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

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When this ‘vagueness’ is seen in conjunction with Prufrock’s ‘overwhelming question,’ it is arguable that he may not even be able to formulate his question accurately. He avoids the question of the question initially – ‘Oh do not ask what is it.’ It later becomes a rather inchoate statement of something of earth-shattering import – ‘To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” –’. He later imagines some kind of cinematic technology that could communicate his thoughts and feelings without any required effort of will, ‘as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.’ Lazarus was called out of hell by Christ shortly before the Passion and so emerged alive from the underworld in a manner impossible for Prufrock (and Guido). This is the other suppressed side of Prufrock – the prophet, who, like John the Baptist ‘wept and fasted, wept and prayed’ before his head was ‘brought in upon a platter.’ He must turn his back on being Hamlet and become Polonius instead (a lesser character in Shakespeare’s play who weaves together worthy phrases in a sometimes absurd and comic fashion).

On one level, Prufrock is a rather gentle poem about a man settling down to be a nonentity. And yet…there is always the lurking sense that Prufrock could just possibly do something remarkable; the question that he himself can never quite forget.

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T.S. Eliot