T. S. Eliot’s ‘Obscurity’ in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Longxing Wei


T. S. Eliot's earliest verse is composed of observations, detached, ironic, and alternatively disillusioned and nostalgic in tone. Eliot's mingling of subtle observation with unexpected cliché represents a difficulty that is often magnified because too much 'obscurity' is assumed. This paper aims at clarifying the 'obscurity' by means of a stylistic analysis of the linguistic devices that the poet used to create "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and its intended meaning. Adopting the concept of style as 'foregrounding', the idea that style is constituted by departures from linguistic norms, it analyzes the poem in terms of its lexical foregrounding, and adopting the concept of style as 'choice', the idea that style is constituted by choices of linguistic devices, it analyzes the poem in terms of its syntactic choices. It claims that it is the systematic foregrounding or violation of the norm of the standard which makes possible the poetic utilization of language. Without seeing foregrounding as a poet's linguistic device, there could be no poetry for the poet or no possible understanding of poems for the reader. It also claims that stylistically significant syntactic choices by the poet serve effectively the intended meaning.



Stylistic, linguistic, style, lexical, foregrounding, syntactic, symbolic, mental

Full Text:



Aitchison, J. (1994). Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Berlyne, D. E. (1960). Conflict, arousal, and curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Carter, R., & Walter, N. (1990). Seeing through language: A guide to styles of English writing. Oxford: Blackwell.

Drew, E. (1949). T. S. Eliot: The design of his poetry. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Eliot, T. S. (1933). The use of poetry and the use of criticism. London: Faber and Faber.

Eloit, T. S. (1951). Selected essays. London: Faber and Faber.

Gardner, H. (1949). The art of T. S. Eliot. London: The Cresset Press.

Garner, B. A. (2001). Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York: Oxford University Press.

Grant, M. (Ed.) (1982). T. S. Eliot: The critical heritage Vol. 1. London: Melbourne and Henley.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1971). Linguistic function and literary style: An inquiry into the language of William Golding’s The Inheritors. In S. Chatman (ed.), Literary style: A symposium (pp. 330-365). London and New York: Oxford University Press.

Holme, R. (2004). Mind, metaphor and language teaching. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jakobson, R. (1987a). “Post scriptum” to questions de poetique. In R. Jakobson (ed.), Raboty po poetike [Works on poetics] (pp. 80-95). Moscow: Progress.

Jakobson, R. (1987b). Linguistics and poetics. In R. Jakobson (ed.), Language in literature (pp. 62-94). Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Kempson, R. M. (Ed.) (1988). Mental representations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Turner, M. (1989). More than cool reason: A field guide to poetic metaphor. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Leech, G. N. (1989). A linguistic guide to English poetry. Hong Kong: Longman.

Leech, G. N., & Short, M. H. (1981). Style in fiction: A linguistic introduction to English fictional prose. London: Longman.

Lentricchia, F. (1994). Modernist quartet. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lotman, Y. M. (1994). Lekcii po struktural’noj poetike [Lectures on structural poetics]. In A. D. Koshelev (ed.), Y. M. Lotman I tartusko-moskovskaia semioticheskaria shekola [Y. M. Lotman and the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School] (pp. 11-246). Moscow: Gnozis.

Mandel, O. (1998). Fundamentals of the art of poetry. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Miall, D. S., & Kuiken, D. (1994). Beyond text theory: Understanding literary response. Discourse Processes, 17(3), 337-352.

Mukařovský, J. (1932). Standard language and poetic language. In P. L. Garvin (ed.) (1964), A Prague School reader on esthetics, literary structure and style (pp. 17-30). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Shannon, C. E. (1948). A mathematical theory of communication. Bell System Technical Journal, 27(3), 379-423.

Shklovsky, V. (1917). Art as device. In L. T. Lemon and M. J. Reis (eds.) (1965), Russian formalist criticism: Four essays (pp. 3-24). Lincoln: Nebraska University Press.

Tannen, D. (1989). Talking voices: Repetition, dialogue, and imagery in conversational discourse. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Toolan, M. J. (1988). Narrative: A critical linguistic introduction. London: Routledge.

Toolan, M. J. (1990). The stylistics of fiction: A literary linguistic approach. New York: Routledge.

Turner, G. W. (1987). Stylistics. New York: Viking Penguin.

Van Peer, W., Hakemulder, J., & Zyngier, S. (2007). Lines on feeling: Foregrounding, aesthetics and meaning. Language and Literature, 16(2), 197-213.

Ward, D. (1973). T. S. Eliot between two worlds: A reading of T. S. Eliot’s poetry and plays. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Weber, J. J. (Ed.) (1996). The stylistics reader: From Roman Jakobson to the present. Bew York: Arnold.

Williamson, G. (1974). A reader’s guide to T. S. Eliot. New York: Octagon Books.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.7575/aiac.ijalel.v.5n.4p.38


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

2012-2022 (CC-BY) Australian International Academic Centre PTY.LTD

International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature

To make sure that you can receive messages from us, please add the journal emails into your e-mail 'safe list'. If you do not receive e-mail in your 'inbox', check your 'bulk mail' or 'junk mail' folders.