I think there is a grammatical reason to read it quite clearly as "streets
[that follow. . .to lead]. I'll write it out later, but I see no reason for the
claim below that to read it as streets would require a shift from a restrictive
clause to a nonrestrictive one. Why?
I also don't think modern poetry can be read "any way you like" OR only
one way. But the poem is a text with specific language. And Eliot was
adamant about the importance of punctuation and grammar. Why would
that not matter? If it does not, then any text is merely an occasion for
one's separate musings and none is any different from any other in any
way that matters. Would that not be true?
Date sent: Thu, 17 Apr 2003 11:04:37 -0400
Send reply to: "T. S. Eliot Discussion forum." <[log in to unmask]>
From: Jen Barnett <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Re: Overwhelming question about Prufrock
To: [log in to unmask]
> 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...
The ambiguity, if not intentional in writing, is certainly intentional in
However, I tend not to read it as the streets, but the arugment that leads
to the overwhelming question.
The streets reading does give you the easier text to follow - the more
literal move through the red light district, etc.
But the entire poem can be read as the "tedious argument of insidious
intent." It's a statement of his case - leading up to his question - only
to be answered with "That is not it at all."
The overwhelming question is what he's heading toward through the whole
poem - it's what the argument is supposed to get him to - but he gets
caught in his own argument and its digressions. The concern over how to
even phrase the argument becomes too much for him - and the
question shifts to how to make the tedious argument - what will be the
convincing words, and does he even have it in him to say them. ("Shall I
say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets...")
The second mention of "overwhelming question" comes only a few lines
before the last section break. ("Would it have been worth while/ To have
bitten off the matter with a smile/ To have squeezed the universe into a
ball/ To roll it toward some overwhelming question")
As he's reaching the end of his tedious argument (tedious to him more than
to the receiving end of the argument), the concern of how that question
will be answered stops him short of it, only to resign himself to grow
old, to being a second-string player who never has to ask such a question.
(And - as to grammar - if you want to read it as streets, the phrasing
should be "streets, which follow like a tedious argument of insiduous
intent, to lead you to an overwhelming question...")
Sorry for the rambling...
The beauty of modern poetry - read it any which way you like...