And indeed there will be time For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
Eliot knew a lot about literature. He read more books than almost any other writer in the 20th century – maybe more than any other writer, period. He could make subtle references to all kinds of literary figures without even trying. His brain worked like that. Good for him.
But you don’t have to "get" these references to understand his poems. Sometimes, though, they are fun to point out.
Here, the phrase "there will be time" refers to a poem called "To His Coy Mistress" by the 17th century English poet Andrew Marvell.
"To His Coy Mistress," like many poems, is about a man trying to get a woman to sleep with him, and it begins: "Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime." The woman is being "coy" by pretending that she won’t sleep with the poet. The poet is saying, "Look, we both know you want to sleep with me, and if we had until Eternity to be together, it would be fine for you to waste time playing games. But we don’t, so let’s hop to it."
Prufrock, however, uses the reference to "time" in exactly the opposite way. He thinks there’s plenty of time for delays and dawdling.
Just like in Marvell’s poem, Prufrock addresses himself to a "mistress," someone he "loves," but here it’s Prufrock, and not the mistress, who is being "coy."
By talking about the smoke, he’s trying to justify the fact that he wasted our time with an entire stanza of description of the fog instead of asking that "overwhelming question" he told us about.
There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create, And time for all the works and days of hands That lift and drop a question on your plate; Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.
He keeps repeating that "There will be time," as if he hasn’t quite convinced himself, or his lover.
Plenty of time to get your "face" ready to meet other people. Also, plenty of time to "murder and create," which sounds pretty sinister. Is this supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing? We’re not sure.
In the next line, he says there’s "time for all the works and days of hands." Allusion alert: Works and Days was the name of a work written by the Greek poet Hesiod. It's a poem about the importance of working for a living and not living a lazy, pointless existence.
Hmm…pointless existence…sounds like someone we know, eh, Prufrock?
Also, have you noticed how Prufrock seems to refer to individual body parts instead of people? So far we have "faces" and "hands." The hands are dropping a "question" onto a "plate," as if it were something we could dig into like a fancy steak dinner. Bring it on!
But no, we still don’t learn what the question is.
Plenty of time for that later. There’s also time for "indecisions," for not deciding things. We have all this time "before the taking of a toast and tea."