J Alfred Prufrock And The Dramatic Monologue

J. Alfred Prufrock And The Dramatic Monologue Essay, Research Paper

The early examples of dramatic monologue created strong expectations about the genre. This unique type of poetry offers a refreshing change from other types of poetry and intrigues the reader, beckoning an analysis and interpretation of the speaker and his or her character. Two defining early dramatic monologues are; Robert Browning s “My Last Duchess” and Lord Alfred Tennyson s “Ulysses”. These two poems, both written mid-nineteenth century, share many characteristics. Both speak through the voice of a single speaker, to an audience, about a specific situation in a realistic format. These words, in essence, reveal the character of the poetic speaker. The two poems also have notable speakers who hold an important position in the world and are attempting to persuade their listeners. By the time T.S. Eliot arrived on the scene, these conventions of the dramatic monologue were all but set in stone. With “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, written in the twentieth century, Eliot alters the tradition. Eliot redefines the form and expectations of the dramatic monologue set by poets such as Tennyson and Browning. His speaker is average, and there is no audience to persuade. The format is circular as opposed to linear. Eliot uses the subversion of two aspects of dramatic monologue (i.e. the speaker and the audience) to support the third aspect of the poem (i.e. the character). Eliot offers this subverted format in order to emphasize the solitude of the speaker and the isolation of his message from an audience.

The main focus of the dramatic monologue is the speaker. The speaker represents one of the three traditional conventions for the genre. The poem should be uttered by a single speaker who is clearly not the poet, and the utterance [should take] place in a specific situation at a critical moment” (RP 175). This criteria can be easily seen as the most distinctive feature of the dramatic monologue. For example, in “The Last Duchess”, the speaker is a Duke who is clearly not Tennyson, he is specifically in his house showing a paining of his last wife before negotiating a marriage to a new wife. The storyline takes place very realistically, as if we (the readers) are somehow eavesdropping on the Duke at that moment in his life.

In contrast, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has a speaker who is not necessarily revealed (aside from the title). In other dramatic monologues the speaker holds an important social position. Here, J. Alfred Prufrock does not represent an important figure. Prufrock states himself that “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be” (111). This oversteps the boundaries created by other poems. The tone of the speaker also covertly defies the tone of other dramatic monologue. In “The Last Duchess”, the Duke says “Nay, we ll go down together..” (53) in a very forward way. In “Prufrock”, the speaker repeatedly questions “So how should I presume…And how should I begin?” (54,69) in an indecisive way. While the tradition shows a forward and confident speaker, Prufrock is anything but confident.

Similarly, the situation in “Prufrock” is not specific. Although the first stanza suggests a specific occasion, later on Eliot jumps back and forth through different streams of consciousness. The poem starts with “a soft October night” (21) and ends in the “chambers of the sea” (129). The story does not follow the realistic progress of an event. Instead, Prufrock refers to “the women …talking of Michaelangelo” (13-14) a number of times throughout the poem. Along with this reference, there are a number of repeated references, including the faltering questions he asks throughout the poem. The “non-linearity” of the poem rejects the traditional guidelines of the dramatic monologue. Instead of some critical moment the speaker generally speaks of what comes to mind. While both Tennyson and Browning s poems refer to a present situation, the speaker reminisces on his past. Almost all the wording in the poem refers to the past. In fact, there are no overwhelming clues as to the setting of the poem at all. The poem instead discusses different situations, such as a foggy night, a social occasion, a wriggling bug, greatness passed, regrets felt, humanity, mermaids and old age. Many of the speaker and situation guidelines set by past poems were, in turn, subverted in “Prufrock”.

The second feature of the dramatic monologue is the audience. This is the feature which forces the reader to become immersed in the poems and find answers to lingering questions. In this aspect of dramatic monologue, “the speaker addresses and interacts with one or more auditors, although this is revealed only by what the single speaker says” (RP 175). In Tennyson s “Ulysses”, the speaker repeatedly refers to “we” and “you and I” throughout the poem. He beckons them, saying “Come, my friends/ Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (56). This is the textual evidence revealed in the poem which alludes to the audience. In the poem, Ulysses speaks to fellow seamen and tries to persuade them to come away on another journey. This brings to the forefront another related aspect which is not necessarily a feature of all dramatic monologue, but is found in many poems of this genre. Ulysses tries to persuade the seamen to come away with him, and the Duke tries to persuade the listener of his greatness and expectations. The poems are an attempt to coerce the listener. Furthermore, to persuade the listener, the speaker must not only “address” them, but “interact” with them.

In Eliot s poem, all these expectations are unfulfilled. Prufrock says in the first stanza “Let us go then, you and I” (1), yet aside from this beginning, there is very little textual evidence to support a listener at all, let alone evidence to tell the reader who the listener is. There is no evidence of any interaction with a listener, Prufrock only continues speaking without a particular focus or response from any auditor. The strongest piece of evidence for this concept does not lie in the poem itself but in its epigraph. The epigraph states:

“If I thought I spoke to someone who would return to the world, this flame would tremble no longer. But if what I hear is true, since no one has ever returned alive from this place, I can answer you without fear of infamy” (From Dante s Inferno)

The lost tone of the epigraph foreshadows that the listener, if any, is remote, and that the message was supposed to be lost. This contradicts the unofficial tradition of persuasion in dramatic monologue. If Prufrock never intended on anyone hearing what he has to say, there is no way he can be attempting to convince someone of his ideas. The poem suggests, instead, that Prufrock is talking to himself. Although he occasionally uses the pronoun “we”, the poem does not reveal who this audience is, and its connection to Prufrock. This second feature of the dramatic monologue is also subverted by Eliot.

The third feature, however, is present in the poem. “The speaker s utterance reveals his or her character to the reader” (RP 175). This comprises the last traditional aspect of the dramatic monologue. In essence, the subversion of the other two aspects reinforces Eliot s character portrayal of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is a weak man, seemingly incapable of making decisions, and afraid of the world around him. He says:

And, in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,…

If one, setting a pillow by her head,

Should say; “That is not what I meant at all;

That is not it, at all.” (86-98)

Prufrock fears judgment from society, so he isolates himself from the world. He accepts his lower station in life, yet is saddened that he has “heard the mermaids singing” (124) and knows that they will not sing to him. The tradition of a speaker who holds a high and important position in life serves to exacerbate the average qualities of Prufrock. Although Ulysses and the Duke may not be as heroic as they think convey they are, they were confident in their decisions. On the other hand, Prufrock made almost no decisions. He says that “In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (47), and shows his own doubt and fear of making any forward moves. This weakness is fitting since there is no audience for Prufrock to persuade. Even if Prufrock were attempting to persuade, he has no focused message to convey. The format of the poem serves to show Prufrock s isolation, since he has no audience. Since dramatic monologue traditionally has an audience, the effect is that much greater. Although the genre generally deals with a “specific situation at a critical moment” (RP 175), Prufrock s logic is circular and unrealistic. In comparison with other dramatic monologues, these differences are magnified.

After close analysis of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the reader may wonder if it was all some colossal mistake. Maybe Eliot never intended for this to be a dramatic monologue. Instead, however, it shows the creative genius of the man. Eliot manipulated the conventions of dramatic monologue to further support his characterization of Prufrock. By twisting the speaker, situation and audience of the poem, Eliot illustrates the speaker s persona. He worked within the structure to show the weak, anti-social, isolated, pathetic Prufrock not only by words, but by a subversion of a long-lived tradition in dramatic monologue.


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