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Not considered by some scholars as Eliot's best poem, Prufock is probably his best-known, readers enjoy it because it seems to express the anti-social angst it affects. It is not as complicated a poem as one would think, but I missed some important points and thought some explanatory notes might be of interest.

The Italian preface to the poem is from Dante's Comedia, canto 27 of the Inferno.

John Ciardi's translation of these lines is:
    If I believed that my reply were made
    to one who could ever climb to the world again,
    this flame would shake no more. But since no shade
    ever returned -- if what I am told is true --
    from this blind world into the living light
    without fear of dishonor I can answer you;

Prufrock's confession is like that of a condemned soul in hell and the reasoning behind it is that even complaining is hopeless. The poem is full of striking and meaningful lines:

In this example,when Prufrock says he should have been a crab he is speaking about moving backwards, which is just what he desires to do, but cannot. There's a line in Hamlet that this most likely refers as well where the terrible shock of his father's murder has gotten Hamlet to thinking, probably for the first time in his young and idealistic life, about the irreversible reality of death. However, rather than openly drive home the link between Hamlet's passivity and his preoccupation with death and decay toward the purpose of tragedy, to the reader, Prufrok's meaning is hidden and mysterious, having to be drawn out by critical thinking . "Nor was meant to be," calls up an association with Hamlet's soliloquy, "To be or not to be? — That is the question." Unable to decide, Prufrok is asking a question about establishing of the relationship with the woman is "not to be." Then on another level, he hazards that he is not "meant to be," implying that he is meant after all to merely exist and never really participate in life.

Allusion is present here too as a verse reference to a character in another literary work. T. S. Eliot alludes or refers to the biblical figure John the Baptist in the line,

    Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter...

Taken from Mark 6 where John the Baptist's head was presented to King Herod on a platter.

It was surprising to learn that Eliot was twenty two years old when he wrote this piece. At the the heart of the poem is the fretting of a middle aged man, the complacency of his social contacts; his own incapability, indecisiveness and decomposition; and incapable of redemption of a life that is going the wrong way and will not be turned around. And in this fashion he can be put in with other poets of decadence.

The first couple of lines earned Eliot immediate recognition as an extremely capable writer when they were published in 1917. Using older more traditional styles he worked them in combination with vers libre creating a whole new rhythm that had never before been heard and the effect of reading it aloud is quite impressive.

Sources:

Advanced Placement Literature and Composition Literary Terms & Concepts:
http://www.hbhs.k12.nh.us/tullochr/APEnglish/Literary%20Terms.html
accessed August 22, 2003.

TS Eliot - The Academy of American Poets:
www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=1
accessed August 22,2003.