T.S. Eliot's first professionally published poem was "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", in which Eliot narrates the experience of a character named J. Alfred Prufrock. Similarly, Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" is about Mauberley's failure (actually Pound's own self) as a poet. Are the names of these two characters completely arbitrary? It seems quite strange that these two contemporary poets used such a long and unconventional (in today's sense) name for their poems.


1 Answer 1


According to Christopher Ricks (Eliot, T. S. Inventions of the March Hare), in his drafts of the poem T. S. Eliot subtitled it Prufrock among the Women. And an article in the Kipling Journal of 1959, The Unfading Genius of Rudyard Kipling, reports Eliot saying 'The Love Song of' came from Rudyard Kipling's poem The Love Song of Har Dyal.

Eliot admitted, some years after writing Prufrock, that although he hadn't realized it at the time, he must have got the name from the Prufrock-Littau Company, a St Louis furniture store, who had advertised in the December 1912 edition of a local literary weekly less than three years before the poem was published. Eliot was born in St. Louis.

George Monteiro observed that if the name were to be split prüf-rock, and read as proof-rock it would mean the same as touchstone: a stone used to test the genuineness of gold, or 'a standard or criterion by which something is judged or recognized.' [Lexico] And Touchstone, the fool in As You Like It, performs that function: testing the worth of both court fashions and Arcadian ideals. So too, says Monteiro, does Prufrock, "at times playing the Shakespearean touchstone of hard reality."

If Touchstone had ever seen himself objectively he too might have admitted,

[I am] an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool

There are similarities.

Touchstone procures two pages to sing his love song to Audrey, then tells them, "Though there was no great matter in the ditty[...] I count it but time lost to hear such a foolish song.[...] God mend your voices!" Prufrock's love song is addressed to nobody.

Alas! I am unable to furnish you with any information about Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.

  • There's also the association of the name. J Alfred Prufrock. J is likely "John", perhaps also his father's name, but Prufrock wishes to be something more. But "J Alfred" ends up reading as pretentious. It's part of a theme of pretension and failure: the overblown title, the Italian preface, the allusions to timidity in the face of sex ("do I dare eat a peach"!). The genius of Eliot is in hinting just enough rather than going too far (eg: "J Alfred Prufrock III, Esq" would be too much), so the style reinforces the theme.
    – vk5tu
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 12:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.