Like a patient etherized upon a table;

from T.S. Eliot – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock on Rap Genius

Meaning

Prufrock uses the image of a patient under ether, a potent anesthetic, to suggest his complacency and impotence. The imagery of sickness here may also suggest the sickened state of language or even youth/manhood in the early 1900s — a time when the old romantic vocabulary of the Victorian Era was being used by politicians to justify ending young men’s lives in war.

After the sing-song rhyme of the first two lines, Eliot’s initial readership were primed for something more pretty-sounding from the rest of the poem. But the next line doesn’t rhyme, and the image he chooses is stark and deathly.

At the time, anesthesia using ether is still pretty high-tech (yes, it’s been around for over fifty years, but things moved slower back then). This isn’t a someone drunk or insensible, it’s someone who has been rendered unconscious using high tech medical equipment.

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