Study Questions on Poems by T. S. Eliot

Written and adapted from various sources
Dr. Tina L. Hanlon

Associate Professor of English
Ferrum College

NOTE:  If you didn't get a copy of the poem "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" in class, you could find your own copy in the library or elsewhere, in many books that contain selections of Eliot's poetry.

1. Many of Eliot’s poems do not contain traditional stanza structures and rhyme schemes. The images seem fragmented, or disjointed. Look carefully for patterns created by rhymes, other sounds, repetitions, and characteristics that the strange sequences of images may have in common.

2. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” may be understood as a stream of consciousness passing through the mind of Prufrock. The “you and I” of line 1 may be different aspects of his personality. Or perhaps the “you and I” is parallel to Guido who speaks the epigraph and Dante to whom he tells the story that resulted in his damnation—hence, “you” is the reader and “I” is Prufrock. In either case the poem is an inner monologue. Eliot himself said the “you” was an unidentified male companion (which would make the poem a dramatic monologue), but most readers think of it as Prufrock's public self, which can be differentiated from the sensitive, thinking inward “I.” The poem is disjointed because it proceeds by psychological rather than logical stages. Which interpretation of the “you” and “I” seems most helpful to you?

3. Apparently, Prufrock is on his way to a tea and is pondering his relationship with a certain woman. What does he seem to be hesitating about in this relationship? What reactions does he expect to encounter from women?

4. To what social class does Prufrock belong? How does Prufrock respond to the attitudes and values of his class? Does he change in the course of the poem?

5. What else can you tell about Prufrock as a person and about his view of himself? What does his full name suggest about him? What is he afraid of? What makes his life trivial or meaningless?

6. Prufrock uses two seemingly opposite strategies in his monologue: the trivializing of what is important (“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”) and absurd overstatements (“Do I dare/Disturb the universe?”). How does this fact help define his personality?

7. How is description, especially of the cityscape, used in “Prufrock”? What unusual images are used to depict the streets? How do the images from the city streets compare to those in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” “Preludes,” and “The Burial of the Dead”?

8. Eliot often uses “expressionist” imagery, in which objects are projections of psychological states. The image of the evening as an etherized patient is an example. Find others in these poems.

9. Line 92 of “Prufrock” provides an allusion to Marvell's seventeenth-century poem “To His Coy Mistress” (ll. 41-42). What connections are there between the two poems regarding the themes of love and time?

10. In l. 82 Prufrock compares himself to the beheaded John the Baptist. Is he ridiculing himself or the Bible? What is the effect of the Biblical allusions in the poem?

11. Is Prufrock an emotional freak or does he embody problems many of us have?

12. What might the song of the mermaids (l. 124) signify, and why does Prufrock think they will not sing to him (l. 125)? What do the other references to heroic or historical figures reveal about Prufrock's view of himself?

13. Consider the last line of “Prufrock.” Does this mean that we unfortunately have to settle for real women instead of sex-fantasy mermaids, or can the line be read more positively?

14. How do the views of city life, time, and memory compare in “Prufrock,” “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” “Preludes,” and “The Burial of the Dead”?

15. What types of images show that people are dehumanized in modern life, and suggest that inanimate objects are alive?

16. How do Eliot's innovations in the uses of images, language, and poetic form help convey his views on modern society?

17. In “The Hippopotamus,” why does each stanza contain two lines on the hippopotamus and two lines on the Church?

18. Why did Eliot choose the hippo to represent “flesh and blood”? Does this poem contain a theme about the corruption of human society similar to the view in other works which compare humans to animals?

19. What criticisms of the Church are implied in “The Hippopotamus”? Does the view of the Church change from the beginning to the end of the poem, or is there just a difference in the degree of irony in different stanzas?

20. Why does the “‘potomus” sprout wings and fly away while the True Church remains below in the beast's native habitat (the savannas or tropical grasslands and the mists from the rivers and marshes the hippo inhabits)?

21. Epigraph from Saint Ignatius' third epistle to the Traillians: “And likewise let all the deacons be reverenced, as commanded by Jesus Christ; and let the bishop be reverenced, as Jesus Christ, the living son of the Father; also let the presbyters be reverenced, as the council of God and the assembly of the apostles. Without these there can be no church; of these things I persuade you as I can.” What is the effect of including this excerpt from a sacred Latin epistle in a satiric poem on the “True Church”?

22. Eliot associated religion with water. What images in “The Hippopotamus” and other poems reflect this association? Are there images that suggest that civilization lacks water (religion)?

23. What is the effect of the rhyme scheme and rhythm of “The Hippopotamus” and “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”? How do the satiric effects compare in these and other poems?

24. How does Sweeney compare to the type of men in other poems, such as Prufrock?

25. What is the effect of the animal images in “Sweeney”? How do the allusions to heroic and tragic ancient myths affect our view of Sweeney sprawling with a person on his lap?

26. How do the images of female figures compare in “Rhapsody,” “Preludes,” “Prufrock,” “Sweeney,” and “The Burial of the Dead”?

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