Prufrock Descending documents an investigation of mood shifts in T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem, “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock.” From Conrad Aiken’s early 1916 review, Eliot’s dramatic monologue has had almost a century of being read as a psychological character study exploring the fluent mutability of an anxious, indecisive self-consciousness. Key to this interpretative approach is the dynamic interplay and range of emotions that Prufrock voices and which are readily discernible to both the scholarly and common reader (to borrow Virginia Woolf’s term). Undertaken as a collaborative TEI encoding project by the students in The Digital Text, a second year English course (University of Toronto, Fall 2014), our initial question approaching this text was whether we could map the moods articulated in the poem as we as readers perceived them? What would the aggregate of our collective readings look like? Would we see a marked convergence of opinion in our close readings? Or would we see striking divergences? What we discovered was both. Remarkably, as we dove deeper into our project, what was increasingly foregrounded was the ambiguity of reading and the instability of literary analysis as a methodological process. To paraphrase one student’s response, ‘the whole poem could be defined as expressing a single mood and then the TEI process challenges the reader to parse the nuances.’ The collaborative class process of deciding on a list of mood terms became an investigation of the rationales for individual close readings and a realization that there is no way to determine or argue for a definitive reading of mood and meaning in Eliot’s poem.

What you will find here in the Student Readings section are three interactive ‘readings’ of the poem. The first version documents the aggregate of dominant terms by highest percentage assigned for individual lines in the poem and in a small number of instances, sections of lines. The second version charts the second highest percentage in the assigned terms, and the third version the maps a more outlier reader of lesser assigned terms, with the following caveat.

This ‘neat’ presentation is complicated by there being often multiple terms assigned to the same line, more so in the second and third readings, where more than one term was give equal weight by the students. In these instances, the version as presented follows the computer generated listing of terms in sequence of highest to lowest and equal recurrence. To see what the string of assigned terms looks like, click on the link below, where you will see a list of mood terms ordered as the highest to lowest percentage in the overall tagging and you can see the mood term lists for each word in the poem.

As displayed then, these readings represent a quantitative aggregation of our qualitative readings recorded in a TEI mark-up language.

The TEI section provides a TEI mark-up text of the poem, encoded with basic verse structure, as a shareable resource for future projects, and links to the TEI project website and other useful online sites.

Aiken, Conrad. "Esoteric Catholicity." Poetry Journal 5 (April 1916), 127-129.