Imagery & Symbolism - The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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       Symbolism is a device used in literature for comparison of certain objects, specially when an object is used to represent something abstract. Thus the "dove" is a symbol of peace. The "rose" is a symbol of beauty. Hence symbol represents ideas through concrete things. Imagery is different from symbolism. In imagery, too, similar and dissimilar objects are put together. Similes and metaphors are images. They do not represent ideas or concepts or abstract things.

Symbols and images reflect the mood of modern city-dweller : The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The Love Song of J. Profock

      There are two types of symbols - traditional and personal. Traditional symbols are common stock symbols which have been used in ancient times. Personal symbols are those which are used by the poet in his own way and show his originality, for example, the evening is compared to a patient on the operation table, the unending streets are compared to tedious arguments. Similarly, images are also of two kinds - traditional and personal. The metaphysical conceit which consists of comparison between remote and far-fetched objects, is a kind of personal image. For example, the moving fog is compared to a lazy cat.

      Symbols and images reflect the mood of modern city-dweller : The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a symbolic poem which gives the mood of the modern city-dweller. It expresses the barrenness, the mental tension, the frustration and the irresolution of the modern man. Eliot depicts the mind of the modern man and the frustration of modern civilization through images and symbols which are mainly functional, precise and compact. He has drawn, largely on the works of English metaphysical poets and the French Symbolist poets. He has combined their practice in such a way that his technique becomes quite original. The first line of the poem is an invitation to the beloved to go out with him in the evening. The mental condition of Prufrock is symbolised by a patient who has been given a medicine to render him unconscious for the operation which is to follow. The patient is in a peculiar state of mind - he is conscious but conscious of nothing. Such is the condition of the mind of Prufrock, the lover who has invited his beloved for an evening together. As Prufrock goes to the streets which seem to be numerous, the poet uses another symbol to show the large number of streets which Prufrock has to walk through. The unending streets follow one another like the chain of a long argument. The poet here finds resemblance which is apparently unlike but the symbol shows the boredom of Prufrock.

      Images of living creatures : The spreading fog of the October evening resembles a cat who is lazily going about. The fog also reflects the state of mind of Prufrock. Like the fog Prufrock's mind is lazy and wants some excuse for postponement of his decisions regarding the proposal. The fog also represents the dirty and unhealthy physical environment of city life. Prufrock wishes at the back of his mind to shut the responsibilities of life. Prufrock compares himself to a pair of ragged claws in the sea- (L.73). He would like to run away from the harsh realities of life and take refuge as a kind of fish in the bed of the sea. Thirdly, Eliot realises his importance and helplessness under the compulsion of a modern world and compares himself to a worm fixed against a wall with a pin.

      Images of death-wish : Prufrock's death-wish to suicidal propensity of the modern man is evident in different parts of the poem. The poet has used various images to reveal the idea, for example "pinned on the wall" L. 58; "The floors of the silent seas" L. 74; "The eternal footman" means death" L. 85; "chambers of the sea", L. 129; "We drown", L. 131. "Tam Lazarus" L. 94.

      Sea-images : Eliot is fond of images of nature particularly the sea. He scatters the floors of restaurant with oyster sea-shell (L. 7). He refers to himself as a kind of fish in the sea (L. 74). At the end of the poem, he refers to the beach where he has heard the song of mermaids. He has seen them riding on the sea-waves and combing to whole hair of the waves like the combing of a lady's hair. The sea-image can also represent the mind of Prufrock which is swept by stormy waves, and which cannot be fathomed.

      Literary-images : The greatest satisfaction to a literary reader is given by the literary images in The Song of Prufrock. There are three allusions in the poem-Lazarus, Prince Hamlet and John the Baptist. Besides this, the Epigraph given at the top, from Dante's Inferno, signifies that the world of Prufrock is a kind of hell and he is a denizen of hell. This situation is reiterated by reference to Lazarus. Lazarus was brought back to life after his death by Christ. Prufrock says: "I am Lazarus, come from the hell to tell you all." He thinks of himself as one who has been living in the world of dead. The contemporary world is a world of dead men i.e. those who are spiritually dead. The second literary allusion is to Prince Hamlet. Prufrock save: "No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." Prufrock is both ike Hamlet and unlike Hamlet. He is indecisive and tense like Hamlet. But he is unlike Hamlet as he has no sense of responsibility and he does not want to take any action. Hamlet felt a sort of moral obligation to fight the wrong done to him. Therefore, Prufrock said that he is not Hamlet but rather Polonius and an old gossipy in a factual character.

      The third literary allusion is the story of John the Baptist. He condemned King Herod for taking away his brother's life. Baptist was killed by Salome and she brought his head to King Herod Hence, Prufrock says that he is not like John the Baptist, prepared to meet a martyr's death. John lived for a purpose and died fora cause whereas Prufrock wishes to die because he finds no purpose in living. As the poet remarks:

"Though I have see my head (grown slightly bald)

brought in upon a platter.

I am no prophet-and here's no great matter;"

      Conclusion : The variety and freshness of Eliot's images in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock adds to the literary and artistic qualities of the poem. Of course, some effort is required to understand then because they reveal the inner state of mind of Prufrock, which is full of conflicting thoughts and feelings.

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