Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Several critics have called preludes I and II Imagist poems. Their concentrated images of wet and dirty streets create a dreary atmosphere that permeates the explorations of mind and soul later in the poem. Prelude I consists entirely of physical sensations and actions, including the vivid image of wasted energy in its only metaphor, “the burnt-out ends of smoky days” (similar to the “butt-ends of my days” found in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). Symbols and themes introduced in I continue throughout this poem and many of Eliot’s later works: the passage of time; smoke, wind and rain; the broken, decayed, and discarded objects and grime in the street; domestic smells that become stale by morning; and glimpses of the routine actions of city dwellers.

Isolation and depersonalization are themes represented by the scarce, fragmentary, and anonymous human images in this urban setting. The “lonely cab-horse” waits for someone while rain and wind sweep across vacant lots. “The lighting of the lamps” suggests a human action in nearly deserted streets, but it is expressed only as a fragment floating at the end of prelude I. Feet are the only specific human detail in I, “street” and “feet” being prominently repeated words in all four preludes. “Insistent feet” trampling muddy streets represent the crowds beginning and ending the “masquerades” of their work day, while the hands “raising dingy shades/ In a thousand...

(The entire section is 469 words.)