Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table...

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

What does against mean in this context? Why is it used instead of across?

  • 4
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's asking us to "interpret" unusual poetic imagery. Sep 3 '18 at 16:35
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers you’re not right. The question is about a) choosing AGAINST instead of usual ACROSS, b) about the special meaning of “spread out AGAINST” which is not clear if the one is not a native speaker. I don’t ask, “What did the author want to say?”
    – Aer
    Sep 3 '18 at 16:39
  • "Evening" is an abstract noun, which could reasonably be figuratively referenced using spatial imagery (We had a boring evening that stretched until midnight), but it's effectively meaningless to consider different possible "meanings" dependent on whether Eliot had chosen to use across rather than against. Are you seriously suggesting there could be two "different" mental images of abstract / invisible "evening" to choose between here? This isn't about language - it's about arresting poetic imagery. Sep 3 '18 at 17:20
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    @FumbleFingers if you replace your thoughts in the answer, I will be thankful. Now you are just trying to close my question without any appropriate reason (that is like I see actions).
    – Aer
    Sep 3 '18 at 17:26
  • In some other context, it might make sense to contrast something spread out against some background (alluding to contrast) and something spread across that background (alluding to extent). But that's totally irrelevant in the current context. And it's worth noting that even though Eliot could have (equivalently?) used across for the "evening" image, it would be really weird to speak of an etherized patient being spread out against a table (but he could certainly be spread out across the table). Sep 3 '18 at 17:40

A patient is spread out on a table. That could be the case of patient waiting to undergo surgery. Spread out here is extended on the table.

So the evening is to the sky

as the patient is to the table.

The patient does not take up all the space on the table. Just like the evening does not take up (fill up) the whole sky.

Against means the evening is not taking up the whole sky. It's like a picture on a wall. Or any object against any background. The evening is, in effect, viewed against the backdrop of the sky. Just like the table is the background for the patient if you were viewing the patient on a table from above.

Hope that helps.


Consider the following:

The silhouette of the trees stood out starkly against the evening sky.

or this:

Those faces in the crowd were like petals against a wet black bough.

The meaning is of "contrast" and "juxtaposition".

Do you see the Latinate underpinnings of the word "contrast"?

Now, to ask us to explain how evening can occupy the slot occupied by "silhouette" and "petals", that would be to get into literary interpretation, which is off-topic for this site.

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