The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

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The epigraph comes from Dante’s Inferno and means: ‘If I thought that my reply would be to one who would ever return to the world, this flame would stay without further movement; but since none has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy.’ These are the words of Guido da Montefeltro, who is punished in a ‘tongue of fire’ for giving false counsel. The flame vibrates when he speaks (hence ‘this flame would stay without further movement’). In a sense, Prufrock’s procrastination is an example of someone giving false counsel to himself. It also implies that Prufrock is, in some sense, in hell, and can be compared with the rather ghostly disembodied existences of the characters in The Waste Land and The Hollow Men . Finally, Guido will only speak to someone who (he thinks) will never reveal what he has said to anyone else. The whole point of the poem is that Prufrock can never really express himself. It is as though we overhear his private musings, which are never to be communicated to anyone. There is an obvious irony in this.

Who is the companion (‘you and I’)? It could be the reader, taken, like Dante, on a voyage through the discreet hell of Prufrock’s mind; or perhaps Prufrock imagines an interlocutor in his great loneliness. His imagination provides him with someone to talk to, given that he cannot talk to the woman (or women) he admires and seeks.

The image of the ‘evening spread out against the sky’ suggests a romantic setting (fit for a walk with a lover) that is quickly destroyed by the image of a ‘patient etherized.’ This has connotations of somebody being totally inert (and perhaps represents Prufrock’s temptation to ‘settle down,’ sleep and do nothing); there is also a sense of someone’s body about to be surgically invaded, which may represent Prufrock’s fear of giving himself emotionally (and being terribly wounded in consequence). Considered as a simile, the evening is presumably totally still, but with a sense of something painful and bloody about to ensue.

The world of the first verse paragraph is a potent evocation of the seedier side of love. On one level, Prufrock is rather disgusted by his sexuality. He is wandering through ‘certain…streets’ – and every city has these sort of streets, where improper suggestions are made in dark alleys. Perhaps the ‘overwhelming question’ is, in small part, just the ‘Got the time, love?’ of a streetwalker; though, in reality, it is much more the question the more living part of Prufrock wants to ask the woman he admires.

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T.S. Eliot