This epigraph is taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy. It reads: “If I thought my answer were to one who could ever return to the world, this flame would move no more; but since no one has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear be true, without fear of infamy I answer you.” The words are spoken by a lost soul, damned to Hell for the attempt to buy absolution in advance of committing a crime. This correlates with Prufrock’s need to know the answer to the question he wants to ask as a condition of asking it. Or perhaps in order for Prufrock to be able to ask the question he would have to not care what the answer would be; in that case, the answer wouldn’t matter. Lines 7-9
Prufrock, the persona of the poem, issues his invitation to an unspecified “you” to go with him to an as yet unspecified place. To establish when they will be going, he introduces the disconcerting simile “like a patient etherised upon a table.” This peculiar use of simile reflects immediately back on the persona, for the sky itself would probably never be like this; however, Prufrock, looking up at the sky, might indeed perceive it pressing back down upon him in such a way that he would feel like he was “spread out” “upon a table.” The word “etherised” indicates a sense of helplessness. Lines 10-13
The route he and the “you” will be taking is through a tawdry part of the city where “cheap hotels” predominate, along with lower-class dining establishments. “Muttering retreats” suggests places where people who go to be alone speak in low voices so their private conversations will not be heard. The phrase “one-night” refers to hotels where lovers meet in secret, and the reference to “oyster-shells” carries with it the connotation of sexuality, as these are a food said to improve sexual stamina. Lines 14-18
“Streets” are further described by a simile that indicates that even once you pass through them, the things you have seen there continue to affect you, specifically the idea of people engaged in the romantic or sexual encounters in the hotels and restaurants. This then affects Prufrock’s thoughts about where he is going, causing him to consider what he characterizes as an “overwhelming” question. The use of the ellipsis indicates that the “you” who accompanies Prufrock has asked what that question would be. The rhymed couplets of “I-sky,” “streets-retreats,” “hotels-oyster-shells,” “argument-intent,” and ’“What is it?’-visit,” along with repetition of the word “streets,” create an emotional music in keeping with the idea of a song, and thus serve to carry the reader into Prufrock’s emotional state. Lines 19-20
The reference to the visit presented in the preceding stanza causes Prufrock to look forward in his mind’s eye to the room he is walking toward, where he imagines women preparing the tea and talking of some intellectual or artistic subject quite at odds with the thoughts he has been having. Lines 21-28
The near repetition in lines 21 and 22 signals that Prufrock’s attention has returned from the imagined room to his actual surroundings. It is evening, foggy, and his attention focuses on the fog mixed with chimney smoke, and then takes off in a metaphorical process that equates the movement of the fog with the movement of some seemingly cat-like creature around the structure of the city at evening. Prufrock’s lyrical musing here reflects the dream-like emotional state evoked by the fog. The lines in this stanza are very close in length, so that along with the rhyme pattern of a a b a c d e d a, and the alliteration of “[l]icked,” “[l]ingered,” and “leap,” a kind of trancelike state is established. Lines 29-40
Prufrock’s reverie on the smoke or fog reminds him that dreamed or imagined activity has no correlation to actions or events in real time, so he determines that just as there is time for the fog and smoke, there is time to get himself adjusted to what he is about to do. However, at the fourth repetition of...
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