.S. Eliot’s well-know, and difficult, poem.


Considering alone the fact that this is a Modernist piece of poetry should be enough to convince anyone of its difficulty. Thankfully, T.S. Eliot was merely one of the forerunners of this short period, resulting in many adaptations within his poetry from the Romantic period and before. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is written as if the speaker is writing whatever comes to mind but seemingly only to himself. It is difficult to understand if the speaker of the poem is Eliot, Prufrock, another, both, or something else entirely. But while the syntax and structure of the poem is without traditional uniformity, making the poem rather challenging at a cursory reading, what is actually said is what makes the poem most difficult to understand. What I mean by this is that the phrases seem disjointed at times, going past the stream of consciousness. One can see in stream of consciousness writing how the writer came to where they arrived, but the actual message, the words, excluding syntax, are outwardly unconnected. Yet Prufrock seems to arrive in places by happenstance and without a roadmap. To ask just a few questions, who is the person speaking? Is the speaker Prufrock or Eliot? Or Eliot speaking for and giving life to another person’s experiences? He seems to be a rather unstable character, perhaps even chaotic in nature. There is an enigmatic “you” and “we” mentioned only a scant handful of times, yet he never gives indication of who that is. Is it the reader, a third person, himself? Clearly, there are many things that make comprehending this poem a challenge. And yet, there is a meaning and a message behind it all. Some answers are not necessarily, or obviously, answered by the poem but instead by outside factors, namely current history. These facts might answer why he is so concerned about what others are talking about in addition to the numerous questions he poses however indirectly.

This, of course, makes The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock more or less a mystery that, though difficult, needs to be understood. There is a message to this poem and a reason for which it was written. In order to understand such a puzzling poem, I had to first comprise a way to go about deciphering the work. While I have read this poem many times in the past, thus allowing the actual syntax to be less confusing for me, I still did more than a cursory reading this time through. To begin, I went through each and every line and phrase and underlined what I thought were key points and wrote a small note beside those sections. I did this not only because I needed a place marker for what I thought needed to be discussed in more detail later, but also because I had my own questions about the line. After this, I came up with a series of questions that I thought the poem asked, or I asked in respect to the poem. The first set has already been discussed previously, but there are more that I think will lead to the answers that I seek. The first and most important question that came to mind was, why did Eliot write this? The initial answer that might arise is that he was a Modernist poet, but this question leads to instead another: What was happening at the time? In addition, did those events in any way shape or guide Elliot in his writing? Doing only a meager amount of research told me that this poem was written and edited shortly after the start of the Great War. This led me to ask, what does this have to do with parts of the poem such as the line “there will be time”? After all, will there be? What was going on in the world that might not make this true? These are all questions that have answers found mainly outside the poem but are all pondered within the work and will probably give light to its meaning. But in order to discover how the two relate, I will have to take each of these internal parts mentioned and examine them in light of the times. The point, and hope, is that by looking at surrounding events, the meat of the poem will be revealed.

The main difficulty with this poem is that meaning and topic is elusive. What is it that Prufrock is, or perhaps Elliot, which is the view I prefer, talking about? Is he mourning over something? Without looking at any historical context, one might dismiss the idea. But such an approach is neglectful. My general idea is that this poem is about the Great War and its effect on people. The main emotion within the poem is sadness and the reality of death, including elements and images that strike a close resemblance to those found during the Great War.

In only the first stanza, there are multiple references to warlike scenes and the frustration of the Great War itself. There is a “patient etherised upon a table”, like a soldier or civilian laying on a surgeon’s table after an attack (l. 3). This was undoubtedly a common image during wartime. Following is the image of “certain half-deserted streets,” and “the muttering retreats” (ll. 4-5). These images go hand in hand. During war time, there would have been many streets empty of people in fear of air raids and the like. And in a similar way, men on the battlefield would retreat, probably grumbling, especially near the end, in the seemingly hopelessness of their efforts. Wasted lives day in and day out. In this same deserted city are “streets that follow like a tedious argument/of insidious intent” (ll. 8-9). This image is less of the physical aspect of the war, but focusing instead on the correspondence between the countries in hopes of avoiding war, and the pointless arguments trying to end, many of which only ended with the “insidious intent” (l. 9; Zagare 11-12). But the crucial point is made at the end, and is a theme echoing throughout the rest of the poem. The speaker says, “to lead you to an overwhelming questions… oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’” (ll. 10-11). What is the question? What is it that the speaker does not want you to ask? They are clearly trying to talk, and yet there is something holding them back, something they do not want you, the reader, to attempt to uncover. Could the question be “Why is there this war?” or possibly “Why do you speak of this so?” Perhaps it is neither; perhaps it is both. But as he stops anyone from asking the question with the undesirable answer, he notices the frivolous talk of the women – maybe a representation of those who go on about their lives as if the war was not happening? – with disgust towards its meaninglessness.

After this, there is the quite famous yellow fog. What is the yellow fog? Is it the smog known of London, or something much more devastating? The fog is a creeping fog, a seemingly warm fog, a fog that tries to sneak about homes by chimneys and window panes and fences (ll. 15-22). This seems to be a harmless fog, but was there a yellow, fog-like substance used in war time? Indeed, we find this fact in history as well as poetry. The infamous mustard gas found its place not just on the battlefield, where the horrors only seen were tragic enough, but also in the homes of those who fought, though indirectly (Cruttwell 153-4). For each of those affected, whether they returned home or not, brought upon their homes this insidious gas and its effects, as Elliot describes within his poem (Atkin 151, 166).

At this point the speaker changes from the images reminiscent of war itself to other effects it has on people. The one phrase repeated a few times is “there will be time” (l. 23). Always he says in the future, not now, we have time, no need to make now important. But I do not think he actually means this alone, not all the time at least. I think instead that the speaker is highlighting how those at home, and quite possibly even those on the field, thought there would be time later. There would be time to love, to laugh, to have a life not subjugated to this war. They did not need to do things now, no need for tears or goodbyes or hellos. The speaker in pity shames this idea, for many had no time. For many, the “future” was only one gunshot away from being the present (Pasternak 109). During the war, many poets who fought died, some of which were known by Eliot such as Isaac Rosenberg (Wilson 3; Moore 46). Perhaps he is one, or the likes of one, whom this poem is for. In addition to this lack of time for others, or the ignorance of time, was the speaker’s hope that he could have time to “prepare a face to meet the faces that” he will meet (l. 27). He has been touched by war, and I do not think he wishes to talk about it. War changes people, and for most in a negative way.  The Bedford College for Women wrote, “A war like this is a horrible thing. It brings sorrow and suffering to almost every home in the countries engaged in it; it impoverishes victors and vanquished and brings poverty and misery in its wake” (5). Considering all that had happened, perhaps he needs to “prepare a face” that is not so grim, a face that, too, ignores the horrors of war similar to everyone else (l. 27). But he cannot, for he turns back to the war immediately. Time will come again, and we will do the same we had done before (l. 28). After the war, he states, there will be “time for you and time for me,/and time yet for a hundred indecisions”, time for so much because he is alive, even though so many are dead (ll. 31-33).

There will be time to do many things, which seem to include his going back to that question (l. 11). He does not ask the question he did not want to hear earlier, but he asks himself if he should “dare” to ask it (l. 38). Does he actually want to talk about the horrors wrought by this war? Indeed, he shows signs of it and this worry on his body, a fact he comments on (ll. 40-44). They will notice, he says, that his looks have become worn-out (ll. 40-44). Perhaps this is a soldier speaking, and he had grown thin and bald because of a lack of nutrition out on the field (ll. 40, 44). But does he “dare/Disturb the universe” with a contradiction to the world of lies thus far taught by society? (ll. 45-46; Owen 82) Those lies that war is all fame and honor, and no place for fear? (Owen 82) For maybe he is one who has spent time in trenches, bored and scared to death, living a life so fragile and insignificant that he can measure his “life with coffee spoons” (l. 51). Despite this, he cannot “presume” to speak because that might “disturb the universe” that seems to enjoy speaking on frivolous things rather than the brutal reality (ll. 54, 46, 36). After all, how does one come back from that experience, and how does one who experienced this come home and explain the truth when they are fixed with eyes “in a formulated phrase” (l. 56). Or, perhaps he had something to say. He had formed a phrase but could not reveal it with those innocent eyes beaming back at him, hoping to hear the heroism of war (Owen 82). Even the speaker seems to have trouble knowing how to “spit out the butt-ends of my days and ways”, to change his old way of thinking about war and all its glory, much less convince another of it (l. 60). How can he begin after the war when all he knew was false? (l. 69)

In his heart, the speaker knows that no one else can empathize with his experiences. Whether soldier or harmed civilian, he is alone in his thoughts. Even the “lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows” are themselves alone in their pain, not seeking solace or company (1. 72; Corfman 3). For they who did empathize left their bodies in a cold, wet field. The effects of war, such as shell-shock, were a blow to the countries and a blow to the men enduring it effects (Corfman 1-2). Perhaps this is why the speaker wishes that he was a “pair of ragged claws”, a beautiful image and one of my favorites, so that he would neither experience this pain nor be left with the burden of conveying its importance to others (l. 73). He asks, again, if he should continue letting everyone sleep “so peacefully” in their muddled bliss, and he too have “tea and cakes and ices”, or if he should “force the moment to its crisis” this intensity he feels, this passion to say, this is what I know! But he says, he has “bitten off the matter with a smile”, perhaps to comfort polite society and not tarnish its purity with the reality of war (l. 91).

Like those men in the field, he has seen Death greet him. Perhaps on the battlefield, perhaps seeing a friend die, perhaps watching a frequented home turn to dust, he saw his death come close before him. As mentioned before, he knew many fellow poets who had died in this war and maybe saw that end in himself (Moore 46). He says “I have seen my head brought in upon a platter”, though since he is obviously still alive, this merely relates a close meeting with death (l. 82). For one who saw himself as a great, possibly courageous man, he saw it “flicker” as he became a coward, and rightly so, in the face of certain death (l. 84). So too, that “eternal Footman”, death or Satan, as you will, held his coat to escort him to hell, and possibly be laughing at the speaker’s thought “there will be time” (l. 85, 26). He does not embellish when he says “And in short, I was afraid”, for death ingrains fear in us all (l. 86).

And after all of this, he returns to those questions he cannot help but ask, that question he did not want asked: “would it have been worth it, after all?” (l. 99) He names off beautiful things, but then has to place in the middle “sprinkled streets”, for even here he cannot ignore the starkness of blood-spattered war (l. 101). Perhaps that is why there is a woman, maybe London or Europe or the queen, who answers his question saying “that is not what I meant, at all” (l. 110). Who could have foreseen the length of the war, the destruction, the pain? That had not been what they had foretold (Atkin 55). In mentioning Hamlet’s “to be”, perhaps he thinks he was meant to die somewhere in this destruction, to play “a scene or two” as a pawn in this forsaken war, still smiling and “glad to be of use” as soldier or civilian (ll. 111, 113, 115). Perhaps, instead of writing all this, he could have been silent and “a bit obtuse” like the rest of society was: blind to the war (l. 117; Corfman 1). But no, maybe he will concern himself with having “the bottoms of his trousers rolled”, he will worry about what he eats and wears and not the hell Europe just endured (ll. 121-123).  This is seemingly Eliot’s interpretation of his countrymen’s concern for the war and those in it. Then with all this noise, this meaningless chatter and nonsensical conversation, will they and he forget the war just ended, and to these “human voices” will they “wake” and “drown” whether by truth or ignorance (l. 131).

Using history as the backdrop for when this poem was written and assessing its influence was reasonably fruitful in understanding the mystery.  History is a useful tool in most undertakings, be they linguistics, poetry, morality, or the present world. Knowing where something came from and why is crucial in understanding most everything. Knowledge of the past aids hurting people, encourages friends, and adds wisdom to those who wish to not repeat mistakes. In the case of poetry, or simply literature in general, history is just as crucial. In fact, this is one of the greatest necessities for footnotes. I as a student of literature and the arts despise many periods they went through, Modernism being one of them. Actually, to be clear, I wish that most of the work created during the 20th century died, was buried ten feet underground, and covered with some respectable work so that it could not possibly rise again. But alas, I do not control such things. In spite of this, I love to learn why that art was written, composed, or painted, as the case may be. Considering Modernist poetry, I love to learn what happened during those times which lead to the creation of that poetry. What strenuous events happened that led to writing such confounding sentences? Why did they create works seemingly incomprehensible? What happened to the beauty of the past? There were many things leading up to them, such as the prominence of Naturalism, but concerning this poem alone, there was World War I, known then as the Great War. The war was great, not because it was wonderful, but because of how indescribably terrible it was. Even in T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the speaker says “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” (l. 104) He does not know because the world was in chaos, and thus the works created in response were chaotic.  While there are still some elements of the poem that could possibly be construed in some other way, I believe that this method, of looking at history and seeing what references the poem makes to its contemporary time, is one of the best ways to reveal the mystery of Modernist poetry.

~ Rose

Works Cited

Atkin, Jonathan. War of Individuals. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002. 55, 151, 166. ProQuest. Web. 6 Oct. 2016.

Bedford College for Women. The international crisis in it ethical and psychological aspects; lectures delivered in February and March, 1915. London: Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, 1915. 5. Web. 6 Oct. 2016. <https://archive.org/details/internationalcri00bedfiala&gt;.

Corfman, Bradley W., “The Cost of Ignorance: Shell-Shock in Britain during World War I” (2013). 1-3. Honors Projects. Paper 33.

Cruttwell, C.R.M.F. A History of the Great War 1914-1918. second ed. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991. 153-54. ProQuest. Web. 6 Oct. 2016.

Eliot, T S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Vol. D. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1914-1945. Ed. Nina Baym. 6th ed. New York: W W Norton & Co Inc, 2002. E vols. 1420-3.  Print.

Moore, Charles E. Listen, My Children: The Maclay Sixth Grade Collegiate Poetry Course. Bloomington: Trafford Publishing, 2013. 46. Web. 7 Oct. 2016.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. Ed. Carolyn Forché. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1993. 82. Print.

Pasternak, Boris. “Hamlet.” Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. Ed. Carolyn Forché. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1993. 109. Print.

Wilson, Jean M. “‘Isaac Rosenberg: The Making of a Great War Poet’.” The Wall Street Journal. 3 Apr. 2009. Web. 7 Oct. 2016. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123869241375483067&gt;.

Zagare, Frank C. The Games of July: Explaining the Great War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. 11-12. ProQuest. Web. 6 Oct. 2016.

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