S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocchè giammai di questo fondo
Non tornò vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

from T.S. Eliot – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock on Rap Genius

Meaning

This epigraph is written in Italian and is taken from Dante’s The Divine Comedy:

If I believed that my response was heard
By anyone returning to the world,
this flame would stand and never stir again,
But since no man has ever come alive
out of this gulf of Hell, if I hear true,
I’ll answer, with no fear of infamy.

The speaker is Guido da Montefeltro, whose spirit Dante encounters during his descent into hell. Since Guido assumes that Dante is also dead and therefore cannot return to the world, he is willing to confide in Dante his sin of false counsel, for which he is punished by being encased in flame.

The epigraph suggests that Prufrock is speaking from a private hell from which he cannot escape. (The image of inhabiting the depths — the pit of hell, the bottom of the sea — is a dominant one throughout this “Love Song.”) The epigraph also sets the confessional tone of the poem.

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