In the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T. S. Elliot uses a vast amount of symbolism to depict the fantasy feelings of his character. Of the many he chooses, I feel the epigraph is the most important in setting the overall feeling of J. Alfred Prufrock. T. S. Elliot chose to take the lines, spoken by the character of Count Guido da Montefelltro from Dante’s “Inferno,” and use them as the epigraph to his poem. In this story, Dante meets the punished Guido in the Eighth chasm of Hell.
Guido explains that he is speaking freely to Dante only because he believes Dante is one of the dead who could never return to earth to report what he says. Translated from the original Italian, the lines are as follows: “If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy” (pg. 31).
J. Alfred Prufrock, the speaker of this ironic monologue, is a modern, urban man who, like many of his kind, feels isolated and incapable of decisive action. The use of this epigraph suggests that Prufrock is one of the damned and that he speaks only because he is sure no one will listen, yet at the same time is unable to speak of the love he feels for the woman. Since the reader is overhearing his thoughts, the poem seems at first rather incoherent.
But Prufrock repeats certain phrases and returns to certain core ideas as the poem progresses. The “you and I” of the opening line includes the reader, suggesting that only by accompanying Prufrock can one understand his fears and problems with intimacy. Throughout the poem Prufrock imagines his arrival, his attempt to converse intimately with the woman whose love he seeks, and his ultimate failure to make her understand him.
Prufrock has attended such parties many times and knows how it will be, and this knowledge makes him hesitate out of fear that any attempt to push beyond simple polite conversation, to make some claim on the woman’s affections, will meet with a frustratingly polite refusal. Prufrock would like more than anything to speak of love to this woman, but he does not dare. Deciding not to try, Prufrock questions whether his efforts would have been worthwhile. He excuses his fear by rationalizing that his speaking to the woman would not have achieved any real response.