Allusion in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Dante: Eliot was a lifelong reader and lover of the work of Dante Alighieri. Eliot opens “Prufrock” with an epigraph drawn from the 27th canto of Dante’s Inferno. In Inferno, the quoted lines are spoken by the character Guido da Montefeltro, a fraudulent politician condemned to hell. Guido agrees to tell his shameful story to Dante because he believes that Dante will never escape hell to spread word of it. J. Alfred Prufrock resembles Guido da Montefeltro in divulging his neuroses, insecurities, and sins. Prufrock’s sense of personal insignificance—“I am… an easy tool / Deferential, glad to be of use”—fuels his willingness to share.

Michelangelo: The couplet “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” forms a sort of refrain. It appears twice in the poem, always as a stand-alone stanza. The humorous meter and clear end-rhyme give the couplet a lighthearted tone. The reference to Michelangelo is intended to illustrate the banal conversations in which Prufrock finds himself. The talk seems to be shallow, with the breezy name-dropping of famous artists.

Hamlet: In one passage, Prufrock envisions himself as a character in a Shakespearean play. As he observes, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord.” On one level, the allusion shows Prufrock’s modest self-image. He admits that he does not possess Hamlet’s grandiosity and self-importance. He feels more akin to a Fool, a side character who “start[s] a scene or two.” Yet Prufrock is Hamlet-esque in his self-consciousness and his attraction to existential quandaries. Early in the poem, Prufrock mentions “an overwhelming question” that he never states. As the poem unfolds, it seems viable that Prufrock’s big, burning question is similar to Hamlet’s: “To be or not to be? That is the question.”

Allusion Examples in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 6
"no prophet..."   (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Eliot alludes to John the Baptist, a Biblical proponent of chastity who was supposedly beheaded at the request of King Herod’s wife, who displayed his head on a platter. Notice how Prufrock continues to denigrate himself by unfavorably comparing his own bald head to that of John the Baptist, stating that he is no such heroic figure, and his situation “no great matter.”

"works and days..."   (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Eliot references “Works and Days” by the Greek poet Hesiod. In this didactic poem written in the 8th-century BCE, a farmer instructs his brother in how to live his life, urging him to work as hard as he himself does. Prufrock imagines other hands working harder than his own, leaving him time for a “hundred indecisions” and “visions and revisions” before he must ask the “overwhelming question.”

"I am Lazarus..."   (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Lazarus of Bethany, aka Saint Lazarus, was purportedly raised from the dead by Jesus, who was a great friend of his. In the context of the poem, this allusion suggests that Prufrock either thinks or once thought of himself as a dead man, but that his love interest changes that. This unfortunately doesn't help with his social anxiety.

"Prince Hamlet..."   (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Prince Hamlet is the titular character of Shakespeare's famous play. In spite of his melancholy and his tendency toward dramatic monologue, Prufrock does not believe himself to be worthy of a starring role in life, instead relegating himself to a supporting, subservient role as an attendant lord.

"Talking of Michelangelo..."   (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Michelangelo was a famous Renaissance painter and sculptor whose most famous works include the "Statue of David" and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That these women are discussing Michelangelo suggests that the poem's speaker has left the red-light district.

"Let us go and make our visit..."   (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Notice how Eliot uses repetition in the poem to emphasize Prufrock's intellect. He wanders through the poem much as he does the dirty streets of the red-light district, bringing in images and allusions that aren't organic to the setting but are organic to his experience of it.