Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Navigating Modernism with J. Alfred Prufrock


The Lesson


Planes, (subway) trains, automobiles and World War I

Planes, (subway) trains, automobiles and World War I—A dramatic shift in sensibilities ocurred as a result of these factors of modern life.

Credit: Images courtesy of American Memory

The English novelist Virginia Woolf declared that human nature underwent a fundamental change "on or about December 1910." The statement testifies to the modern writer's fervent desire to break with the past, rejecting literary traditions that seemed outmoded and diction that seemed too genteel to suit an era of technological breakthroughs and global violence.”
—from the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets The Modernist Revolution: Make It New

Modernist poetry often is difficult for students to analyze and understand. A primary reason students feel a bit disoriented when reading a modernist poem is that the speaker himself is uncertain about his or her own ontological bearings. Indeed, the speaker of modernist poems characteristically wrestles with the fundamental question of “self,” often feeling fragmented and alienated from the world around him. In other words, a coherent speaker with a clear sense of himself/herself is hard to find in modernist poetry, often leaving students confused and “lost.”

Such ontological feelings of fragmentation and alienation, which often led to a more pessimistic and bleak outlook on life as manifested in representative modernist poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), were prompted by fundamental and far-reaching historical, social, cultural, and economic changes in the early 1900s. These changes transformed the world from one that seemed ordered and stable to one that felt futile and chaotic.

In this lesson, students will explore the role of the individual in the modern world by closely reading and analyzing T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Guiding Questions

  • What are several key characteristics of literary modernism? What were the effects of these influential factors?
  • What are several historical, social, and cultural forces that prompted the modernist movement?

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the literary context of modernism.
  • Define and understand in context common poetic devices.
  • Analyze several modernist poems, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
  • Understand the historical, social, and cultural context of modernism at large.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Modernist Subject
  • An effective way for students to think about the modernist subject and corresponding individual feelings of fragmentation and alienation is to examine avant-garde paintings from the same period.
  • Direct students to the online “International Exhibition of Modern Art” 1913 Armory Show, from the EDSITEment-reviewed University of Virginia’s American Studies website.
    • Have students read the Introduction to the 1913 Armory Show. While the whole of the article is informative, if time is short the first introductory paragraphs and the last five paragraphs are quite important for the purposes of this lesson plan. The final paragraphs discuss the influence the Amory Show had within the literary community, with particular attention on William Carlos Williams and other American modernist poets
    • Ask students to pay particular attention to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” Ask students the following questions, writing down their responses on a blackboard/whiteboard:
      • Can you identify the subject of Duchamp’s painting? Do you have problems identifying the subject? Why or why not?
      • What adjectives can be used to describe the subject of the painting?
      • How are time, space, and movement depicted in this painting?
      • Thinking about the poems you read in Lesson Two: Thirteen Ways of Reading a Modernist Poem, does the point of view in the painting more resemble a Romantic or modern sensibility? Why?
  • Recall the following chart from Lesson One: Understanding the Context of Modernist Poetry, and ask students brainstorm more comparisons to add to the chart based on their new understanding of modernist art and poetry:
Pre-Modern World (e.g., Romantic, Victorian Periods)Modern World (early 20th century)
Ordered Chaos
Meaningful Futile
Optimistic Pessimistic
Stable Unstable
Faith Loss of Faith
Morality/Values Collapse of Morality/Values
Clear Sense of IdentityConfused Sense of Identity and Place in World
Activity 2. A Modernist Subject in Love
  • Before analyzing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” ask students to recall Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet from the Portuguese 43: How Do I Love Thee?” from Lesson Two. Ask students the following question: “Why is this poem a love poem?”
  • Now ask students how they defined the term “modern” in Lesson One. Ask students, “Is Browning’s sonnet a modern poem?” Ask students for precise reasons why the poem is not a modern poem. Point out that the poem was published in 1850.
  • Point out to students that the poetic term “stanza” also means a “room” or “habitation.” Before reviewing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with students, mention that they should spend some time in each “room” to gain their footing before attempting to analyze the poem at large.
  • Ask each student to access the Prufrock Analysis Worksheet they completed while reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” prior to this class period. Alternatively, pass out the Prufrock Analysis Worksheet and ask them to re-read the poem carefully and answer the questions, either individually or in groups.
  • Lead a full class discussion on the poem, using the guiding questions on the worksheet to walk through each stanza/”room” of the poem.
  • After closely reading the poem as a class, ask students the following wrap-up questions:
    • Recall Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” and the following stanza from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

      And indeed there will be time
      To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
      Time to turn back and descend the stair,
      With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--
      [They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
      My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
      My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--
      [They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
      Do I dare
      Disturb the universe?
      In a minute there is time
      For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    • How are the subject of Duchamp’s painting and Prufrock similar? Consider the adjectives you used to describe the subject of Duchamp’s painting. In other words, how is your experience viewing the painting (and others from the Armory Show) similar to your experience reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock). How can you account for these similarities (e.g., sometimes you may not know exactly what you are viewing/reading)?
    • Ask students to compare Browning’s love poem to Eliot’s “love poem.” Now ask students the following questions: Is “Prufrock” really a love poem? What elements get in the way of Prufrock’s “love”? Students might suggest any of the following: his digressions, his fear of socializing, his bitterness toward the social world, his linguistic impotence, his self-questioning, his repetition, his social paralysis, his fear of aging, his self-doubt, his fear of women, and so forth.


Assessment options include the following exercises:

  • Collect each student’s copy of the completed reading analysis worksheet for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
  • Ask students to write a typed, one-page personal ad that describes J. Alfred Prufrock as an individual seeking love. The ad should be rooted in the poem itself, and you should use descriptive adjectives.
  • Ask students to write a character sketch of J. Alfred Prufrock. How do they picture him, and why? How would they describe his relationships with other people?
  • Write a typed, three-page paper on the following topic, “Describe modernist poetry as you understand it, using concrete examples from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Extending The Lesson

Continue analyze T.S. Eliot’s poetry by reading “The Waste-Land.” Resources include the following:

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > AP Literature
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Poetry analysis
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources