To qualify as “great”, a performance in any art needs a great audience, i.e., an audience which exercises power in cultural and political terms, and it needs a great subject. When Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, there was adult male suffrage with universal primary education, but no radio or television and scarcely any cinema: print was then still the only medium in which it was possible to address a great audience, so verse was still in with a chance which no longer exists. The poem itself addresses the subject of “greatness” and the fear of confronting it, which must by any reckoning count as a great (i.e., culturally central) subject: “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker … And in short, I was afraid.” In its time, Eliot’s poem was bidding for, and (I think) achieved, a greatness that children of an electronic culture would mostly find difficult to grasp.
Through the figure of Prufrock, Eliot dramatizes an action of timeless significance in modern terms. We hear the voice of a character who with increasing desperation senses the approach of a general disaster whose dimensions he can dimly discern, but which, however sensitive and sophisticated he may be, he lacks the courage or the energy to confront. The poem is relatively brief, – much shorter than most short stories, – its subject-matter intensely compressed, its expression elegant, witty and sophisticated, its rhythms strong, but subtle, making it eminently memorable and quotable; its observation is vivid and it makes startlingly new and brilliant use of familiar poetic forms.
“Prufrock” is about a state of mind that is by implication widely shared, so that the poem becomes a diagnosis of the state of a civilization from a particular perspective, and in that sense offers itself as prophetic. The philosophical point of the poem is that, if, as time passes, we want to gain rather than lose our sense of coherent direction and purpose in life, we mustn’t give ourselves excuses or succumb to cynicism, but, like Eliot himself, accept the challenge, even though failure is all but certain, to match up to the greatest examples our culture has to offer.