A century old this year, T.S. Eliot's Preludes raises the curtain on his great modernist masterpieces, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land and The Hollow Men. In essence four poems rather than one, Preludes can be described as vignettes which span a single day, and which in their differentiated images reveal the contemptible, soul-stunting conditions of modern life. These four fragments of a (failed) vision, themselves point to the theme not only of the poem itself, but virtually all of Eliot's early work: Western culture is a broken thing. Its human survivors live a rootless, alienated existence in the modern city. Only in the fourth vignette does the poet glimpse a meaning beyond the futility and meaninglessness he experiences:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
At the close of the day, as "the skies...fade behind a city block", and the streets darken, filled with the sound of "tramping feet", the poet is left alone to reflect on another tedious evening of "fingers stuffing pipes" and small-minded "certainties". Yet in a moment his ennui is changed; he is moved by the inrushing epiphany of a transcendent perception. For an instant he sees the 'inscape' behind these dreary images, a Christ-like "infinitely suffering thing" that can save him.
But such a 'prelude' to a transfigured existence is laughable. With a coarse "wipe across your mouth" the poet returns to his unbelieving way of life where world both visible and invisible tediously "revolve like ancient women/Gathering fuel in vacant lots".