“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is filled with allusions. The poem makes very frequent references to other authors—beginning with the epigraph, which is a quotation from Canto 27 of Dante’s Inferno. These lines are spoken by Guido da Montefeltro, a man condemned to hell who promises to tell the Inferno's speaker about the sins that have landed him in Hell. “Prufrock,” like these lines from Dante, is also a direct address from the speaker to the reader. Like Guido, Prufrock promises to tell the reader his sins and explain how he has been confined to a hellish, modern urban landscape. From the beginning of the poem, then, literary allusion helps set the stage and highlight important themes.
This is far from the only allusion in the poem, however. The speaker also alludes to Biblical figures including Lazarus and John the Baptist. Other literary works cited or quoted include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when the speaker laments that "I am not Prince Hamlet." Although this is the most explicit allusion to Shakespeare, there is also an allusion to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in the line about the “dying fall,” which alludes to Duke Orsino's famous words as he listens to music: "that strain again, it had a dying fall."
In its final depiction of singing mermaids who lead the speaker to his doom, the poem also alludes to Homer’s The Odyssey and the classical trope of the "siren," beautiful women who lure sailors out to sea in order to kill them. Finally, the repetition of the phrase "the overwhelming question" alludes to James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Pioneers (1823), one of Eliot's favorite books as a child, and the place in which that phrase first appears.
The effect of these very frequent allusions is often to give the impression of a negative comparison. The speaker feels that he is inadequate and diminished in comparison with the “greatness” of figures like John the Baptist or Hamlet. His own head, if served on a platter like John the Baptist, would be “slightly bald”; he asserts that if he appeared in Hamlet, he would be a petty “attendant lord” or even a “Fool.” These self-deprecations serve to deflate the literary traditions to which the poem alludes. The speaker feels alienated from these literary greats even as he alludes to them, suggesting that the speaker’s sense of isolation from the world also extends to his sense of his place in the Western literary canon.