Like many modernist writers, Eliot wanted his poetry to express the fragile psychological state of humanity in the twentieth century. The passing away of Romantic and Victorian ideals, and the trauma of World War I challenged cultural notions of masculine identity, causing artists to question the romantic literary ideal of a visionary-poet capable of changing the world through verse. Modernist writers wanted to capture their transformed world, which they perceived as fractured and alienated.
Eliot saw society as paralyzed and wounded, and he imagined that culture was crumbling and dissolving. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917) demonstrates this sense of indecisive paralysis as the titular speaker wonders whether he should eat a piece of fruit, make a radical change, or if he has the fortitude to keep living. Humanity’s collectively damaged psyche prevented people from communicating with one another, an idea that Eliot explored in many works, including “A Game of Chess” (the second part of The Waste Land) and “The Hollow Men.”
Modernism was in many ways a rejection of Romanticism, which often used nature as a setting, or even a subject. Nature was often used to express the emotions of the author, or to stand in as a symbol or metaphor. Many modernist works used an urban or a realistic setting. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" uses both. The city is full of "yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes." It lingers on pools of water in the streets and is covered in "soot that falls from chimneys." Inside, the poem takes place in busy drawing rooms and ball rooms. Nature is only present when in the narrator's imagined sequences, which typically involve being rejected or lost.
One of the characteristics of modernism is that it struggled with questions of self and identity. However, unlike Romantic (and Victorian) poetry, its chief concern was not the expression of emotion. Rather, modernist writers were interested in larger questions of self and meaning in a universal context. In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the narrator struggles with questions of meaning within not only the society, but also existence itself. He wonders, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" and assures himself that there will be "time for all the works and days of hands." At the same time, the narrator brings objectivity to the questions, making them not about a subjective experience but a universal one. The questions in the poem concern meaning in the face of mortality.
Closely related to the questions of self in modernist works was a sense of alienation. Without that strong sense of meaning, many authors expressed a sense of being disconnected. This is one of the central themes of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The narrator is a passive observer. Though he talks of visits and parties, and says that he has "known them all already, known them all," the tone is one of an outsider, watching the action happen around him but not feeling a part of it. He imagines walking on the beach and hearing the mermaids singing, but laments "I do not think that they will sing to me." He questions whether he should have been "a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."
From the French Symbolists, Eliot takes his sensuous language and eye for unnerving or anti-aesthetic detail that nevertheless contributes to the overall beauty of the poem. The second defining characteristic of this poem is its use of fragmentation and juxtaposition. Eliot’s use of bits and pieces of formal structure suggests that fragmentation, although anxiety-provoking, is nevertheless productive. Prufrock’s soliloquy is an expression of aesthetic ability and sensitivity that seems to have no place in the modern world. Because of this realistic, anti-romantic outlook, "Prufrock" is an incredibly innovative and important poem which is a complete breaking away from the conventional tradition of poetry.