Analyse F.R. Leavis’ description of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ as being ‘a complete break with the nineteenth-century tradition’.

In 1932 F. R. Leavis described Prufrock as ‘a complete break with the nineteenth-century tradition, and a new start.’[1] Certainly Prufrock is written in a distinctly modern form. The metre is languid and complex, open to variation and interruption, sometimes hesitant, and sometimes abrupt. The poem is misleading, setting up certain expectations, and then subverting them. The famous opening lines:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;[2]

subvert the reader’s expectations of both form and content. The fairly conventional opening couplet is followed by the unusual image of an etherized patient, which also breaks up the series of couplets which make up the rest of the stanza. While John Stuart Mill’s described of poetry as ‘overheard speech,’[3] can often be  readily applied to nineteenth-century poetry; Prufrock is better described as overheard inner speech,[4] fragments of thoughts, dream, and memory shifting in and out of focus, held in delicate balance. Prufrock himself has been described as not so much a character, as a consciousness; rising and falling.[5] An interest in the internal voices and struggles of characters is a common theme in modernist writing, as opposed to nineteenth century descriptions of the external challenges characters face.[6]

                However, although the poem is overtly modernist in its form and themes, Prufrock is not without its ties to tradition. Throughout the poem, Eliot makes reference to a wide variety of literature, including works by Dante, Shakespeare, Hesiod, Ecclesiastes, Marvell and Donne, Chaucer and The Gospels.[7] When Eliot refers to a ‘simultaneous order’[8] of literary tradition in Tradition and the Individual Talent these works are all part of the canon of literature he is referring to. Eliot’s use of quotation has been described as a way of connecting his poetry to tradition.[9]  Quotation may be used either to defer to the sources authority, or to subvert it through mockery. Eliot’s use of quotation is interesting as it is often highly ambiguous whether he is intending to defer to or subvert the authority of the literature he quotes; and in fact often appears to be doing one whilst doing the other.[10] His poetry at times appears both conforming, and aggressively challenging tradition.

[1] F.R Leavis, “‘Prufrock’, ‘Portrait of a Lady’, ‘Gerontion’ (1932),” in “Prufrock”, “Gerontion”, Ash Wednesday and Other Shorter Poems: A Casebook, ed. by B.C Southam (London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1978), pp. 119–127 (p. 119).

[2] Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems, p. 3.

[3] John Stuart Mill, “Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties,” Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (The University of Texas) [accessed 5 November 2013].

[4] Hammer.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jeremy Hawthorn, Studying the Novel, 4th edn (London: Arnold, 2001), p. 60.

[7] B.C Southam, ed., A Student’s Guide to The Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, 4th edn (London: Faber & Faber, 1981), pp. 39–43.

[8] Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, p. 38.

[9] Hammer.

[10] Ibid.

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