An essay for English 111 circa 2002; it has been re-edited for clarity
In T.S. Eliot’s three works, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Paysage Triste,” and “In the Department Store,” the poet covers a wide range of feelings and perceptions. Unlocking the author’s meaning for these pieces is a formidable challenge. Because the language is ripe for interpretation, this essay will instead seek to identify and compare two commonalities in Eliot’s three poems: social interaction and class distinction.
Perhaps Eliot’s most famous piece, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a complicated poem in which the speaker takes the reader on chaotic journey through his mind. The speaker begins, “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” (Eliot “Prufrock” 950, lines 1-2). The speaker continues to share personal thoughts, fears, and reservations about seemingly trivial things. Ronald Bush, in T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style, claims that the poem “begins with ardent feelings calling out for fulfillment, but soon echoes with the mocking irony of an intellect that is anything but cooperative” (10).
Early into the poem, Prufrock is conscientious about his appearance. He imagines guests at a fancy party examining him like a pinned specimen, whispering about “‘How his hair is growing thin!’” (950 line 41), or commenting on his physical health by saying, “‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’” (line 44).
Prufrock reveals his perspective on society while looking upon facades worn in places where “the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” (lines 13-14). Eliot paints Prufrock as slightly mad, fantasizing about how he would fit into such a high-class social gathering. He is also full of indecision and apprehension; he cannot decide if he should “disturb the universe” and does not wish to explore the meaning of life—“Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’” (line 11). In reality, the speaker never attends such a party, neither must he make any of the trivial decisions he has imagined. As literary critic B. Rajan notes,
Prufrock’s love song is never sung; what should be added is that his inability to sing it is not simply ironic, but part of the specifications of failure. To sing is to achieve a definition and Prufrock’s fate is to fall short of definition, to bring momentous news only to thresholds (369).
In Prufrock’s hundred and thirty-one lines, Eliot presents a conflicted character whose concerns and distaste for society reveal a general boredom with life. Prufrock laments, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” (line 31). Eliot ends by confirming that Prufrock’s fantasy world is more favorable to him than reality, even though he lacks a place of value in it.
While “Paysage Triste” is radically different from “Prufrock,” its speaker possesses similar views on upper-class society. At nineteen lines in length, the poem focuses its subject matter and word choice using a first-person narrative. The poem’s French title translates to “sad landscape/scenery,” which is appropriate given what transpires in the poem. The scene opens with the speaker telling of…
The girl who mounted in the omnibus
The rainy day, and paid a penny fare
Who answered my appreciative stare
With that averted look without surprise
Which only the experienced can wear
A girl with reddish hair and faint blue eyes.
(Eliot “Paysage” 52, lines 1-5)
The speaker is accompanied by a female friend; together, they are either going to or returning from an opera. This appears unremarkable until the speaker lets slip his perspective on a young girl who gets on their bus. Being “an almost denizen of Leicester Square” (line 6), the speaker has at least a moderate social status, higher than the young girl. His immediate response is not one of disgust but rather a kind of “appreciative stare,” implying relief that he is not a lowlife. Their social differences are made more evident in the following line: “We could not have had her in the box with us / She would not have known how to sit, or what to wear” (lines 6-8). The next seven lines are devoted to how inappropriate the girl’s presence would have been:
She would have been most crudely ill at ease
She would not have known how to sit, or what to wear
Nor, when the lights went out and the horn began
Have leaned as you did, your elbow on my knees
To prod impetuously with your fan
The smiling stripling with the pink soaped face
Who had your opera-glasses in his care.
Despite her class position, the girl with “faint blue-eyes” has a more realistic view of life and possessions than the speaker’s friend, whose greatest concern at the moment is keeping her opera glasses safe. This realization gives the speaker a new outlook on the structure of his society; phrases such as “to prod impetuously” and “pink soaped face” suggest that he now sees his peers and possibly himself as stiff, shallow individuals—a sad realization that makes for a sad scene.
“In the Department Store,” the shortest of all three poems and only comments vaguely on social identity; nonetheless, it presents an interesting viewpoint not found in the previous poems. The setting is in the “porcelain department” of a store in which the male speaker is greeted by a saleswoman who “Smiles at the world through a set of false teeth” (“Store” 56, line 2). Her manner is one of that who wishes to act professional and she “keeps a pencil in her hair.”
Despite the woman’s front, the speaker is able to look “behind her sharpened eyes” and see something entirely different—she “takes flight” during “The summer evenings in the park / And heated nights in second story dance halls (lines 5-6).
This simple encounter with a working-class women, whom the speaker knows nothing about, spurs a hope that they might have a future together; if not together, then perhaps parallel to one another. Whatever the speaker initially sees is overshadowed by additional knowledge of their differences, whether as individuals or as pawns upon the chess board of society. Thus, he digresses, saying, “Man’s life is powerless and brief and dark / It is not possible for me to make her happy” (lines 7-8). Here the poem ends.
Prufrock, the man on the bus, and the visitor to the department store each express different ideas and reactions regarding society’s class distinctions. Through Eliot’s words, a reader can be transported inside an etherized imagination, ride on a hauntingly sad omnibus, or drop into the thoughts of a department store customer. In each setting, the speaker expresses feelings of alienation and desire tied to social status.
Curiously, none of the speakers take any action. Prufrock never attends the kind of party that he imagines, the omnibus drives off into the night without conversation or incident, and the customer in the department store does not initiate any kind of relationship with the saleswoman. Passivity consumes each speaker’s feelings.
T.S. Eliot said that “…what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect of his own works, forgetting his original meaning.” (qtd. in Asbee 48). Perhaps this is true of Eliot’s speakers; in recounting their stories, they are trying to affirm or discover their place in the world—whether real or imagined.
Asbee, Sue. T.S. Eliot. Vero Beach, FL: The Rourke Corporation, Inc., 1990.
Bush, Ronald. T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. Oxford NY: Oxford University Press Inc., 1984.
Eliot, Thomas. “In the Department Store.” Rpt. Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917. Ed. Christopher Ricks. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996. 56.
—. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Rpt. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed. Bill Hoffman, Camille Adkins, and Jon Davies. Fort Worth TX: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001. 950-954.
—. “Paysage Triste.” Rpt. Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917. Ed. Christopher Ricks. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996. 52.
Rajan, B. “The Overwhelming Question.” T.S. Eliot: The Man and His Work: A Critical Evaluation by Twenty-six Distinguished Writers. Ed. Allen Tate. New York NY: Delacorte Press, 1966.