T. S. Eliot’s self-described “drama of literary anguish” portrays the social and sexual frustration of a man obsessed with his own inadequacy. Begun in 1910 (when he was 22) and published in 1915, “Prufrock” was Eliot’s breakout masterpiece and almost certainly an expression of his own anxieties: he reported that he was still a virgin at age 26. More than that, the poem reflects a search for authenticity, connection, and the courage to take control of one’s path in life. Arguably, it’s a poem about existentialism and the conundrum of our fate.
No definitive source for the title character’s name has been identified, although there was a Prufrock-Litton furniture store in St. Louis, Missouri at the time Eliot lived there. Comic and fussy-sounding, “Prufrock” seems to combine echoes of “prudishness” and the “frock” of a priest (suggesting primness, religiosity, or abstinence). A “frock” is also a type of dress. The poem’s claim to be a “love song” is ironic. It contains no mention or evidence of love, and “the women” it describes are distant, seemingly pretentious figures—reflections of Prufrock’s repressed sexual desire and of his failure to assert his authentic self.
The poem has had a major impact on subsequent literature and pop culture, from Nick Carraway’s anxieties about aging in The Great Gatsby to the Eliot quotations peppering Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now to the 1995 Crash Test Dummies hit “Afternoons & Coffeespoons,” all the way to John Green’s YA bestseller The Fault in Our Stars, in which Hazel Grace quotes the first and last stanzas. In 2015 one writer for The Atlantic even credited the poem with inventing the hipster.