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Terms in this set (43)

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats 5
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ... 10
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
Summary, Interpretation: The speaker invites the listener to walk with him into the streets on an evening that resembles a patient, anesthetized with ether, lying on the table of a hospital operating room. (Until recent times, physicians used ether—a liquid obtained by combining sulfuric acid and ethyl alcohol—to render patients unconscious before an operation.) The imagery suggests that the evening is lifeless and listless. The speaker and the listener will walk through lonely streets—the business day has ended—past cheap hotels and restaurants with sawdust on the floors. (Sawdust was used to absorb spilled beverages and food, making it easy to sweep up at the end of the day.) The shabby establishments will remind the speaker of his own shortcomings, their images remaining in his mind as he walks on. They will then prod the listener to ask the speaker a question about the speaker's life—perhaps why he visits these seedy haunts, which are symbols of his life, and why he has not acted to better himself or to take a wife.
Allusion, overwhelming question (line 10): Eliot appears to have borrowed this phrase from James Fenimore Cooper's 1823 novel, The Pioneers, one of five novels that make up The Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841), about life on the frontier in early America. When he was a youth, Eliot read and enjoyed The Pioneers. In the novel, one of the characters, Benjamin, asks a series of questions ending with the "overwhelming question." Following is the passage:

......."Did'ee ever see a British ship, Master Kirby? an English line-of-battle ship, boy? Where did'ee ever fall in with a regular built vessel, with starn-post and cutwater, gar board-streak and plank-shear, gangways, and hatchways, and waterways, quarter-deck, and forecastle, ay, and flush-deck?—tell me that, man, if you can; where away did'ee ever fall in with a full-rigged, regular-built, necked vessel?"
.......The whole company were a good deal astounded with this overwhelming question, and even Richard afterward remarked that it "was a thousand pities that Benjamin could not read, or he must have made a valuable officer to the British marine.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes; 25
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate; 30
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
Summary, Interpretation: There's no hurry, though, the speaker tells himself. There will be time to decide and then to act—time to put on the right face and demeanor to meet people. There will be time to kill and time to act; in fact, there will be time to do many things. There will even be time to think about doing things—time to dream and then revise those dreams—before sitting down with a woman to take toast and tea.
Allusion, there will be time (line 23): This phrase alludes to the opening line of "To His Coy Mistress," by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678): "Had we but world enough, and time." In Marvell's poem, the speaker/persona urges his beloved not to be coy but instead to seize the moment—to take advantage of youth and "sport us while we may." Prufrock, of course, continually postpones even meeting a woman, saying "There will be time."
face (line 27): affectation; façade.
Allusion, works and days (line 29): Works and Days is a long poem by Hesiod, a Greek writer who lived in the 700's B.C. "Works" refers to farm labor and "Days" to periods of the year for performing certain agricultural chores. The poem, addressed to Hesiod's brother, was intended to instruct readers, stressing the importance of hard work and right living and condemning moral decay.
For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, 50
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
Summary, Interpretation: Prufrock realizes that the people here are the same as the people he has met many times before—the same, uninteresting people in the same uninteresting world. They all even sound the same. So why should he do anything?
Evenings, Mornings, Afternoons: This phrase, as well as others focusing on time, refers obliquely to the philosophy of Henri Bergson (1859-1941), author of a revolutionary and highly influential work, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. In this work, he argued that the mind perceives time as a continuous process, a continuous flow, rather than as a series of measurable units as tracked by a clock or a calendar or by scientific calculation. It is not a succession, with one unit following another, but a duration in which present and past are equally real. Ordinarily, we think of a day as consisting of morning, evening, and afternoon—in that order. But, since time is a continuous flow to Prufrock, it is just as correct to think of a day as consisting of morning, afternoon, and evening as a single unit.
Allusion, dying fall (line 52): Phrase borrowed from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Duke Orsino speaks it in line 4 of Act I, Scene I. Here is the passage in which the phrase appears:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour!
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully! 75
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? 80
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, 85
And in short, I was afraid.
Summary, Interpretation: The time passes peacefully. It is as if the afternoon/evening is sleeping or simply wasting time, stretched out on the floor. Should the speaker sit down with someone and have dessert—should he take a chance, make an acquaintance, live? Oh, he has suffered; he has even imagined his head being brought in on a platter, like the head of John the Baptist. Of course, unlike John, he is no prophet. He has seen his opportunities pass and even seen death up close, holding his coat, snickering. He has been afraid.
evening . . . floor (lines 75-78): This metaphor/personification echoes the simile in lines 2 and 3.
cakes (line 79): Cakes or cookies.
ices (line 79): Ice cream.
Allusion, head brought in upon a platter (line 82): Phrase associated with John the Baptist, Jewish prophet of the First Century AD who urged people to reform their lives and who prepared the way for the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. John denounced Herod Antipas (4 BC-AD 39), the Roman-appointed ruler of Galilee and Perea, for violating the law of Moses by marrying Herodias, the divorced wife of his half-brother, Philip. (Herod Antipas and Philip were sons of Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed ruler of Judea.) In retaliation, Herod Antipas imprisoned John but was afraid to kill him because of his popularity with the people. Salome, the daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, danced at a birthday party for Herod Antipas. Her performance was so enthralling that Herod said she could have any reward of her choice. Prompted by Herodias, who was outraged by John the Baptist's condemnation of her marriage, Salome asked for the head of the Baptist on a platter. Because he did not want to go back on his word, Herod fulfilled her request. John was a cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Accounts of his activities appear in the Bible in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and in the Acts of the Apostles.
prophet (line 83): Another allusion to John the Baptist.
Footman (line 85): Servant in a uniform who opens doors, waits on tables, helps people into carriages. The footman is a symbol of death; he helps a person into the afterlife.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while, 90
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"— 95
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."
Summary, Interpretation: Would it have been worth it for the speaker while drinking tea to try to make a connection with one of the women? Would it have been worth it to arise from his lifeless life and dare to engage in conversation with a woman, only to have her criticize him or reject him.
porcelain (line 89): glassware or hard, brittle people
Allusion, To have squeezed the universe into a ball (line 92): This phrase is another allusion to Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress." (Click here to see the previous comment on Marvell's poem.) In the last stanza of that poem, the speaker/persona says, " Let us roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball." In Eliot's poem, the speaker asks whether it would have been worth it to do the same thing with a woman of his choosing.
Allusion, Lazarus (line 94): Name of two New Testament figures: (1) Lazarus of Bethany, brother of Martha and Mary. Jesus raised him from the dead (Gospel of John, Chapter 11: Verses 18, 30, 32, 38); (2) Lazarus, a leprous beggar (Gospel of Luke, Chapter 16: Verses 19-31). When Lazarus died, he was taken into heaven. When a rich man named Dives died, he went to hell. He requested that Lazarus be returned to earth to warn his brothers about the horror of hell, but his request was denied.
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use, 115
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Summary, Interpretation: Prufrock and Hamlet (the protagonist of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) are both indecisive. But Prufrock lacks the majesty and charisma of Hamlet. Therefore, he fancies himself as Polonius, the busybody lord chamberlain in Shakespeare's play.
Allusion, Prince Hamlet (line 112): Hamlet, the protagonist of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, famous for his hesitancy and indecision while plotting to avenge the murder of his father, King Hamlet, by the king's brother, Claudius. Prufrock is like young Hamlet in that the latter is also indecisive. However, Prufrock decides not to compare himself with Hamlet, who is charismatic and even majestic in spite of his shortcomings. Instead, Prufrock compares himself with an unimpressive character in the Shakespeare play, an attendant lord, Polonius. (See next entry.)
Allusion, attendant lord (line 113): Polonius, the lord chamberlain in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Polonius, a bootlicking advisor to the new king, Claudius, sometimes uses a whole paragraph of important-sounding words to say what most other people could say in a simple declarative sentence. His pedantry makes him look foolish at times. Prufrock, of course, is worried that the words he speaks will make him look foolish, too.
Allusion, progress (line 114): In the time of a Shakespeare, a journey that a king or queen of England made with his or her entourage,
Allusion, high sentence: The high-flown, pretentious language of Polonius (See Allusion, attendant lord, just above.)
Allusion, Fool (line 119): Eliot capitalizes this word, suggesting that it refers to a court jester (also called a fool) in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. There is no living fool in Hamlet, but there is a dead one, Yorick. In a famous scene in the play, two men are digging the grave of Ophelia when they unearth the skull of Yorick while Hamlet is present. Picking it up, Hamlet says,

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?

In the courts of England in Shakespeare's time, a fool was a comic figure with a quick tongue who entertained the king, the queen, and their guests. He was allowed to—and even expected to—criticize anyone at court. Many fools were dwarfs or cripples, their odd appearance enhancing their appeal and, according to prevailing beliefs, bringing good luck to the court.

......."The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is a modernistic poem that expresses the thoughts of the title character via the following:

Conversational Language Combined With the Stylized Language of Poetry. For example, the poem opens straightforwardly with "Let us go then, you and I." It then presents a bizarre personification/simile with end rhyme (lines 2 and 3), comparing the evening to an anesthetized hospital patient. End rhyme continues throughout most of the poem, as does the use of striking figures of speech. The figures of speech generally refer in some way to Prufrock. The anesthetized hospital patient, for example, represents the indecisiveness of Prufrock. The yellow fog and yellow smoke of lines 15 and 16 are compared in succeeding lines to a timid cat, which represents the timidity of Prufrock.
Variations in Line Length and Meter. Some lines contain only three words. Others contain as many as fourteen. The meter also varies.
Shifts in the Train of Thought: The train of thought sometimes shifts abruptly, without transition, apparently in imitation of the way the human mind works when it dreams or daydreams or reacts to an external stimulus.
Shifts in Topics Under Discussion: The subject under discussion sometimes shifts abruptly, from trifling matters one moment—Prufrock's bald spot, for example, or the length of his trousers—to time and the universe the next.
Shifts From Abstract to Concrete (and Universal to Particular): The poem frequently toggles between (1) the abstract or universal and (2) the concrete or specific. Examples of abstract language are muttering retreats (line 5) and tedious argument of insidious intent (lines 8-9). Examples of phrases or clauses with universal nouns are the muttering retreats and the women come and go. Examples of concrete language are oyster-shells (line 7) and soot (line 19). Examples of particular (specific) language are Michelangelo (line 14) and October (line 21).
Shifts From Obvious Allusions or References to Oblique Allusions or References: Prufrock quotes, paraphrases, or cites historical or fictional persons, places, things, or ideas. Some of his references are easy to fathom. For example, everyone with a modicum of education knows who Michelangelo was (line 14). Other references are difficult to fathom. For example, few readers realize that To Have Squeezed the Universe into a Ball (line 92) is a variation of a line written by poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678). In his use of allusions, Eliot apparently wanted to show that Prufrock was well read and retained bits and pieces of what he read in his memory, like all of us. .

Use of Repetition

.......Eliot repeats certain words and phrases several or many times, apparently to suggest the repetition and monotony in Prufrock's life. Notice, for example, how often he begins a line with And—20 times. He also repeats other words as well as phrases and clauses, including the following:

Let us go
In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo
There will be time
Do I dare
Should I presume
I have known
Would it have been worth it

Figures of Speech: Examples From the Poem

Simile: Lines 2-3

When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table
(Prufrock uses like to compare the evening to a patient)

Personifications, Simile: Lines 8-9

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
(Personification 1: Streets become persons because they follow. Personification 2: An argument becomes a person because it has insidious intent. Simile: Use of like to compare streets to an argument)

Metaphor: Lines 15-22

Yellow fog and yellow smoke are both compared to a living creature. It is obvious that the creature is a cat. (It licks its tongue, leaps, and curls up.) /

Metaphor: Line 51

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
(Life is compared to coffee.)


Lines 20-21: Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Line 34: Before the taking of a toast and tea
Line 56: fix you in a formulated phrase)
Line 58: When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall

Metaphor: Line 58

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall
(Prufrock compares himself to an insect preserved for display in a collection)

Personification/Metaphor: Line 75

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
(Personification: The evening is a sleeping person; Metaphor: The evening is compared to a person.)

Anaphora (Lines 91-94)

Tohave bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead
(For a definition of anaphora, see Literary Terms.)

Hyperbole and Metaphor: Lines 92-93

To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question
(Hyperbole and Metaphor: The universe becomes a ball that is rolled.)

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Are such vapors as yellow fog and yellow smoke (lines 15-16) apt metaphors for a cat?
Does the month of the year, October (line 21), mean that the speaker is running out of time to make something of his life or to find the right woman?
Prufrock says he sees lonely men leaning out of windows? How does Prufrock know they are lonely? Is it possible that he misinterprets their state of mind?
T.S. Eliot believed that readers should interpret a poem without attempting to link it to the life of the author or to cultural or social conditions at the time the author wrote the poem. In other words, a poem should stand on its own. Write an argumentative essay that defends or opposes Eliot's position. Include in your essay opinions of other authors, as well as literary critics, on this subject.
Do you believe Prufrock suffers from a psychological affliction, such as paranoia, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder? Explain your answer.
Write an essay that attempts to fathom Prufrock's psyche.