Irony implies the contrast between what is apparent and what is actual. This is a literary device to bring out or expose the grim fact that lies under a romantic or attractive gloss of a particular character, situation, or matter. The author is found to have recourse here to the presentation of the contradiction between what is believed as real and what really is. This irony consists, in Hudson’s language, ‘the contrast between the two aspects of the same thing.’ Sarcasm, on the other hand, has a straight, rather direct, statement meant for exciting contempt or ridicule. The purpose is to hurt or attack.
In his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“, T.S.Eliot, however, is found to have extensive use of irony to communicate his theme of hesitation, indecision, and frustration in an environment entirely incongenial. Both in the theme and in the title of the poem, there is the suggestive ironic representation of the poet to bring out the seamy, sordid, squalid state in modern urban life.
Prufrock’s song, in fact, though titled as a love song, is no conventional song of love. He differs from the conventional warm-hearted lover of Astrophel and Stella and Amoretti or even of Shakespearean sonnet series. His love has actually no beginning, no middle, and no end. He seems to have no real feeling, no actual intent, no exact purpose. It is doubtful whether he is a serious lover or a man, seeking love as a refuge from the exhaustion of the mechanical urban life of modern times. In reality, he seems to be a resident of a modern metropolis, without any stamina, determination, and strength of purpose.
Prufrock is actually a modern man, a middle-aged average modern man, without any robust personality, steadiness or determination in his plan or purpose. He is rather a neurotic character, created in the urban environment, one who feels easily confused, bewildered, helpless, and not certain of his actual intention or the objective of his pursuit. Prufrock is truly no eager lover, with an intense share in the passion or pang of love. On the other hand, he is an unsteady intellectual of modern metropolitan life, who is prompted to weigh every issue carefully and not responsive to the spontaneity of his emotion, has desires and inclinations, even romantic, but lacks courage and conviction for any bold venture or prompt execution.
Indeed, Alfred Prufrock, as Eliot presents him, is a typical modern man who sees and knows thoroughly well modern life, with all its emptiness, sophistication, and insignificance. The triviality and vanity of this life are patents to him and he has neither any illusion about nor any attachment to this life. Like an over-conscious, rather a despondent intellectual, Prufrock, under the oppressive environment of modern metropolitan life, thinks of himself as a sort of worm, wriggling on the wall. The insignificance of his life is frankly admitted and his narrow approach to this life is heard in his frank confession-“I have measured my life with coffee spoons”.
Prufrock as a dweller of urban civilization, is, as already indicated, unambitious, rather cowardly, and has no venturesome spirit. He is well conscious of his physical debility and personal limitations and prefers to remain in a state of uncertainty than to run after a big venture and receive a shock as an effect. As a matter of fact, he lacks the vigour of a mind to undertake the stress and strain of eventuality and chooses to evade rather than to act, to postpone, rather than to dare. This consciousness of his own deficiency follows from the deficient environment in which he is forced to live.
Indeed, Prufrock’s monologues serve to reveal the hollowness of modern life, with all its artificiality and insignificance. As an average modern man, as drawn by Eliot, Prufrock is found to suffer from indecision and irresolution, and that is found in the constant repetitions of his love song. In fact, the entire monologue is a penetrative account of an average modern man’s sense of indecision, hesitation and tendency to evasion. There is not the slightest impulse of love, nor anything of passionate attachment to make Prufrock’s monologue a song of love. The whole situation exposes the ironic contradiction, inherent in modern metropolitan living to which Prufrock is a pathetic prey.
The title of the poem, which is quite patent, has little to affirm Eliot’s subject matter. The term “Love Song” has actually an ironic application, whereas the situation is more psychological than physical. What the poet speaks to present here is the emptiness of the human feeling of love and the lack of spontaneity in human emotion in the incongenial environmental effect of modern urban life to which Prufrock belongs. This is, too, ironical in its implication.
The portrait of Eliot’s hero Prufrock is equally ironical in effect. Prufrock is presented as a middle-aged, neurotic dandy, with a split personality, and the two aspects of his personality are marked in the two pronominal terms ‘l’ and ‘you’. His love song, no doubt, is expressive of his latent desire, but it is never sung and remains rather a silent lament of his own ineptitude and incompetence, The poem is his interior monologue and no intimate declaration of his love. He wishes to propose for love and marriage but is unsure of how is to do this and, perhaps, too, to whom. He yearns, no doubt, for love, but is, too, passive, timid and apprehensive, to win this. He lacks the courage and personality to face the scrutinizing eyes of the fashionable ladies. He is, as he admits, afraid, and he is aware, too, ironically of his lack of stamina to confront an ordeal, So he prefers to turn back, after all his plans of proposing. He has the fascinating vision of the mermaids singing each to each, but, ironically enough, he is definite that they will not sing to him. The irony in his lot is too glaring in the sharp contrast between his ideality and reality.
But this is not all. The element of irony is patent not merely in the theme, title, or the portrait of the protagonist, but also in the very contrast so distinctly marked in the whole treatment. There is a surprising juxtaposition of seriousness and levity, of genuineness and pretense. In course of his journey through the half-deserted streets, Prufrock has the experience of the fashionable ladies talking lightly of the master artist Michael Angelo. The utter hypocrisy of the so-called high society is here ironically exposed. The reference to the ancient Greek author, ‘Herod’ implies a contrast between a hard industrious life of a farmer and Prufrock’s life of passivity and inactivity. Again, the mingling of the grandiose with the trivial is quite trenchant in Prufrock’s oft-quoted admission-
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
The sickliness and triviality of modern life are all decisive here. Eliot’s sarcasm is marked here as in elsewhere, In fact, this is discernible all through the poem as in the poet’s presentation of his hero’s dandyism that bears out what is actually ludicrous in this middle-aged, bald-headed, thin-legged, mediocre person :
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Also read; Main Theme of the poem”Marina” by T.S.Eliot