The five-line interlude ending on “the floors of silent seas” forms an encapsulated version of the remainder of the poem, in which the frustrated effort to establish purposive discourse leads once again to withdrawal downward and inward to a silent world of instinctual being. A return to images of distension and distracting sensuality provokes a final impulse toward violent imposition of the will–“to force the moment to its crisis”–which ends, like previous thoughts of disturbing the universe, in ruthless self-mockery. The image of decapitation parodies the theme of disconnected being and provides for at least a negative definition of the self: “I am no prophet.”
By this point the tense has quietly shifted from present to past, and the speaker offers a series of prolonged interrogatives on the consequences of action not taken. While its grammatical context (“And would it have been worth it”) reduces it to the contemplation of “what might have been”; the language and imagery of this passage enact with renewed intensity the recurring drama of mental conflict:
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.”
The infinitives in this passage–to have bitten, to have squeezed, to roll–conform to the poem’s widespread use of transitive verbs of direct action in expressing the speaker’s violent impulse to combat the forces of disorder: to murder and create, to disturb the universe, to spit out all the butt-ends, to force the moment.
The poem’s ling…
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…hich the author has elected to work, may itself evoke other psychic material; and then, lines of poetry may come into being, not from the original impulse, but from a secondary stimulation of the unconscious mind.” The mental forces at work in Eliot’s description of the poetic process serve as an analogy to the conflicts besetting the speaker in Prufrock. The speaker is a failed poet in terms of his inability to “murder” existing structures in order to “create” anew; be finds it impossible to say what be wants to say. In the “secondary stimulation of the unconscious mind” that occurs at this point, he partly abandons and partly resolves the struggle of form and matter; the integration of the psyche remains at best incomplete.
Conflicts in Consciousness: T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Essay: An Analysis
An Analysis of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The general fragmentation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is obvious. The poem seems a perfect example of what Terry Eagleton calls the modern “transition from metaphor to metonymy: unable any longer to totalize his experience in some heroic figure, the bourgeois is forced to let it trickle away into objects related to him by sheer contiguity.” Everything in “Prufrock” trickles away into parts related to one another only by contiguity. Spatial progress in the poem is diffident or deferred, a “scuttling” accomplished by a pair of claws disembodied so violently they remain “ragged.” In the famous opening, “the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table,” and the simile makes an equation between being spread out and being etherised that continues elsewhere in the poem when the evening, now a bad patient, “malingers, / Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.” There it “sleeps so peacefully! / Smoothed by long fingers . . . .” This suspension is a rhetorical as well as a spatial and emotional condition. The “streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent” lead not to a conclusion but to a question, a question too “overwhelming” even to ask. Phrases like the “muttering retreats / Of restless nights” combine physical blockage, emotional unrest, and rhetorical maundering in an equation that seems to make the human being a combination not of angel and beast but of road-map and Roberts’ Rules of Order.
In certain lines, metaphor dissolves into metonymy before the reader’s eyes. “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes” appears clearly to every reader as a cat, but the cat itself is absent, repr…
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…becomes a collection of individual parts, just as the poem’s human denizens had been little more than parts: “And I have known the eyes already, known them all”; “And I have known the arms already known them all.” The instantaneous movement from part to whole, from eyes, arms, evenings, mornings, to “all,” expresses the emptiness between, the gap between dispersed parts and an oppressive whole made of purely serial repetition. The very reduction of human beings to parts of themselves and of time to episodes makes it impossible to conceive of any whole different from this empty, repetitious “an.” As Burke says, metonymy substitutes quantity for quality, so that instead of living life Prufrock feels “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
Michael North, The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.