Last Updated on August 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703
The poem “Preludes” by the modernist poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot was included in his 1917 collection, Prufock and Other Observations. Organized into four sections, “Preludes” describes the course of a night and the following morning in a city neighborhood through the techniques of stream of consciousness and imagism.
The poem’s title, “Preludes,” suggests life in the city as a musical composition. However, this music is discordant and unpleasant, as depicted by images of dirt, feelings of futility, and an irregular rhyme pattern. Eliot uses a shifting point of view throughout the stanzas. These frequent shifts underline the feelings of unease and discord presented throughout the poem.
A speaker describes a winter evening as people come home from work. There is a somewhat regular rhyme pattern, almost giving the stanza the sensibility of a song that makes order of the world. However, the descriptions contradict the rhyme and suggest that the return home isn’t entirely pleasant. There is a “smell of steaks in passageways” and “burnt-out ends of smoky days.” Discarded newspapers litter vacant lots, and “grimy scraps / Of withered leaves” gather on the sidewalks. Rain falls down on dilapidated apartment buildings, and a cab horse stands by itself. Through these images, the speaker depicts a neighborhood that impresses the reader as discomforting and lonely.
Instead of actively awakening, the following morning merely “comes to consciousness.” The sleepers force themselves awake and walk on “muddy feet” to coffee stands; unpleasant smells linger. Their lives are a series of “masquerades” created by the clock: a theater of sleeping, waking, and going to work, punctuated by actions of “raising dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms.” In contrast to part 1, there is no rhyme scheme, suggesting that despite the daily routine, there is no comfort in this pattern.
The speaker recalls the previous evening of restless sleep. The point of view abruptly shifts to the second person: “You tossed a blanket from the bed, / You lay upon your back, and waited.” This section then draws the reader into the experience of this life, as second-person is an intimate point of view that closes the distance between readers and a fictional work’s world. The “thousand sordid images” that “flickered against the ceiling,” plaguing the sleeper, reflect a state of mind riddled by the stressors and anxieties of this life that even the shutters can’t keep out.
Nature still exists in the form of sparrows, but they are confined to gutters. As the person sits on the bed and gets ready for the day, the previous night’s dreams continue in the following revelation: “You had such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands.” The one rhyme of shutters and gutters closes the reader further into the poem’s world.
Reflecting the themes of the previous three sections, part 4 begins with the image of “his soul stretched tight across the skies.” This image echoes the nightmares reflected on the ceiling in part 3, depicting a consciousness detached from daily life—the image soon fades “behind a city block.” People on the sidewalks below don’t notice this image as they rush with “insistent feet,” too busy meeting the requirements of the day with minds protected by “certain certainties.” Their psychological state is reflected by the symbol of the street, which loses its conscience as it becomes “blackened” by the people walking on it, who are “impatient to assume the world.” There is one rhyme, but it’s created by the clock, again relating to the themes of routine and drudgery.
In the second stanza of part 4, the speaker switches to first person and comments on the proceeding events, stating that he is “moved by fancies” that linger and senses the suffering underneath the hectic behavior.
The speaker then brings readers back into the poem’s world by re-employing the second-person point of view and directing them to laugh. The piece ends with a dystopian image of “ancient women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots.” These last lines suggest that life in the modern world is a struggle for survival and close the poem on an uncertain note, contradicting the “certainties” of the people in the neighborhood.