Analyze several examples of “figurative language” in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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When looking for figurative language in any work of literature, the goal is to seek linguistic examples that  "imply a non-literal meaning which does make sense or that could be true."  Given how Eliot develops "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," there are many different example of figurative language throughout the text.  One can find examples of comparative language and imagery based language that represents a "non- literal meaning" that serve to represent truth.

One of the earliest examples of figurative language is seen in line 3 of the poem, not counting the epigraph. "Like a patient etherized upon a table" represents the opening invitation the speaker offers.  In undertaking a voyage, the exposition of which includes looking at the evening "spread out across the sky," the simile employed conveys a sense of helplessness.  There is a lack of agency evident in this use of language.  This is not the triumphant march of one who appropriates the world in successful vision.  Rather, Prufrock has invited the reader into his own world.  It is a world where there is pain, insecurity, and doubt.  The imagery Eliot uses to enhance his initial simile reflects this.  It is a world of "half- deserted streets," "muttering retreats," and "sleepless nights."  The only way slumber is established is through the ether. Eliot has transformed the Dante vision of Virgil leading us with confidence and self- assuredness about our own being in the world. Rather, this invitation is one to see the world as it is, an oppressive force that does not allow one to forget that they are simply a smaller part in its larger configuration.  It is a world in which one is no different than a "patient etherized upon the table." The procedure that is about to be preformed is a painful one, reflective of the need for sedation for the deep cuts and brutal incisions about to be made.  The non- literal meaning of language is effective in being able to establish the paradigm that Eliot and Prufrock want us to embrace.

Later on, the initial image of the modern city is supported with another use of figurative language.  The construction of streets that "that follow like a tedious argument" is important.  Eliot suggests that the architecture of the city, of the world, is reflective of the pain intrinsic to living in it.  There is no direct sense of guidance and finding answers. Rather, consciousness consists of traveling down streets that are composed "like a tedious argument."  They can be akin to the idea of being so technical and precise that they are confusing in their intricacies.  Another way of understanding this simile is to focus on their tedious aspect in how they lack meaning and lack a sense of overall purpose. Either reading substantiates the vision of consciousness that Prufrock invites the reader to explore through language that is not entirely literal, but something that does make sense.

One of the most compelling uses of figurative language is in Prufrock's self- assessment of his own life.  Not including the epigraph, line 51 speaks of how Prufrock has "measured out" his life "with coffee spoons."  This is a figurative use of language because life cannot be actually measured out with coffee spoons.  In its figurative use, Prufrock seeks to make a couple of realities clear about his life. The first is his awkwardness and sense of discomfort in being in the world.  The tension involved in social engagements, seeking to blend in with others has only been able to be matched with the excessive cups of coffee he needs to feel comfortable.  At the same time, the larger meaning from this figurative statement is that something so large and expansive as consciousness has been reduced to something so feeble such as measuring out through spoons of coffee.  There is a sense of disenfranchisement revealed in the use of figurative language in which one's life is measured through coffee spoons.  It is not literal because while coffee spoons have been used, Eliot is deliberate in seeking to apply the metaphor to what consciousness in the modern setting looks like.

Eliot uses figurative language to convey how it feels to live in this setting. Prufrock is open about how he feels "trapped" by the gaze of "the other."  In this case, "the other" refers to women and men who judge him, see him as forever on the outside, looking in.  Given how the poem operates as a "love song," this is mostly connective to his experiences with women.  In describing what it actually feels like to be trapped by this gaze from "the other," figurative language is employed:

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase/ And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,/ Then how should I begin/ To spit out all the butt- ends of my days and ways... 

The exploration of the pain intrinsic to being in the modern setting can be seen in the description of what it feels to be "pinned."  Eliot uses figurative language to describe this experience of being "pinned."  The speaker is not literally "pinned" to any object.  Yet, there is a metaphorical crucifixion that happens in the modern setting when individuals are forced to see themselves through the eyes of "the other."  There is a loss of freedom, a loss of identity, where people are "pinned and wriggling."  The employment of figurative language, personification as a worm, reflects how human endeavor can be reduced to something of animals.  It also is an allusion to death, the worms that help to decompose the body.  An experience to take place after life is something that Prufrock believes actually takes place within it.

These examples can help set the stage for further discovery of figurative language in the poem.  It is not exceedingly difficult to do this.  I would suggest that the basic idea that emerges from the poem is the conveying of helplessness that Prufrock feels.  Virginia Woolf described Modernism as a "shift in human relations."  In this light, Eliot is trying to "shift" how the human being is perceived.  Eliot no longer believes in the Romantic embrace of human endeavor, one where the individual is striving across with a triumphant strut to being in the world.  There is not the cadence of a firm and definite march to this construction of humanity.  Rather, Eliot sees existence as "a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas (73- 74)."   This figurative employment is how Eliot sees being in the world. It involves shifting the use of language to reflect such a condition.  Once this is established, the abundant examples of figurative language to articulate such a condition can be harvested.  

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