The Confessions of Prufrock and Guido

Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has for an epigraph a quotation from Dante’s Inferno 27, on the lips of Guido da Montefeltro: “S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse / A persona che mai tornasse al mondo, / Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse. / Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo. / Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero, / Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.” (If I believed that my response were to anyone who would ever return to the world, this flame would no longer flicker. But because no one ever returns alive from this pit, if I hear the truth, I answer you without fear of infamy.”)

Three things to note about this epigraph: first, it suggests that Prufrock’s confession, like Guido’s, takes place in hell, though a hell of solipsism, of isolation. Second, the epigraph suggests that Prufrock’s confession, like Guido’s, is given only because he believes that no one will be able to understand it. (He dares not disturb the universe — he is trapped within himself.) The poem is thus a kind of performative self-contradiction. Third, and most speculatively, if we attend to the rest of the canto (“widen the aperture of the allusion,” as Thomas Pfau put it to me), further echoes rise to the surface. When Dante and Virgil first encounter him, Guido’s voice from within his flame is but “a sound confused,” his words unintelligible. And “Prufrock” repeatedly returns to the impossibility of communication: there are the ladies who demur, “That is not at all what I mean,” and then Prufrock himself, exclaiming, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!”

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