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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735

"Preludes" is a poem divided into four parts, and like musical preludes, they are short. A musical prelude often serves as an introduction for a larger piece, and Eliot's preludes seem to suggest that there is more that comes after and that each tidbit is unfinished—as a life is always unfinished—and therefore unsatisfying.

The poem describes urban scenes through one night and into the next day, depicting them in somber, listless, stagnant, and sickly tones. Eliot uses images of dark and broken things to further emphasize the tone and mood of the poem, as in the first stanza, when he mentions the "burnt-out ends of smoky days" and "grimy scraps / Of withered leaves . . . / And newspapers from vacant lots." Words like "burnt-out," "grimy," and "withered" suggest disrepair and disease, and "scraps" and "vacant lots" suggest abandonment and brokenness, as do the "broken blinds" struck by the rain.

Weariness is everywhere in this poem as well. The morning, for example, is personified as it "comes to consciousness." It doesn't wake, it doesn't dawn, it doesn't rise . . . it simply "comes to consciousness." It fades in, as if involuntarily. It drags. It, too, is subject to the dejected aspect of the city. Evening, in contrast, "settles down." It gets comfortable and is ready to lay down to sleep. Sleep, however, is denied the woman in the second stanza, who lies awake, alone in thought, all night long.

There is also a feeling of loneliness throughout the poem, from the "lonely cab horse" in the first section to the image of the unnamed "you." "You" could also be a specific person who, when morning comes, sits on the edge of her bed and "clasp[s] the yellow soles of feet / In the palms of both soiled hands"—but "you" can also be the reader. Here we see more instances of diseased things with "yellow" feet and "soiled" hands, neither quality being a sign of health. Perhaps this means that loneliness is a disease, or perhaps these diseased things simply deepen the imagery of urban decay.

Loneliness is further emphasized by images of monotony, of the weight of mundane little ritualistic actions that make up a daily routine. Take the lines "all the hands / That are raising dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms," for example. This is just one instance of metonymy, or the use of a part of something to symbolize the whole—in this case, hands that represent the lonely, bored people raising the shades every morning all across the city.

Other examples of metonymy include "short square fingers stuffing pipes," and "eyes / Assured of certain certainties." There are also several instances of feet moving about instead of the people they are attached to. This device further emphasizes the depersonalization of the city-dwellers, as well as continues the "brokenness" motif—not only are leaves and blinds broken, but also the people themselves.

These people's lives are "masquerades," simply putting on a daily act, pretending there is a purpose beyond routine survival. The man mentioned in section three finds

His soul stretched tight across the skiesThat fade behind a city block,Or trampled by insistent feetAt four and five and six o’clock

His soul is stretched out—"stretched to its limit," perhaps—its burden of life is hard to carry. It is further "trampled by insistent feet" not just once, but over and over again—another image indicating that the movement of life, its unceasing character, is too much to bear. Yet at the very end of the poem, Eliot tells us to

Wipe your hand across...

(This entire section contains 735 words.)

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your mouth, and laugh;The worlds revolve like ancient womenGathering fuel in vacant lots.

This can be interpreted as a fatalistic conclusion: despite the harshness of the urban landscape he has just described, despite the loneliness and dreariness and monotony of life (again represented by the "ancient women" who "revolve" as they go about their thankless work simply to keep warm), each person is, in a sense, a "world," a planet all their own—individual, and stuck in this life. So clean up your mouth and laugh, he says.

In a certain sense, the city in "Preludes" is a character itself, a superorganism made up of all the lonely people with their "muddy feet that press / To early coffee-stands." The city, through those who dwell within it, is the "infinitely suffering thing" Eliot alludes to in the last section.