Prufrock Descending: An Experiment in Collaborative Reading

Prufrock Descending documents an investigation of mood shifts in T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem, “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock.” This interactive website is the result of a collaborative investigation in reading moods undertaken as a class project (150 students!) in ENG 287 The Digital Text (University of Toronto). We engaged in passionate debates re. tagging moods via phrases, lines, and stanzas, and wrestled with the subjective nature of literary analysis (training & expertise be damned!). The interactive poem offers three version reflecting more expansive and more fine-grained readings as there was no way to arrive a definitive single reading.

From the site:

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.