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The opening urgency of Prufrock’s ‘Let us go’ dwindles in the short second verse to the desultory-sounding to-and-fro of the unidentified women, who ‘come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’.That couplet also comes and goes, returning about 20 lines later, but with no improved sense as to who the women are, let alone what they mean to the speaker.Prufrock is talking to a ‘you’ inside his own mind, and she is a part of some back-story to the poem’s frustrated erotic life which is kept almost entirely under wraps.
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He once referred to that thing, in private, as a ‘complex’.
Presumably with some degree of levity, given the nature of the authority upon which he was commenting, Eliot wrote ‘The Prufrock Complex’ next to these words from the report of a palm-reader: ‘when faced with a personal problem, any prolonged contemplation of probabilities merely produces hesitancy and indecision’.
Like the cat-like fog that rubs itself lazily upon the cityscape, the poem curls about and about, its beautifully drifting, self-interrupting sentences repeatedly putting off the moment of coming to a full stop.
Often, instead, they come to a question mark: ‘Do I dare / Disturb the universe?
T S Eliot wrote this poem while he was in his early twenties: he later recalled beginning the poem while a student of philosophy at Harvard University in 1909–10, and he finished it while travelling for a year in Europe, in Munich and Paris.
But you could not say that it was a young man’s poem exactly: later in life Eliot, when asked, said: ‘It was partly a dramatic creation of a man of about 40 I should say, and partly an expression of feeling of my own through this dim imaginary figure.’ The poem is extraordinarily original, but it does have some anticipations.
Eliot’s poem has no regular rhyme or rhythmical patterning: it is in free verse, involves abandoning the ‘comforting echo of rhyme’, he said; but his poem does not do without rhyme at all, just without regular rhyme, as in a rhyme scheme.
Eliot wrote beautifully about the possibilities of this, as though in oblique commentary on his own poem: ‘There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood.’ You could find examples of all of those in the poem, and other effects besides, created by rhyme’s interruption into an unrhymed or unpredictably rhymed space: ‘Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, / Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?