Something that interests me is the influence that European literature, and particularly Baudelaire’s work has on Eliot’s poetry. Eliot is famous for his typical, squalid cityscapes, but this image of the city as a dirty and hazy place originates directly from Baudelaire’s description of the city in ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’.
In “Prufrock’, Eliot describes a city in which ‘The yellow fog…rubs its back upon the window-panes’ a description not to dissimilar to that of Baudelaire’s in ‘Les Sept Vieillards’: ‘Un brouillard sale et jaune’ Another key idea in Baudelaire’s poetry is that of time – time as the eternal enemy, a synonym of degradation and decay.
As humans we are forever yearning for eternal life and heaven, described ‘Ideal’ in Baudelaire, our lives are defined by time and therefore the Ideal becomes all the more inaccessible; humanity’s helplessness when it comes to this matter is symbolized in the imagery of the line, ‘Like a patient etherized upon a table’ humanity is unable to fight against time, and the only positive Baudelaire is able to extract from this tragic situation is our dignity in our understanding of the human condition, our base instincts and our death.
This is reflected particularly in the word ‘patient’, and in his patient Eliot describes someone who despite being helpless knows about his present situation. Later on in the poem, the line ‘I know the voices dying with a dying fall’ reinforces this idea, and here the narrator is reminded of his inescapable fate. Baudelaire attempts to reach the Ideal through life’s pleasure, namely women, opium and alcohol, and under these influences, his poetry becomes more sensuous, often focusing on smells and his description of women.
This short moment in the Ideal is represented in ‘Prufrock’ in the lines, ‘Arms that are bracelated and white and bare/…downed with light brown hair! )/Is it perfume from a dress/That makes me so digress? ’ As well as being an allusion to Marvel’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, the line, ‘And indeed there will be time’ is also a reference to Baudelaire; the line reminds us and Prufrock of our inevitable demise, as well as the need to love and make love while we are still able to.
It also reminds us of the fact that we can reach the Ideal and this feeling of eternal life through love and women. In the poem Eliot describes the relationship between Prufrock and a woman, ‘Let us go then, you and I’, and noticeably, ‘Time for you and time for me’. Through this relationship, Eliot describes a failed attempt in reaching the Ideal: ‘Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells’. Contrasted with this tragic, yet slightly more spontaneous type of love is something as routine as the ‘taking of the toast and tea’.
This line is almost poignant as now we realize that it is too late for this relationship to blossom into something more meaningful and powerful, something that could provide them with but a few hours of relief from time. I find this stanza tragic, as although ‘there will be time’, they don’t seem to have made the most of it. After all this, time as the enemy is still present, edging us slightly closer to our inevitable end: “With a bald spot in the middle of my hair – /(They will say: ‘How is hair is growing thin!’)”
The line ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ is tragic in the same way as the taking of the toast and tea, as he has not been able to reach anything more meaningful then the banal and monotonous measuring out of coffee. This idea of monotony is emphasized throughout the poem through the repetition of certain phrases, for example the ‘yellow fog’ that rubs and slides its way through the streets, again through the routine of, ‘the taking of the toast and tea’, and later ‘’After the cups, the marmalade, the tea’.
We are reminded of the fact that the narrator grows older, ’Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)’’. This builds to the line ‘I grow old… I grow…’ The way in which the phrase ‘I grow old’ is repeated naturally suggests the senility of Prufrock, almost as if he has forgotten what he’s saying. It also evokes the image of an old man reflecting on what he has become, wistfully thinking of his youth.