How is Preludes by T.S Eliot a modernist poem?

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Michael Otis | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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T.S. Eliot's poem, Preludes, like his The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land, and works by other modernist authors does not shrink from the 19th century view that certain subjects were 'unsuitable' for literature. Their literary credo went beyond the orbit of the romantic or pastoral canon and embraced new themes. One of these was the cityscape, toward which Eliot and others had a decidedly pessimistic attitude, composed in part of revulsion and fascination. Thus, Eliot's early poetry is transfixed by the cityscape. Indeed, the arrival of modernism signals the decisive return of western literature to the cityscape, but wearing an almost apocalyptic vesture. There are a number of strands in this. One is alienation. No longer is the individual woven into a web of benefical mutuality. Instead, he or she is lost in the teeming masses of the city. The cityscape of Eliot's early poems continually reinforces this social decay, an image repeated in the character of the woman in Preludes, whose inner self has been corrupted by her sordid life in the city slums:

The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
(Preludes ll.26-28)

Atomized humanity caught up in the monotony of city life Eliot further reinforces by the technique of 'disembodied body parts':

One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
(Preludes, ll.21-23)

Eliot conceives of the mass of city-dwellers as uncaring, an indifferent multitude, a kind of human herd:

Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
(Preludes, ll.41-47)

Another strand is disgust with the dirt, decay, and desolation of the city. To reveal this Eliot developed a technique of realism, one that appealed in a rapidfire way to the senses, where the elements of the city themselves constitute the poetry:

The burnt out ends of smoky days [smell/taste]
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet [touch]
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat [sound]
On broken blinds and chimney-pots [sight]
(Preludes, ll.4-10)

Still another strand can be described as apocalyptic or visionary. Here a character catches a glimpse of another reality beyond the miasmic environment of the city:

And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
('Preludes' ll.31-34)

Eliot and other post-war newcomers to the literary world fashioned a revolutionary diction, where mingled a distaste for the city with a celebration of it as the true centre of civilization. This literary accomplishment, founded on an urban imagery, is rightly called modernism.


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