The Use of Allusions in TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Allusions are indirect passages or references. Eliot used a lot of allusions to illustrate the emotions and conflicts happening within Prufrock. These allusions also aided in setting the hopelessness and pessimistic tone of the poem. The opening stanza1 is an allusion to Dante Alighieri?s Inferno. The use of this epigraph relates Count Guido, who resides in the Eight Circle of Hell, to Prufrock, who is also living a hellish life on Earth. These lines also mentioned that Count Guido can speak without shame. Prufrock is the same as he bares his soul in this poem.

?S?io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s?i?odo il vero,

Senza tema d?infamia ti rispondo.?

Eliot borrowed a lot of phrases and made them his own. The phrase ?overwhelming question? is an allusion to James Cooper?s The Pioneers. Another phrase that was borrowed is ?dying fall?. It is an allusion to Shakespeare?s Twelfth Night. This can be found in Act I, Scene I2 (?That strain again, it had a dying fall?). The lines ?In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo? are also borrowed. They are alluded to Jules Laforgue?s work [2]. The lines were originally in French and loosely translated as: ?In the room the women come and go, talking of the Siennese Masters? [3]. He translated and borrowed most of the lines and fashioned them as his own by injecting them in different contexts.

Prufrock suffers from his fear of rejection. He doesn?t pursue girls as his self-doubt restrains him from making a move. This fear was illustrated using the lines ?In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo?. This allusion to Michelangelo shows that the women in the poem are well-cultured. This intimidates Prufrock, as he feels that he?s not suitable enough compared to Michelangelo, a renowned artist [2].

The allusions in the poem also helped create a definite contrast of Prufrock from other novel characters. The lines below are an allusion to Andrew Marvell?s To His Coy Mistress.

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

In this poem, the speaker tries to persuade his mistress to seize the day. The opening line of this poem ?Had we but world enough, and time,? indicates that there?s not enough time. In contrast, Prufrock does not take a step towards his goal and makes excuses that there?s always time for everything. He repeats the line ?There will be time? to justify his inactions. This indecisiveness and procrastination paralyzes Prufrock from doing what he really wants. ?There will be time? might also be an allusion to Ecclesiastes 3:1?8, containing the line, ?There is a time for everything? [4].

The phrase, ?works and days?, is an allusion to Hesiod?s Works and Days. It is another instance of using allusions to create a distinction between entities. Works and Days advocates the importance of hard work in achieving success [5]. Prufrock, on the other hand, is crippled by his anxiety and remains indecisive. He does not dare make a stance and is forever stuck in his dilemma.

The eternal Footman in the line ?And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,? alludes to death, given his description, ?eternal,? and how the Footman can be seen as a servant who waits and helps people cross the afterlife. The following lines emphasize Prufrock?s paranoia of other people?s thoughts. He even feels that Death would mock his life.

Eliot was influenced by Andrew Marvell and James Cooper. The lines below are mixtures of ?Let us roll all our strength and all. Our sweetness up into one ball? from To His Coy Mistress and ?overwhelming question? from The Pioneers [2]. This act of stealing and recreating has created another work that is different from the original. These lines also show how Prufrock wishes to push himself to do something. However, he thinks it?s not worth doing, since he?s going to fail anyway.

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it towards some overwhelming question,

Using allusions also easily recreates the intended emotions and context from the original writing. For example, Prufrock was compared to John the Baptist, Lazarus and Hamlet. These allusions displays Prufrock?s intense self-depreciation. The following lines ?Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter, / I am no prophet ? and here?s no great matter;? alludes to the Bible. John the Baptist is a prophet whose head was cut off and served as a prize. However, unlike John the Baptist, even when his head is cut off, he thinks that it cannot be even considered as a prize for he feels insignificant [3].

The lines, ?To say: ?I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all ? ? allude to Bible. Lazarus is a figure in the Bible who came back from the dead [2]. This relates to Prufrock as he feels dead. The feeling of being lifeless makes him question if being lively and vigorous is worth it.

The lines below allude to Prince Hamlet. Hamlet relates to Prufrock as both are self-conscious and indecisive individuals. Prufrock, however, is not exceptional compared to Hamlet. He admits he?s more of a side character. He is more akin to Polonius, another allusion to Hamlet. Polonius is an attendant lord and he uses highfalutin words to make himself look smart. They are similar in terms of how they are both restricted to how other people perceives them. Prufrock also thinks that he?s nothing but a court jester, The Fool. This is an allusion to Yorick, a foolish dead man in Hamlet [2].

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,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous ?

Almost, at times, the Fool.

Allusions create context without the need of explanation. The lines ?I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me? are an allusion to the mermaids in Homer?s Odyssey [2]. Mermaids prey on men by luring them to the sea using their voices. The story of mermaids exists to ease the death of seamen by using hallucinations to escape their fear from dying. Prufrock wants to escape his reality, but was pulled back again. This emphasizes how Prufrock continues to be impotent and never moving, and again how little he thinks of himself to not deserve even the story?s mercy.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock tackles a self-conscious Prufrock and his impotency. He expresses how inadequate and unsatisfactory his life turned out through allusions and imageries. This examination within oneself is a recurring theme in modernist literature. Unlike romanticism, modernism does not glorify the state of an individual [6].


[1] ?The Modernist Struggle: Allusions, Images, and Emotions in T. S. Eliot?s Prufrock.? Cpalms,

[2] ?The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock Study Guide.? Cummings Study Guide,

[3] ?The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.? Genius,

[4] ?Ecclesiastes 3:1?8.? BibleGateway,

[5] ?Works and Days.? Encyclopedia Britannica,

[6] ?What Are Characteristics of Modernist Literature, Fiction in Particular?? CliffNotes,


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