The editors of anthologies containing T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” invariably footnote the reference to Lazarus as John 11:1-44; rarely is the reference footnoted as Luke 16:19-31. Also, the reference to John the Baptist is invariably footnoted as Matthew 14:3-11; never have I seen the reference footnoted as an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s Salome. The sources that one cites can profoundly affect interpretations of the poem. I believe that a correct reading of Eliot’s “Prufrock” requires that one cite Wilde, in addition to Matthew, and Luke, in addition to John, as the sources for the John the Baptist and Lazarus being referenced. Furthermore, the citation of these sources can help explain Eliot’s allusion to Dante’s Guido da Montefeltro.
By a correct reading of “Prufrock,” I mean a reading consistent with the central theme of the poet’s belief made mute because the poet lives in a culture of unbelief–that is, the “silence” of the poetic vision in modernity. Prufrock renounces his inherited, romantic role as “poet as prophet” and renounces poetry’s role as a successor to religion. The future of poetry may have once been immense, but that future no longer exists for Prufrock, who is faced not only with the certainty of the rejection of his poetic vision but also with a situation in which there are no grounds for rhetoric: “That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all.” Fear of rejection leads Prufrock to the ultimate silencing of the prophet and hero within himself, to being “a pair of ragged claws.” He cannot share his poetic vision of life: to do so would threaten the very existence of that life. Paradoxically, not to share his light, his “words among mankind,” threatens the loss …
…ince none has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy.” Guido has no fear of answering all of Dante’s questions–of letting his flame shine forth. Prufrock, on the other hand, lives with his light entombed in the dark hell of his own fear of rejection: he cannot share his “love song.” He says, in effect, A prophet is never honored in his own time; therefore, this prophet shall remain silent. He says, in effect, Lazarus wasn’t sent back from the dead–because you already have your prophets. So what need have you of me? The labyrinth of his own “love song” is the hell that Prufrock is certain no one of us will escape. His silence is assured.
Works CitedEliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in An Introduction to Literature. Ed Sylvan Barnet et al. 13 ed. New York: Longman. 2004. 937-940.