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

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Certainly ‘restless nights in one-night cheap hotels’ do not sound like they bring much satisfaction, and Eliot is careful to juxtapose the fulfilling of sexual appetite with the faintly disgusting detritus of satisfied hunger for food – ‘sawdust restaurants with oyster shells.’ Oysters are traditionally aphrodisiacs.

In the lines that follow, ‘Michelangelo’ seems only to represent typical salon-style intellectual conversation, though the Italian sculptor and painter is often regarded as creating several archetypes of naked male physical beauty. Prufrock is unlikely to be able to compete. The coming and going of the women makes them somehow ethereal and unobtainable.

Eliot is a master of a collage style of poetry, and the verse paragraph on the ‘yellow fog’ that is metaphorically a cat seems stuck into the poem without any obvious linkage. This refusal to provide textual cohesion is a more obvious feature of The Waste Land with its ‘heap of broken images.’ In this style of writing, Eliot was later encouraged by Pound who developed a whole aesthetic based on what he called ‘the Ideogramic method’. Chinese characters (ideograms) are made up of simple pictograms that combine in ever increasing complexity, but sometimes seem randomly selected. By juxtaposition of disparate sections of text, the reader is forced into making strange and imaginative connections, as in Pound’s In a Station of the Metro (‘The apparition of these faces in a crowd; /Petals on a wet black bough.’) So what is the connection here with the rest of the poem? It is certainly not obvious, though we can see the curling up and falling asleep of the fog-cat as suggestive of Prufrock’s temptation to live a vegetative life, inert and etherised. Possibly, there is something similar to the opening with its combination of the romantic evening sky and the patient awaiting an operation. There is something rather sensual about cats: this one ‘rubs its back,’ ‘licked its tongue into…’, ‘Lingered upon…’ all vaguely suggestive of the erotic, but juxtaposed grotesquely with ‘pools that stand in drains’ and such like. This could well continue the disgust with sexuality found in the ‘restless nights’ of the first verse paragraph.

The word ‘time’ is repeated no less than eight times in the next paragraph, and it sounds almost like the ticking of a clock. As often as Prufrock claims ‘there will be time’, the reader senses that there is really no time left for him at all. There is both suppressed aggression and suppressed imagination in ‘There will be time to murder and create’ and this line reveals significant depths in Prufrock’s character.

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T.S. Eliot