In Prufrock, what is the significance of Eliot's allusion to Hesiod's Works and Days?

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Michael Otis | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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The allusion to Works and Days, an eighth century B.C. poem by the Greek writer Hesiod, appears in the following section of Prufrock:

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

This allusion belongs to the category of time references in the poem. Prufrock is about many things - loneliness and alienation, indecision and pessimism - but it is also about time, a theme Eliot returned to again and again throughout his poetic career. Eliot favoured the metaphysics of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, who maintained that time eluded the strictures of mathematics and science, that it was literally immeasurable. Time is always mobile and always incomplete. And this is the concept of time that prevails in Prufrock. In the section above, where the allusion appears, this Bergsonian concept of time especially dominates. In the consciousness of Prufrock there will always be time "before the taking of a toast and tea" because time is not the chronology of clock or a calendar, but rather an incomplete duration in which past and present can co-exist. Hence the irony built into the allusion to Hesiod's work, where 'Days' refers to the virtuous and hard-working farmer's completion of specific agricultural duties at specific times of the year. This is certainly not the image given to us of the aimless and inadequate Prufrock.

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