In what ways does "Preludes" by T.S. Eliot critique society's lack of values and rootlessness?

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thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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In his poem "Preludes", T. S. Eliot describes the modern world as "sordid" and provides many concrete images that show the aesthetically unappealing aspects of modern urban life. The physical imagery includes that of the people shaped by the environment:

 The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street …

Here we see that Eliot's distaste for the urban wasteland has to do not only with its external aspects but also what he considers the degraded state of the urban lower middle class and poor, whose lives he sees as routine, deadening, and pointless. Although there are moments of pity in the poem, the attitude is almost a despairing one; it is not until his later religious poetry that we get a sense of redemption.

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teachersage | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Eliot uses images of loneliness, alienation and ugliness in this poem to critique society's lack of values and rootlessness. Images such as "vacant lots," which is repeated twice, "a lonely cab-horse" and a person who "clasped the yellow soles of feet" while alone in bed express emptiness and isolation. There seems to be no cohesive community taking care of this city in which people live alienated from one another. The ugliness of the setting arises from a society in which nobody  takes responsibility for the collective good. Therefore, "newspapers" blow from vacant lots, we see "broken blinds and chimney pots" and "blackened streets." 

That these images represent a moral crisis comes clear as the poem continues. The narrator speaks of "the thousand sordid images/ of which your soul was constituted." The moral word "soul" repeats: it is "stretched tight across the skies" and "trampled." The "blackened streets" are connected to "conscience": their blackness is not simply a product of darkness or coal dust. The blackness is not merely material but spiritual, a representation of soiled consciences, lack of values, people's sins. The dark, rainy landscape where "showers beat",  as well "grimy scraps," "withered leaves," and "stale smells of beer" are all exterior manifestations of an interior state that lacks a moral center.