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

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There are murderous volcanic energies and a rich imaginative and emotional life too (seen for example in the vision of the mermaids at the end). He has his ‘visions,’ but they are immediately replaced by ‘revisions’ (in which he back-tracks and loses spontaneity) in a brilliantly witty line.

The ‘revisions’ side of Prufrock is in desperate fear of emotional pain and embarrassment, and when he imagines this he uses absurdly hyperbolic images: ‘a patient etherised upon a table,’ ‘sprawling on a pin/ Pinned and wriggling on the wall,’ ‘I have seen my head…brought in upon a platter.’ A consequence of this anticipated agony is that any attempt to climb the stair of love and affection has become entirely impossible, and this is again expressed in terms which are absurdly hyperbolical: ‘Do I dare/Disturb the universe?’ ‘To have bitten off the matter with a smile’ is for Prufrock equivalent to having ‘squeezed the universe into a ball!’ And yet…he can never quite let go of the question, and is drawn like a moth to the ladies who offer him nothing more than psychological extinction: ‘Arms that are braceleted and white and bare/(But in the lamplight downed with light brown hair!)’. Lines like this show that there is poetry and an eye for detail in Prufrock (though there is also a sense that he can never make eye-contact or directly address these rather ethereal women). His greatest fear is of the moment when, after having made ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender’ and revealed his heart to one of his ladies, that she should say, ‘That is not it at all,/That is not what I meant at all.’

Such a moment would finish Prufrock because it would define him, and one of the more endearing aspects of his personality is the way in which he resists being defined – ‘Oh, do not ask what is it.’ He hates the ‘eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,’ and desires to enact the mysterious directionless wandering of a crab ‘Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.’ He worries about things (his hair thinning, for example), but he can be quite free-spirited: ‘I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled,’ ‘I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk along the beach.’ He has, too, experienced some richness and variety in his life: ‘the sunsets, and the dooryards, and the sprinkled streets’ and he has his fantasies, in which he can be ‘By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown.’ Realistically, this is all he has, and keeping his world vague and fog-like is really the best that can be done. After all, the mermaids will never really sing to him, and, just as story-book mermaids traditionally lured sailors to their deaths, so the early twentieth century sirens beloved of Prufrock would destroy him if he came too close.

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T.S. Eliot