Thesis: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell are poems that both depict a need to express love within the limits of Father Time, although the respective manners in which the two poems’ protagonists face the idea of expressing love are complete opposites.
I- Introduction to the Problem: Comparison of the poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell
b. Thesis Statement
II- Discussion of the Poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot
a. What the Poem is About
b. General Theme and Mood
c. Cited Illustration
III- Discussion of the Poem “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell
a. What the Poem is About
b. General Theme and Mood
c. Cited Illustration
IV- Similarities of the Two Poems
a. Similarity in Theme or Subject
b. Similarities in the Protagonist
c. Cited Examples
V- Differences between the Two Poems
a. Differences in Theme and Mood
b. Differences in Protagonist
c. Differences in Treatment of the Topic
d. Quoted Examples from the Poems
a. Summary of Argument
b. Thesis Statement
Love Poems: A Comparative Study
Many styles of love poems have evolved in the long history of poetry making. There are sonnets and ballads; there are love songs. There are poems that are teemed with youth and vigor, or with the promise of eternity. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell are poems that both depict a need to express love within the limits of Father Time, although the respective manners in which the two poems’ protagonists face the idea of expressing love are complete opposites.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is about a middle-aged man who has difficulty expressing his love for any woman because of an inferior self- image. The poem is full of metaphors that visualize the downtrodden feeling that the poem’s protagonist possesses. “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats, of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels, and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells” (Eliot) The imagery in this first portion of the poem shows a man who believes that he belongs to the poor side of town, where the outcasts are usually found. His image of women projects a harsh contrast to his self-image. “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo”. This means that the type of women that he admires enjoy talking about lofty subjects, hence they will not likely talk about, or to him. This poem is written during a time that Eliot was undergoing “religious crisis and a nervous breakdown.” Incidentally, this was also during the early twentieth century when Modernism in poetry was new; it was during this time that irony was usually found in poetry. (Washington State University) It is indeed ironic that the poem is dubbed as a love song but the general mood is pessimistic, instead of romantic. There is no romance going on yet. Prufrock only wants to speak of his love to the woman of his choice. (Vanderbilt University) The poem also generates a more intense feeling of gloom by borrowing a few lines from Dante’s Inferno. This succeeds in depicting the hopelessness felt by the protagonist.
“To His Coy Mistress” is a “Metaphysical poem, in which Marvell’s protagonist woos his lady love with the “attitude” of “Cavalier poets”. (Online Britannica Encyclopedia) It is not religious in subject like other Metaphysical poetry; rather it is secular, and courtier in style. In the poem, a man tries to seduce a young lady, enumerating to her all the advantages of responding to his attentions and offerings of love, and the disadvantages of saying no. He is confident, and very forceful in expressing his desires. “An hundred years should go to praise thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze; Two hundred to adore each breast, but thirty thousand to the rest.” (Marvell) Written in the 17th century, the love poem has some vivid descriptions of making love, especially as it is supposed to be addressed to a maiden. “Thy beauty shall no more be found, nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound my echoing song; then worms shall try that long preserv’d virginity” (Marvell) The suitor tries to persuade the maiden that if she continues playing games, she will die a virgin with only worms to enjoy her beauty. This is a bit presumptuous of the protagonist because he seems to believe that if the maiden does not make love to him, she will not make love to anyone else. He may be the most persevering of her suitors, and may suspect that his lady love is just pretending not to match his affections because of either a respect for propriety or an attempt to become more provocative. Though he appears to be in a rush, he contradicts this urgency by saying “I would love you ten years before the Flood; and you should, if you please, refuse till the conversion of the Jews.” (Marvell) This is as good as saying that he will continue pursuing the lady until the end of the world. (University of Toronto Libraries) The protagonist balances his willingness by constantly reminding the maiden that “but at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near”. (Marvell) Time is still of the essence; the maiden must give in before the grave claims both of them.
The two poems discussed are purported to be love poems, and indeed they both are. Though Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is unconventional, there exists a desire to proclaim love. Not all love stories can be exactly the same; not all love poems can have a happy-ever after ending or can project a tender mood. “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell is a love poem reminiscent of Cavalier poetry where women are addressed frankly. The two poems are also related in their emphasis on time. Marvell’s protagonist uses time as his main basis for argument. He claims that he will pursue the love of the maiden until the end of time. However, he also presents the problems of waiting too long. As mentioned earlier, the suitor presents the maiden with the problem of time. He says that it is better to make love to him than remain a virgin until death. “And your quaint honour turn to dust, and into ashes all my lust. The grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace.” (Marvell)
“He is drawing on the classic topos known as carpe diem, or “seize the day”, closely related to the memento mori, the reminder that we shall all die… Though the memento mori is often employed in a serious context in order to provoke grave thoughts…Marvell uses it here to encourage his mistress to enjoy his love whilst they are still both young and alive.” (Suite101)
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” incorporates time by a repetition of “There will be time.” He repeats this phrase five times in the poem. This may be due to hesitation on his part, or it may be that he is merely enumerating things that he will have time to do. The repetition of the phrase delays the flow of the poem and thus conveys the slow, gloomy movements of
J. Alfred Prufrock. The phrase is also said to be an allusion to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”
Both dubbed as love songs, a reader may expect the point of view of each of the women in question. Nevertheless, both poems do not show the emotions of the lady to which love is offered. The reader does not get to know the response of the “coy mistress” to the overconfident and somewhat indecent proposal, since this is after all an offering to a maiden. Meanwhile, Prufrock has not even confessed his love yet. The reader is given the possible reactions of the lady in question due to Prufrock’s own interpretation of his romantic situation, which is rather dismal. Another similarity between the two love poems is then their being both monologues; one side of the “love affair” is made known to the readers.
The similarities of the two poems have been discussed, but the differences are more evident. The poems are centuries apart, and each represents different eras in poetry. Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” is written in the 17th century, during a time when Metaphysical poetry is quite popular. Meanwhile, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is written in the early 20th century, at the forefront of Modernism. Therefore, without looking at the poems’ themes and stories, the styles are already different from each other. Although both poems are full of metaphors and allusions, “To His Coy Mistress” uses witty monologue, which is often very direct. On the other hand, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is very descriptive in terms of the narrator’s state of being. The reader gets to feel the depressing state of Prufrock, and the strong irony of it being tagged as a love poem. This irony is evocative of Modernism.
Now looking at the protagonists of the poems, who also give the narration or monologue in the poems, the obvious contrasts in their personalities can be noticed. The suitor addressing “his coy mistress” is confident and in high spirits. He presents his love with the assumption that he can be accepted if only his mistress will be true to herself. His proposal is also very bold and insolent; it will only be received well if he were right, and the lady returns his affections, and probably even his desires. Meanwhile, Prufrock has a very low opinion of himself that he cannot bring himself to even confess his love to any woman.
“And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?” (Eliot)
The above quote shows how Prufrock regards women. It also presents his hesitations and fears. The very word “presume” emphasizes his low self-esteem. He has made himself lowly before his image of a lady from an upper class background; this lady is “braceleted,” “white” and perfumed. Prufrock may not have the courage to present his attentions to any woman that he esteems, but his lowly presentation of himself is also a token of utter respect for women, albeit in the extreme.
Yet another difference is in the treatment of love poetry. Marvell’s poem is very similar to courtier’s love songs. Women are addressed to frankly. “To put it in a nutshell, the Mistress is no longer an impossibly chaste Goddess to be wooed with sighs, but a woman who may be spoken to in a forthright fashion. Though the poems written to her may be more important to the writer than she is herself, there is no pretence that this is not the case”. (Luminarium) Eliot’s poem is, on the other hand, an unconventional love poem. There is no real love affair to talk about; Prufrock does not even get to the point of declaring his love due to his many insecurities.
“Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets and watched the smoke that rises from the pipes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…” Prufrock does try to think of how to approach the woman he wants to court, but decides against it.
As a conclusion, the two love poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell may differ in the way that the two suitors behave when in love, but they both recognize the role of time in their declaration. However, while Marvell’s suitor races against time, the low self-esteem of Eliot’s Prufrock delays any type of courtship.
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Luminarium. Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature. 22 October 2007 <http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/cavintro.htm>.
Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.”
Online Britannica Encyclopedia. To His Coy Mistress. 22 October 2007 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/topic-597580/To-His-Coy-Mistress>.
Suite101. British Poetry at Suite 101. 21 October 2007 <http://british-poetry.suite101.com/article.cfm/to_his_coy_mistress_vs_the_flea>.
University of Toronto Libraries. Representative Poetry Online. 21 October 2007 <http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/1386.html>.
Vanderbilt University. 22 October 2007 <http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/english/English151W-03/prufrock.htm>.
Washington State University. T. S. Eliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1919). 22 October 2007 <http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/eliot.html>.