Surrealism is a dangerous word to use about the poet, playwright and critic T.S. Eliot, and certainly with his first major work, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock “. Eliot wrote the poem, after all, years before Andre Breton and his compatriots began defining and practicing “surrealism” proper. Andre Breton published his first “Manifesto of Surrealism” in 1924, seven years after Eliot’s publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. It was this manifesto which defined the movement in philosophical and psychological terms. Moreover, Eliot would later show indifference, incomprehension and at times hostility toward surrealism and its precursor Dada.
Eliot’s favourites among his French contemporaries weren’t surrealists, but were rather the figures of St. John Perse and Paul Verlaine, among others. This does not mean Eliot had nothing in common with surrealist poetry, but the facts that both Eliot and the Surrealists owed much to Charles Baudelaire’s can perhaps best explain any similarity “strangely evocative explorations of the symbolic suggestions of objects and images.” Its unusual, sometimes startling juxtapositions often characterize surrealism, by which it tries to transcend logic and habitual thinking, to reveal deeper levels of meaning and of unconscious associations. Although scholars might not classify Eliot as a Surrealist, the surreal landscape, defined as “an attempt to express the workings of the subconscious mind by images without order, as in a dream ” is exemplified in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
“Prufrock presents a symbolic landscape where the meaning emerges from the mutual interaction of the images, and that meaning is enlarged by echoes, often heroic,” of other writers.
The juxtapositions mentioned earlier are evident even at the poem’s opening, which begins on a rather sombre note, with a nightmarish passage from Dante’s Inferno. The main character, Guido de Montefeltro, confesses his sins to Dante, assuming that “none has ever returned alive from this depth”; this “depth” being Hell. As the reader has never experienced death and the passage through the Underworld, he must rely on his own imagination (and/or subconscious) to place a proper reference onto this cryptic opening. Images of a landscape of fire and brimstone come to mind as do images of the two characters sharing a surprisingly casual conversation amid the chaos and the flame.
The nightmarish theme continues as the reader explores the wet, cold and hostile streets of the city, a city which seems to many readers to be on the verge of reality, without ever crossing the line. The evening is “spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table.” With the assumption that the etherised “patient” is asleep, though not naturally and quite uncomfortably, the dream imagery and “corrupted” sense of reality are again evident. Some critics believe that Prufrock’s inability to be a part of society is personified by this “etherised patient.” Like a scene from an apocalyptic film, the streets are dark, dirty and half-deserted, leaving the reader to wonder why the world is as is described by Prufrock.
The reader begins the poem on a dark note but is suddenly thrown into a lyrical couplet that presents a glaring juxtaposition of emotions: “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” From darkened streets to a high-class function, the reader must notice the glaring contrast between the two scenes. Which one represents the reality of Prufrock’s life?
No sooner than the reader witnesses some cleanliness and civility, does Prufrock take us
back to the horror and dream like (nightmare) of the world originally mentioned. The yellow fog which, according to Eliot, is the factory smoke from St. Louis that blew across the Mississippi, is referred as a type of beast, probably a cat. The fog “rubs its back upon the windowpanes, “licks it’s tongue” “made a sudden leap and “Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.” The image of the cat is often used in surrealist, symbolist and fantasy genres. In this poem, the reader may remember the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll’s The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland or Edgar A. Poe’s short story “The Black Cat”. In any case, what would normally be a very real landscape is darkened, bastardized and animated by Prufrock’s descriptions. This un-real dark landscape holds out (with the exception of the Michelangelo’ chorus) until the end, when Prufrock dreams (a dream within a dream?) of “mermaids singing, each to each.”Even though the Edenic, paradisaical marine landscape is Prufrock’s dream, he is still able to darken it by refusing to succumb to its pleasures and choses (or feels compelled) to return to the dark side: “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” The mundane world draws him back.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not generally described as a surrealistic poem, but if the definition of surrealism combines dreams, the un- or sub-consciousness’ and symbolic meaning through objects and imagery, the landscape of the poem may fit this classification. The reader is taken on a journey through the mind and the city of a lonely, bitter and ostracized man named J. Alfred Prufrock. His emotional and social states are reflected through the landscape of the city and the sky above: dark, empty and smothering. Not all surrealistic works are dark like this poem, but the timeless, paradoxical and juxtapositional are what makes “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” surrealistic.