The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Preludes” is a lyric poem in free verse, divided into four numbered parts of thirteen, ten, fifteen, and sixteen lines. These sections were written at different times during T. S. Eliot’s years of undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard University and in Europe.

The title is appropriate if it suggests a type of short musical composition in an improvisational or free style. Since some of the images in this very early poem anticipate the barren, rubble-filled atmosphere of The Waste Land (1922) and other poems, it could be considered a “prelude” to Eliot’s later works. The title may also be viewed as an ironic one, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” because it creates expectations about the poem’s contents that are not fulfilled. Although the first three sections or preludes move from evening to morning, the fourth returns to the evening hours without suggesting that anything in the poem is a preliminary to a more important or enlightening action or event.

The point of view shifts from an objective description of a city street on a “gusty” winter evening in prelude I to a more emotional first-person response to this scene in the middle of IV. The “you” in preludes I and IV could refer to the reader or to anyone who has walked the city streets. The scene moves from the dirty streets to dingy rooms at the end of II, with the transition introduced by the...

(The entire section is 560 words.)