Prufrock – metre?

I’ve been banging my head against a wall trying to get some kind of grasp on why the metre of ‘Prufrock’ works so well and just can’t do it. Perhaps if I just try to describe it in the poem’s first few lines I’ll get to some kind of conclusion.

First, what general impression does it give? Though what’s described is a mood of futility, frustration and failure of will, the opening sentence unfolds with a supple, sinewy forward momentum that can sound almost buoyant:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Rhyme draws us on, of course – the expectation of rhyme in the second line of each couplet, or, when this expectation is frustrated, as it is after line three, the instinctive searching for whatever pattern will replace rhyming couplets. However, I think momentum largely comes from a continuing subtle sense of incompleteness, a sense that there must be more to the statement than has been declared so far: even though the impressions we are given at each new step are vivid and surprising in themselves, they always seem to expand the sense rather than completing it. This running on is the more striking because each line is a clear breath unit ending in a little pause. Somehow, Eliot is achieving something that parallels what Dante does with terza rima, combining continuous onward movement with the clear framing of each separate step in the progression. Fluidity and firmness are beautifully entwined, each both softening and supporting the other in a dance of intensification and withdrawal, creating expectations one moment, evading them the next and renewing them again. If the lines had a regular beat to them the rhymes would seem too heavy. Without the rhymes the lines would seem rhythmically shapeless. As it is, one of the things that makes them echo each other’s cadences is rhyme or the expectation of rhyme. This expectation makes the whole line build up to an emphasis on the final word, whether it does actually rhyme or, like ‘table’ and ‘question’, doesn’t. And braided in with this kind of patterning there are the patterns of verbal repetition – ‘let us go’, ‘let us go’, ‘half-deserted streets’, ‘streets that’, ‘restless nights’, ‘one-night’ – and phonetic echoes that can verge on wordplay, as in ‘restless’, ‘restaurants’.

So it’s something to do with the way rich development of sense is expressed in an intricately but freely patterned dancing of words, rhythms and sounds … What makes these rhythms so finely animated probably can’t be pinned down. The harmony between the meter and the development of the thought reminds me of something Eliot said of Dante in his late essay, ‘What Dante Means to Me’: ‘a different meter is a different mode of thought; it is a different kind of punctuation, for the emphases and the breath pauses do not come in the same place. Dante thought in terza rima.’

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