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Literary “modernism” can be (and has been) variously defined, and the task of saying what, precisely, makes any particular poem a “modernist” work is very difficult. One way to think of modernism is to consider it as a rejection of much that was associated with the “Romantic” movement in poetry, which modernists often considered sentimental and naïve. T. S. Eliot’s work titled “Preludes” might be called “modernist” in some of following ways and for some of the following reasons:
- It deals with mundane, everyday existence; there is little emphasis, as there might be in a Romantic poem, on anything lofty, sublime, or inspiring.
- The form of the poem often seems surprising and unpredictable, as in the transition from the first two lines to the third line.
- The tone is somewhat dark and depressing, as in line 4.
- The setting seems grimly urban rather than focusing on a beautiful, appealing countryside (as in lines 5-8 and 11-13).
- The style is largely reportorial, describing merely what is rather than drawing any grand conclusions; meaning is created as much through mood as through overt statement (as in the opening stanza).
- Loneliness is a major theme, as in line 12. Love is not a major theme.
- Sometimes the phrasing is literally fragmented, as in line 13.
- The setting is ordinary, unappealing, and un-transcendent, as in lines 15-18; there is little hint of anything better than this world – a world that often seems variously unattractive. There is little emphasis on God or on a heavenly world as beautiful alternatives to the somewhat grimy hear-and-now.
- Life seems full of people, but those people seem largely alienated from one another (19-23). Their living conditions are not especially beautiful or satisfying or even permanent.
- Boredom seems a major mood (24-25).
- Literal and figurative darkness is emphasized; existence in many ways seems “sordid” and unsatisfying (26-29).
- Even nature is not particularly inspiring or uplifting; even nature seems somewhat boring and mundane (30-32).
- Human beings are imagined in terms of their unattractive, ordinary bodies rather than in terms of anything lofty or inspiring about their spirits (36-38):
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
- The over-all tone of the poem is somewhat depressing.
- Human life does not seem to involve much real, genuine, or emotionally fulfilling human interaction. Happiness is rarely mentioned. Instead, the huge populations of large cities seem made up of isolated, lonely people (39-47).
- Romantic desires are mentioned briefly, then immediately dismissed or qualified by a far more sardonic, skeptical, disillusioned, and even bitter tone (48-54).
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