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A Level English Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Guide to Reading Four Early Poems

Theresa Sowerby | Tuesday April 02, 2013

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  1. Introduction
  2. A Guide to Reading Four Early Poems
  3. Grouping The Poems - Key Features

A Guide to Reading Four Early Poems

The Poems

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

This is a useful poem to begin with as it typifies so many features of Eliot’s style. It is useful to begin with a discussion of the title and the expectations it sets up in a reader. Most students will respond readily to the idea of a love song but may need to be reminded of period associations implied by the name. They will probably notice the pompous formality of the initial before the name and can be encouraged to explore the phonological and semantic implications of the created name “Prufrock? – prudence, prudish, frock (effeminacy, frock coat as formal dress, association with clergy in being “defrocked?). They should notice the mismatch created by such contrasting associations. The character seems unlikely to perform a love song. They are therefore prepared for the indirect, ironic approach taken by the timid narrative voice.

Next it is helpful to explain the epitaph. Taken from Dante’s Inferno, it is spoken by the traitor, Guido, from a prison of flame in Hell. He says “If I thought I was speaking to someone who would return to earth, this flame would remain silent, but, as no one ever returned, I can answer you with no fear of infamy? The key intertextual link here is that the speaker is about to confess things that he would never say in public for fear of losing his reputation. It sets up the reader to expect the revelation of deeply personal, potentially embarrassing secrets.

The group should then listen to the poem read straight through, possibly more than once (poetictouch.com has a reading by Anthony Hopkins) and offer responses to any parts they found interesting or intriguing, remembering the importance of allowing the mind to be receptive to the associations of words or images. They will probably...


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