T.S. Eliot (HSC Advanced English Module B)

Uncertainty of Self in T. S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

and “Journey of the Magi”



Uncertainty of Self in T. S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

and “Journey of the Magi”


Thomas Stearns Eliot or more popular as T. S. Eliot is a renowned poem in the modern literature world. He was known to be one of the most innovative and revolutionary poet of the period. Some of his finest literary works include “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Journey of the Magi” which are going to be analyzed in this essay. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a dramatic monologue which is neither a love song nor poem. Adopting the point of view of a middle-class male character, the monologue talked about his bleak environment and continuously rambled about a possible suitor. The work feels deeply personal and sad on one level, but on the other level, it provides the criticism over the modern society. Through its 130 lines, T. S. Eliot had been able to develop the man’s interesting characteristics, including his self-doubt. Meanwhile, the later work talked about the incredible journey of the magi. Interestingly, the magi shared the alienation as well as self doubt of the man from the first monologue. Both poems show the feel of inadequacy of the main characters as well as the hesitancy over a decision in order to verify their inability to take actions.


“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Journey of the Magi” contained Eliot’s exploration on a person’s inner doubts upon an important decision making which showed such a strong sense of personal discomfort although the title may suggest otherwise. At a glimpse, it would seem like the poem is about love and togetherness between a deeply loving couple. Prufrock was constantly worrying about how other people may perceive him. He was also pessimistic about his potential future as well as the world’s. His pessimism reflected on his inability to convey his wish of declaring love to the unnamed woman of his dream. It was his constant self doubt that ceaselessly held him back in professing his love. He was afraid of being ridiculed and imagined that other people perceived him as unattractive in physical appearance. In stanzas: “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair— [They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]” (41) and “My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin— [They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”],” (45), Prufrock showed his groundless insecurities. He repeatedly used the word thin to show that he was not good enough for her dream woman. He felt that he was “thinning” and this also suggested that he felt he started to age more than he should, and that he became less of a man. In fact, Prufrock worried about his physical appearance more than considered on whether or not the woman might love him in return. He felt physically inadequate because the society that he lived in was a society with superficial perspective. However, he did not have the courage and strength to break himself free from such social restraints. He only had the courage to have a personal monologue where no one was listening to reveal his deepest wishes and desires. That is why he questioned himself by asking “Do I dare disturb the universe? (47) and “So how should I presume?” (55). These questions are the devices in which further showing his inability to decide as he kept on questioning himself. He had let his self doubt imprisoned him and restrict his life. And toward the end of the poem, finally, Prufrock no longer doubt himself as he admitted his failures by saying:

“I grow old… I grow old…

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled

“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach?’

As for “The Journey of the Magi,” it was written shortly after T. S. Elliot converted into a Christian as an adult. The poem was one of the literary works being published in the poem collections titled “Ariel Poems.” The book was widely known and awarded by a nobel prize. Generally, the poem was inspired by the Magi from the Bible Matthew 2: 1-12 and his journey, although the two verses were not exactly alike. In the poem, the magi were on a journey to see Christ as an infant. Such a journey was a metaphor of a journey to find the faith in Christ. The journey was long and full of hardship to make them question themselves. Although the journey was done by more than one magus, but the poem adopted the point of view of one of the magi. Even at the start of the poem, the magi said that it was one of the worst times to take on a journey as it was the coldest time of the winter. And shortly after the description of the situation, they said: “There were times we regretted” (7). Showing that although they kept on going with in the journey, but they were constantly asking themselves and their wills faltered at times because of the uncertainty of selves. Moreover, as they were not welcomed in the villages that they visited, they started to envy what they see: “And running away, and wanting their liquor and women” (10). This stanza showed how they wanted what the villagers had and wished that both the women and liquor were theirs. Their chosen ways of lives were not ordinary that many people often alienated them. This is similar to the treatment that Alfred Prufrock received from the society around him. However, the magi had each other while Prufrock was not. Regardless, none of them had the ability to change the world around them as even they themselves were not unfamiliar with the self doubts and uncertainty. All through the journey, he could hear the voices that came from within him saying, “That this was all folly” (17). The voice echoed in his ears when he passed the landscape redolent in the middle of the journey. Even though he had already encountered hardship and put them before him, walked a long way to the spot that he was in, he still questioned if his journey was worth his while or was it just a waste of time. However, unlike in the prior poem, the ending of “The Journey of the Magi” ended up positively and all the sufferings on the journey were paid off. It was like an affirmation that opting a certain belief was not easy. There would be hardships along the way, not only once or twice. However, they were just one of the aspects of life, which needed to be passed in order to reach the ‘destination.’ The hardships were only temptations, tests to challenge the religious beliefs.


The two poems of T. S. Elliot titled “The Love Songs of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Journey of the Magi” shared common theme of self doubt or uncertainty of self. Each of the poems adapts the point of view of the character or one of the characters who are showing their insecurities. Although most of the insecurities originated from within them, but they were also the products of the treatments from the society around them. So, the poems are basically talking about selves, but also the societies around them. The content of the first poem was so unlike the title. It did not show a couple’s deep love toward each other, but Prufrock adoration toward a woman of her dream. However, she did not even know about his feelings as he doubted on confessing his love to her. This was because of his insecurities, especially on his physical appearance. He kept on using the word thin to show that he had aged and he was not a suitable suitor for the woman. In addition, he was also a middle class man who did not possess the abundant material to attract her. Similarly, “The Journey of the Magi” showed that the magi felt that they were being alienated by the society and that the journey was so full of hardship that they constantly question their actions and on whether they should continue on this spiritual journey. The main difference of the two would be the ending. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the main character submitted to the society as he did not have the strength to fight it. While the magi, despite all the uncertainties that they felt, continue to reach their destination to find that the journey was worth their while.


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